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