History Behind the Parks: Isle Royale National Park

By Carla Charter

KEWEENAW COUNTY, Michigan- In Lake Superior, is Isle Royale National Park.  Primarily an archipelago, the park was opened as a national park in 1940 and encompasses 571,000 acres. Of this total acreage 130,000 of the acres are land and the remainder, 430,000 are part of Lake Superior. There are 400 smaller islands around Isle Royale as well. “Some are small bits of rocks others are a little larger. We are responsible for all of these too,” according to Christopher Amidon, Supervisory Park Ranger at the Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale itself is 40 miles wide at its longest point and 8 to10 miles in width at its narrowest point.

Prior to Isle Royale becoming a national park, copper mining was an important part of the land’s history. Originally Native Americans inhabited the island in the summer. They would hunt, mine copper and pick berries.  Copper mining at Isle Royale, as a business, occurred several times in the 1800’s including between 1845-1855, 1873-1881 and 1889-1893. There was significant copper mining at Keweenau Peninsula on the island between 1850-1959 and during the heyday of Copper mining between 1820-1920, according to Amidon.  The copper was used to make different types of pots and tools it was used by factories during the industrial revolution, and for use in copper pennies.

Most of the mining camps on the island where workers stayed, were transient camps.  There was one Copper mining camp in Windigo where miners stayed over the winter for a couple of seasons.

The park has four lighthouses which also contribute to the island as well as Lake Superior’s history. The oldest is Rock Harbor Lighthouse. It was completed in 1855 and shut down in 1859. It was then opened again from 1874-1879. “These times corresponded to the copper mining periods,” Amidon said. This lighthouse is now a museum highlighting Lake Superior and its maritime history.

There is the Isle Royale Light also known as the Menagerie Island Light which opened in 1875 and is still operational today.  It is not opened to the public as it is on a non-accessible barrier island around the lake.

The Passage Island Lighthouse in 1882, although still operational cannot be visited.  There are boat tours to the island where there is a small hiking trail.   The name Passage Island, refers to the fact that ships coming to and from Thunder Bay, Ontario often pass through the gap between Passage Island and Blake Point on the northeastern end of Isle Royale. Great Lakes sailors refer to passing through the gap as “threading the needle.”

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse was completed in 1908. It is unmanned but operational. This cannot be visited as it is on a rock in Lake Superior.  The Sea Hunter, a transportation boat out of Grand Portage, Minnesota does pass by it on its way to the island.

There have been over 150 shipwrecks around the island through the years. Some are smaller wrecks and 10 major wrecks.  The 10 major shipwrecks which are diveable include The Algoma, The America, The Chisholm, The Congdon, The Cox, The Cumberland, The Emperor, The Glenlyon, The Kamloops and the Monarch.

Isle Royale is a designated wilderness. Backpackers can hike and camp on the island. “They should be experienced with camping in remote conditions and the changing weather conditions around Lake Michigan.   You should have basic camping skills including knowledge of water and food storage on the island. There is no large wildlife on the island.”  There is no large wildlife on the island other than wolves and moose.  Many visitors stay at Rock Harbor Lodge which is a concession operated within the park with 60 rooms and 20 cabins.

Those wanting to camp on the island or boaters wishing to dock at the island overnight require an overnight camping permit. Fishing Lake Superior requires a state fishing permit, however fishing in the inland lakes at Isle Royale National Park does not. There is no hunting allowed.

“Those visiting Isle Royale need to remember it is an isle on Lake Superior and thus sometimes the weather on Lake Superior needs to be adapted to. ”Sometimes there are delays due to the weather for the ferry and sea planes from Michigan and Minnesota which land on Lake Superior,” Amidon said.

The park is closed from November 2 – April 14 Starting in January the ferries begin taking reservations for the upcoming season. The visitors center, located in Houghton Michigan is open year-round. More Information on Isle Royale National Park can be found at www.nps.gov/isro/index.htm