Preserving human history in a National Park

Northern Wisconsin, along the coast of Lake Superior, is rural, but it isn't wild. Farms and orchards have been cleared here for generations. Highways twist through the woods. There are grocery stores and bars. There is Dairy Queen and the Internet. Hippies raise chickens on organic farms. Good old boys buy high-tension fishing line at Wal-Mart. The Oak Ridge Boys are playing at the Indian casino.

But, just a few miles offshore, you can find land where time seems to have stopped a couple hundred years ago. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a group of 22 islands just North of Chequamegon Bay, are meant to be wilderness. All but one are uninhabited. From a passing boat, or even from the occasional sandy bay, it's easy to imagine that they were never inhabited at all. Sandstone cliffs make landings difficult. The forests that top the cliffs are thick and deep, broken only by trails carved out by the Park Service. You look at it, and you think that this must be the America that local Ojibwe knew before European colonization—pristine, unchanged.

The truth is far more interesting.

"Back in the 1930s, at the tail end of the logging era, one of the earliest attempts at designating the Islands as a National Park involved getting a government official to visit," says Bob Mackreth, a writer, historian, and retired park ranger who has spent his career documenting Apostle Islands history. "They took him for a boat ride and he told them that this landscape was far, far too badly impacted by logging. That the forest was destroyed and that it wouldn't ever heal enough to be worthy of a National Park."

They're one of my favorite spots for a Midwestern summer vacation, but the islands that are now part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore were not always a place for relaxation. One hundred years ago, Americans lived on these islands. More importantly, they worked on them. What looks like wild lands today was once the clear-cut sites of industrial camps for fishermen, loggers, and quarrymen.

"Every one of those islands was somebody's home and workplace," Mackreth says.

And if you land on one of the Apostle Islands, and poke around a bit, you can still find evidence of that history.

Last year, I told you about my visit to a historic lighthouse on Devil's Island, the northernmost point in Wisconsin, the last land you see before Canada. This year, I landed in a different place—Hermit Island—where the history of the Apostles seems less like the story of isolated humans cut off from the rest of the world and more like the story of an open-air factory.

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Hermit Island is named for the hermit who really did live there in the years just before the Civil War, but it's far less remote than the name suggests. On boating maps, Hermit Island almost looks like a traffic roundabout—a small, oval blob centered at the point where several channels converge.

Here, beginning in the 1891, quarrymen worked to chisel out chunks of sandstone that would become the brownstone building blocks of Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Milwaukee. And Hermit Island wasn't the area's only brownstone quarry. There were several in the Islands and on the mainland. All serving a demand for stone that was driven by the Romanesque Revival architecture style, and new city ordinances—drawn up in response to the 1871 Chicago Fire—that required certain buildings to be made from stone, rather than wood. The Apostle Islands, with a healthy supply of high-quality stone and a quick connection to Great Lakes shipping, made for ideal quarry locations.

And then the market crashed.

1893 might not seem like a particularly important time in the history of globalization, but, that year, a major London bank failed, setting off an eerily familiar chain reaction that led to a worldwide financial panic. The quarry on Hermit Island limped along for a few more years. But, by the time the economy truly recovered, style and technology had left brownstone behind.

Everybody wanted light, white buildings like the ones that made up the White City at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. And new construction techniques meant that you didn't need as much stone to make a sturdy, safe building. By 1897, the quarry was abandoned. Nobody bothered to pack up the blocks that didn't sell. As my husband jokingly put it, "The brownstone was cut, numbered, ready to go. And then some asshole invented steel frame construction."

These blocks are stacked, still waiting for a shipping barge that never came, along the Southeast side of Hermit Island. Each is roughly the size of a Smart Car. Behind them are the pits they were carved out of—smooth rock walls, chiseled into steps, now overgrown with plans and speckled with mossy puddles of mosquito-infested stagnant water. It feels a bit like stumbling upon an ancient city, even though it's only a little more than a hundred years old.

But what's even more impressive is that you don't just see mysterious cut stone. You also see remnants of the human presence behind them, bits and pieces of old infrastructure that remind you this was once a place of work. Lines of steel rebar stick out of the top of a ziggurat, where they might have once formed part of the support structure for steam-driven drilling machines and hoists. The drills made holes in the rock. Workers with chisels used the holes to widen out channels along the top of the quarry wall. Then they used more iron wedges and sledgehammers to carry the cut through and separate blocks from the wall.

The second image shows a quarry on nearby Basswood Island in 1893, as collected in People and Places: A Human History of the Apostle Islands by Jane Busch, Ph.D. The piece of machinery on the far left, near the blurred human figure, is one of the steam drills, which were moved back and forth along the quarry wall on train tracks.

In the water, you can see old logs laid out in straight rows—all that remains of the docks and breakwaters that allowed barges to pull up to the island and be loaded down with cut stone.

