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Isle Royale National Park  




Rock Harbor

Island Views






One of the most isolated and natural of the national parks in the lower 48 states is Isle Royale. This magnificent island, about 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, is located in the northwest section of the largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. The park--an archipelago--includes the main island itself as well as 200 smaller islands in its vicinity.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the park is its natural condition. It is truly a wilderness park if any park in the national park system can be so designated. Although there are some isolated visitor facilities, the park is for the most part devoid of roads. The park's 571,790 acres mainly encompass forested ridges and lowlands, rocky coastline, and lovely bays and harbors. The waters surrounding the island also contain 10 major shipwrecks and another 10 lesser ones. On Isle Royale itself there are also a number of inland lakes.

The park is also famous for its animal populations, including the wolf and moose which are so dependent on each other. The isolated nature of the island provides a unique laboratory for the study of intact ecosystems.

One of the unique aspects of the park is the nature of its visitors. While the average visitor in the nation's other national parks stays only about 4 hours, those who visit Isle Royale average 3 1/2 days. Of course, the reason is its isolation; it takes quite a bit longer just to reach the island for most visitors than people spend in other parks.


The great island itself is volcanic in origin, built up from lava which seeped from fissures in the earth. In fact, it is believed that the greenstone flow of lava which forms the backbone of the island is the largest volcanic flow ever known on earth. The volcanic island was scoured by sheets of ice which moved across the island during glacial periods, creating the basis for the present day topological features.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

There is evidence of human visitation to the island for some 2500 years. The island's great copper deposits attracted native American miners, and evidence indicates copper was mined from about 2000 to 1000 BC. Copper is found in Isle Royale in a pure form, rather than in combination with other elements as in most places. Material made from the copper found on the island was traded throughout the eastern portion of what is now the United States.

Native Americans visited, hunted and fished, picked up copper nuggets, and later mined copper on the island they knew as Isle Minong. The island today features hundreds of Indian mining "pits" scattered about.

The first white to visit the island was a Jesuit missionary in 1670. Isle Royale was located due east of Grand Portage, center of the 17th century fur trade, and among the early Europeans to visit the island were French trappers in 1671. The island's name--pronounced as Isle Royal--was given in honor of French king Louis XIV. In 1783 the United States, rather than Great Britain, gained possession of the island, partially due to the misconception that the island lay closer to the US side of Lake Superior than the Canadian shore.

In 1837 the first fishery on the island was established by the American Fur Company. In 1841 Michigan geologist Douglas Houghton recorded his exploration of Michigan's upper peninsula and Isle Royale, and by 1843 exploration for copper had begun. Government survey teams visited the island during the period 1846-49.

In 1843 the Chippewa tribe relinquished control of the island and it became part of the United States of America. By 1846 the island began to be visited by copper prospectors, and by the 1870's some 300-600 people inhabited the island. In 1876 a 3 ton ore specimen found on the island was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Although there were several periods of heavy mining activity--specifically, 1843-1845, 1873-1881, and 1889-1893--it was never economically successful because of the crude methods of extraction and the isolation of the island, and the last period of mining ended by 1892. In the interim between periods of mining activity fisherman were the only human inhabitants of the island.

Pictured below are the remains of the Smithwick Mine, one of the earliest mines on the island. It was located in 1843 and worked actively from 1847-1849, although with few economically positive results. The main shaft in this mine descended 90 feet.

Later, the island also supported a small fishing industry. This industry peaked in the 1880's with about 30 fishing camps distributed around the island.

As early as the 1860's some visited the island for touring or pleasure. But by the turn of the century a real tourism industry was beginning to exist on the island, fueled in part by the growth of midwestern cities. The first hotel on the island, the Johns Hotel, was built in 1892, and other early resorts were built at Tobin Harbor, Rock Harbor, and Washington Island. By the 1920's there were a number of sizeable resorts located on Isle Royale and some of the smaller islands surrounding it. The moist, cool air on the island provided a popular escape from the midwestern summer heat and for hay fever sufferers.

The 1920's also brought an effort to gain preservation of and national park status for the island. This effort was spearheaded by Albert Stoll Jr. of the Detroit News, and it was endorsed by Stephen Mather who visited the island in 1924. The threat of extensive logging of the island's forests in 1922 enhanced concern about the importance of preservation of the island's magnificent natural resources. Isle Royale gained a measure of fame as a result of a daring winter visit by plane by Ben East and his companions.