Schooner loading sandstone from Basswood Island in 1889.

But what's just as fascinating is the human presence you can't see. The photo at the beginning of this story shows what the coastline of Hermit Island looks like today. Basically, it's thick forest right up to the edge, except for the spot just in front of the quarry that the Park Service keeps clear for tourists. Below is a shot of the same part of the Island as it appeared around 1900, after quarrying had ended, but before the buildings that housed quarrymen and their families had fallen down. It looks like a different place.

The mansion on the right is Cedar Bark Lodge, built in the 1890s by 70-something quarry owner Frederick Prentice for his teenage bride. There's nothing left of it now.

To people like Bob Mackreth, this history is every bit as important, and every bit as worthy of preservation, as the wilderness landscapes the Park Service traditionally tries to maintain. The Islands aren't so much "wild" as they are "re-wilded". If you ignore the human imprint, from Ojibwe settlements to the Hermit Island quarry, you risk creating an outdoorsy-themed Disney World, where the wilderness that visitors see is no more honest than Cinderella's Castle.

It's a fine line, and not one that the Park Service was really set up to walk. In a 2003 article in Orion magazine, William Cronon explained that the 1964 Wilderness Act and National Park Service policy separates "nature" and "culture" as two very distinct things. Where there is culture, you can't have true nature. This attitude means that, in lots of places, the Park Service has actually torn down historic buildings and removed traces of past human habitation in order to make National Parks more "natural." Cedar Bark Cottage was long gone by the time the Apostle Islands became a National Lakeshore in 1970, but the Park Service there tore down many other buildings, like cabins and fishing camps, as part of turning the Islands into a Park.

Today, though, those old attitudes are starting to change. Places like Hermit Island, and the people who care about both the natural and human history there, are forcing the National Park Service to think differently about what it preserves and how it presents the re-wilded wilderness to visitors. The trouble is, nobody is really sure of the best way to do that just yet.

"The Park Service now has a mandate to preserve both [nature and culture]," Bob Mackreth says. "But that's going to be difficult."

For more information, check out these resources:

The Riddle of the Apostle Islands—William Cronon's article on nature and culture in National Parks.

A Guide to Historic Quarrying Techniques—excerpt from a National Park Service paper written by Kathryn Bishop Eckert. It was later expanded into a book called The Sandstone Architecture of the Lake Superior Region

Bob Mackreth's website, with lots of information about Apostle Islands history.

People and Places: A Human History of the Apostle Islands by Jane Busch, Ph.D.

A Storied Wilderness: Rewilding the Apostle Islands


  1. A lot of the mining area around Lake Superior is like this, both within national parks and outside.  No matter where you go, in the middle of the woods, whatever, you can find old ruins, hunks of gigantic cable lying around, capped mineshafts, huge tailings piles, all manner of abandoned stuff.

  2. This kind of thing is common throughout North America (and I’m sure a lot of the world.)  I have been 50 miles deep into parts of the Maine woods, miles from any paved road, impassable except for blazed trails, and suddenly there’s a stone wall stretching off in either direction as far as you can see, slowly being dismantled by tree roots and frost heaves.

  3. Always glad to see Cronon being talked about. There is still North American old growth forest—never logged, never built on, always traveled and live in by Natives—in Ontario and BC. I’m not sure about the US (maybe AK?). It’s pretty incredible.

    1. Slightly tangential to the topic here, but it’s worth noting that there are stands of old growth forest remaining in the lower 48. The closest to me are in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. It’s absolutely true that differ significantly from the regrowth areas. Camping in  them is a reverential experience; the old wood is worth seeking out and working to preserve.

  4. I worked for the Park Service as an archaeologist for a while, both in a park archaeologist’s office and as a contractor doing cultural resource management.  If an artifact or feature is over 50 years old, it’s considered archaeological, but that doesn’t mean it’s significant.
    The nature/culture divide in the Park Service psyche is deeply weird.  As is the assumption that Native Americans and the landscape they created were “natural.”  (That’s why they’re in the Natural History Museum and the white settlers aren’t.)  Levi-Strauss could have a field day. 
    I encountered a very similar sandstone quarry site while doing survey work on the C&O Canal Park north of DC.  At Tuscarora Creek, upstream of the lockhouse, there is a deer trail leading back around the turning basin to a red sandstone bluff with a quarry in its face.  There’s an old water-powered stonecutting mill with a deep saw pit and a millrace.  It’s pretty neat.  I think I heard it was state-of-the art because it could cut 6 inches an hour.  At the turning basin for the boats, you can still see the footings for the cranes.
    Like Hermit’s Island, the C&O canal park has been mostly allowed to go wild (except for the tow path, which is now a bike trail).  It’s all over scrub and nettles.  There are coyotes and black bears and the occassional mountain lion.  This wildness is unique in the last 10,000 or more years of history of that strip of very useful land along the Potomac.  It’s certainly strange to see the feature for which the park is named, the canal, overgrown and empty.  Large trees also grow between the tow path and the canal, which would never have been allowed when the canal was in use.  Only a few parks, mostly Civil War battlefields, have made a priority of restoring historic cultural landscapes. 

  5. The Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota has experienced this same re-wilderness. On certain portages or beside some lakes, you might be able to find old stoves and other mining equipment. This last summer I looked at the remains of an old airplane and I have seen pictures of an old car buried deep in the woods.
    On Isle Royale, just north of the Apostle Islands, the same thing happened, where the Forest Service came in and kicked everyone out and ripped down buildings. There is also some real impressive mining equipment buried in the woods as well. And the human history, dating back by some estimates 3000 years, can been found all across Isle Royale.

    1. I can’t remember where, but somewhere on the eastern end of the BWCA, I came across a stash of old artifacts near the end of a portage.  These included spring bedframes, barrels, cans of all sorts, and other miscellaneous stuff.  I couldn’t find any sign of old foundations nearby.  I don’t know if they were remnants of an illegal camp, or scrap materials that were stacked near the portage with the plan of pulling them out.  Either way, it does make for an eerie reminder that nature will reclaim the lands we cede (for whatever reason).

  6. Great post. I love this kind of stuff. I spent many, many summers in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, the last few teaching science-y stuff to kids. One of the main things I liked to talk about was that they were in a fascinating wild place… but almost none of it is actually natural. The area was heavily logged in the 1800’s, and there were entire towns, farms, and other things built all over the park that are now gone – but like on these islands, you still frequently come across their remnants if you know where to look. The new growth looks like a natural forest, but it isn’t, just like on these islands.

    So it was immensely interesting and fascinating to visit the one relatively small grove of original, actually natural forest in the park. It’s difficult to access – it’s not off the main highway (which most tourists never leave) so you have to canoe trip to it, but it’s not along the canoe routes – it’s an additional 3-4 km hike.

    But once you’re there, the vegetation very noticeably and suddenly changes. The trees and undergrowth are all entirely different – it’s amazing.

    The other place I experienced such a dramatic change there is at what was once a large factory farm. All the rocks were cleared (it’s a very rocky area) for the fields, and are now in big piles. Because the soil is so different because of the rock-clearing and the farming, entirely different types of plants have re-populated there compared to the rest of the place.

    Finally, as a geologist I love those brownstones and the old quarry. I’ve been in a lot of old quarries, but that one looks particularly cool.

  7. There’s a similar story on North Manitou Island ( on the other side of Lake Michigan. I’ll never forget wandering through formerly inhabited areas: hundred year old apple orchards. One key difference is that many of the old houses on that island are maintained in the shape they were when the Park Service took over. The effect of the ruins is dramatic and memorable.

  8. One of my favorite things to do when I visit the desert is locate old mining sites. In many cases I don’t even see foundations. There was one historic site I visited where, three years prior, there had been an old stone cabin that dated to the early 1900’s. When I visited it, it was impossible to detect there had ever been human habitation there other than by the fact that there was less brush at the site, the BLM had come in and knocked everything flat, dug a big hole, buried it all, then reshaped the landscape around it to deal with this “unwanted blighted mining structure”. 

    What I detect a lot of, in dealing with many NPS and BLM employees, is that many of them view human history and humanity itself as evil and abhorrent. They became NPS/BLM employees because they basically hated people and wanted to be away from people, not because they cared about the history of the area they’re serving in. This even afflicts higher level people such as district archaeologists. I once encountered a district archaeologist who was *furious* that we had temporarily screwed in some panels of plywood into an old mining shack that had fallen over and that we’d pushed back up, in order to stabilize it while an evaluation was made of the best way to permanently stabilize the structure. She accused of us trying to set up a system of Swiss climbing chalets in the wilderness, a claim which would be ludicrous if you’d actually seen this structure, which was approximately 8′ by 8′ in size and nowhere near weathertight and was ankle-deep in rat feces. Not to mention the location of this structure, on a remote ridge of no interest to anybody who wasn’t looking for the human history of the area, visited by perhaps half a dozen people per year due to its remote location which required a strenuous 12 mile hike and there was no water when you reached the end of the trail (the miners relied on water obtained via a tramline from a valley several miles away, and of course the tramline was long ago dismantled and hauled off to some other mine, leaving the shack behind to decay and finally fall over because it was more trouble to dismantle it and haul it out than it was worth). Granted, our intent was to stabilize the structure and get it weathertight, but our goal was to put historical displays and information there for the people who came to visit the mining site, it was useless for occupying as some “climbing chalet” or whatever this dingbat accused us of doing. No matter, she got our MOU revoked and went back out with a ranger and personally ripped out the plywood and happily watched the shack fall over again. In the end all the ridiculous accusations were just an excuse — she was personally offended that non-Native American remains of human history were in “her” wilderness, and wanted it destroyed, and a sheet of plywood in “her” wilderness was enough political ammo for her to do it. 