In 1930 the Michigan legislature created the Isle Royale National Park Commission. Establishment of the island and surrounding areas as a national park was authorized when Herbert Hoover signed legislation on March 31, 1991. However, initially no money was authorized for its establishment. The Depression and World War II intervened, and it was not until August of 1946 after all park lands had been acquired that the park was finally dedicated in a ceremony on Mott Island.

Journey to the Island

Isle Royale is definitely the park to visit to avoid crowds and congestion. The reason for this is its very remoteness. There are only two ways of reaching Isle Royale--by seaplane, or by boat. The latter approach is the best for really appreciating the vastness of Lake Superior and just how remote the park actually is.

Boats for the park leave from 3 locations--from Grant Portage, Minnesota, from park Headquarters in Houghton, Michigan, a journey of 77 miles and 6.5 hours; and further up the Keewenaw Peninsula from Copper Harbor, Michigan, a journey of 56 miles 4.5 hours.

Below are pictures of the journey from Copper Harbor aboard the Island Queen, a ferry which carries up to about 100 passengers.

After leaving the dock the boat crosses the small harbor itself. The town of Copper Habor and the harbor itself are shown below.

Soon the land recedes in the distance and the boat begins to traverse the waters of the massive lake.

Lake Superior seems far more like an ocean than a lake. "The Lady" is the world's largest freshwater lake, and it's extremely cold year around, warming only to about 65 degrees at the surface but remaining only 36 degrees at the bottom.

To cross from the Keewenaw Peninsula to the south shore of the island takes 5 1/2 hours. Eventually the silhouette of the 45 mile-long island begins to appear over the water.

Isle Royal is in the northern part of Lake Superior, closer to the shore of Canada (about 15-18 miles) than the United States (50 miles). Eventually, the trees of the island and the rocks of the shore can be made out.

More and more details of the island can be made out as the boat nears the shore.

The south coast of the island features some rocky promontories and is heavily forested. However, its rocky face is relatively gentle compared with the northern coast, which in many places is an unbroken wall of rock. Below are some rocks along the shore near Rock Harbor.

After four and a half hours the ferry arrives at the boat dock in Rock Harbor, shown below. That's the visitor center and store next to the boat dock.

Rock Harbor

Rock Harbor is one of the best anchorages in the Great Lakes area. Barrier islands off shore buffer the wind and provide calm water.

As the boat approaches the southeast coastline of Isle Royale some of the buildings which make up the settlement come into view, as seen below.

Rock Harbor contains the major visitor's facilities on the island, although these are limited given the wilderness nature of the park. The small visitor's center, store, and boat dock are clustered together and can be seen in the photograph below from a boat in the harbor itself.

Most visitors to the island are backpackers whose only accommodations are tents and sleeping bags. However, limited hotel facilities are available. In the photograph below a portion of the inn can be seen.

In the next picture, the restaurant and snack bar can be seen.

The view from the hotel is outstanding, as can be seen below.

Here is another view from the hotel.

Another building in Rock Harbor is shown below.

Of the many resorts on Isle Royale and surrounding islands in the 1920's only Rock Harbor Lodge remains. This resort was built in the early 20's by Kneut Kneutson as a haven for hay fever sufferers. Kneut found Rock Harbor as a safe haven in high water--he called it "Snug Harbor." He later built his resort there and called it "Park Place."

Another historic building is shown below. This is one of the remaining cabins built as part of the resort then known as "Park Place" by Kneut Kneutson.

The lodge's "guest house" was completed in 1924. It had 15 guest rooms, hot and cold running water, and electric lights. "Park Place" was renamed "Rock Harbor Lodge" when management passed to Kneut's daughter, Bertha Farmer.

The guest house, overlooking the water, was built in 1920. It had electric lights, hot water, and indoor flush toilets, quite luxurious for the wild Isle Royale.

In the 1920's and 1930's the lodge was visited by excursion boats from Detroit and Chicago. The lodge operated for many years and was finally sold to the federal government in 1938. Rock Harbor Lodge was operated under contract to the National Park Service. Below is a side view of the lodge and its great chimney.

A number of expeditions to other islands and other parts of Isle Royale are available from Rock Harbor.

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

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