    Of course, that’s not ALL BLM/NPS employees. I know some cool ones who actually do know the human history of the area and are not that kind of crazed dingbat anti-human activist. It’s just an attitude that, as an amateur historian who wants to preserve the human history of the area, drives me nuts because you have to work around and politically neutralize those people before you can do *anything* to preserve what human history in the area hasn’t already been destroyed by these people.

    1. Frankly, it sounds like you have a bit of a grudge against BLM and NPS in general. These people tend to be underpaid, understaffed, underfunded, and besieged by Congresscritters trying to cut their funding even further, people who want to run their ATVs through the parks and sites, metal-detector bandits trying to dig up Civil War sites for stuff they can sell on eBay, resource-hungry businesses that want to exploit the mineral or timber, and so on and so forth. Do you think that, by declaring yourself an “amateur historian” and deciding unilaterally how the site should be used, you’re helping things?

      1. As vs. the BLM archaeologist, a person from Back East who has been in the area for less than a year and knows nothing about the human history of the site or anything about it really other than its location on a map, deciding unilaterally how the site should be used? ROFL! The locals in an area know the area better than someone airdropped in from a locale that might as well be an alien planet, and should not be blithely ignored just because some Back East hoity toity academic thinks she knows best. 

        And yes, Westerners have a grudge against outsiders coming in and telling them how things have to be. What, you haven’t figured that out yet?

        Not every site can or should be stabilized to preserve or exhibit human history of an area, and budget is always a problem. But when you have a MOU with a local volunteer organization to stabilize and preserve a site who are putting their own time and money into the effort and cancel that MOU because a single outside person airdops in during the middle of the project and decides that the site shouldn’t be stabilized, that’s the sort of FU to the locals that gets people upset. Just sayin’.  

  9. A long healthy conversation with officials from the Irish Tourist Board could solve this conundrum. They’ve worked out how to preserve the famine walls and the other structures from that time, alongside the pristine wilderness. 

    It’s not that tough, honestly. 

    1. Wait, what? There’s almost no pristine wilderness in Ireland. The whole landscape is entirely formed by man. Ireland’s natural state is pretty much temperate rain forest.

  10. Beautiful article…

    …however, tearing down buildings prevents looting, squatting, and fires, so pushing stuff towards Nature lets her clean up faster…

    1. Yah, ’cause we have to destroy the village to save it. Or something like that. And we have to destroy our history to preserve it. Otherwise the terriers win. Or something.

  11. Preserving defunct man-made elements, and going out of your way to destroy them both change the landscape from what it otherwise might be.  I don’t see an intrinsic reason to preserve a landscape in either the pre-inhabited or pre-abandoned state.

    Perhaps we should decide to preserve where the cultural significance of the site warrants the investment, decide to clear sites where the natural beauty is enhanced, and let things decay gracefully in many cases.  After all ruins are the coolest and cheapest option.

    As an alternative we can return all islands to their Pleistocene state – under lake Duluth!

  12. If you happen to have read Peter Mattheissen’s “Killing Mr. Watson” you might remember the fairly detailed descriptions of Watson’s house on the Chatham river, which was still standing in 1947 when the park was established.  The Park Service burned it down (and I think Mattheissen fictionalized it in “Lostman’s River”.) An everglades resident remembers going there in 1936 to pick fruit from Watson’s trees, dig up some sugarcane plants, and swimming the the big cement cistern.  All gone now, trees and all.  Why, for god’s sake???

  13. I suspect the NPS knocks down all the vacant buildings because of two strong modern impulses: 1) Showing nature who’s boss by making a visible impact on your surroundings! You know, by vandalizing empty buildings and committing arson. 2) Suing the crap out of everyone, all the time, because no one has any sense of personal responsibility (“Wah, I broke into this boarded-up building and fell through the floor, but it’s not my fault!”). Exploring formerly-inhabited places is a fascinating pastime, and finding forgotten structures in the (supposed) wilderness is thrilling. But as a culture? We can’t have nice things.

    At least, not on government-owned land.

  14. Very interesting read, Maggie. It’s always fascinating to hear about old ruins in wild places. One thing I find curious about the photos is that the Parks Service went to all the trouble to remove the buildings and dispose of the materials, right? I wonder why they didn’t pick up the smaller debris, such as that huge steel cable in one of the photos. At the very least, it could be melted-down and made into something useful. Regardless of whether the buildings were removed to eliminate American artifacts or to minimize liability, it just makes sense to go ahead and pull as much debris out of there as they can.

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