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Beyond Washington Island is one of the Niagara Escarpment’s longest gaps as it stretches under the waters to Michigan and on to Ontario. Of the islands stretching across the lake to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Washington is the granddaddy, geologically and historically. With 36 square miles, the island’s circumference is just over 25 miles. The escarpment is on a consistent, gradual declivity (2–5 degrees), a mere 160 feet above the lake’s surface, surrounding Washington Island’s rough, wave-battered exterior. Nowhere on the Door Peninsula does nature manifest itself with more force—wind-whipped stretches of open meadow or scattered hardwoods equally wind-bent—than on this tough island.
Door County, a macabre caveat of death for those foolhardy enough to attempt the savage waters here, fits Washington Island, truly the door to Wisconsin. Washington and Rock Islands were populated long before the rest of northeastern Wisconsin. Before vandals and thickets of ambitious brush got ahold of the sites, the island was one of the richest Native American archaeological time capsules in the Midwest. The original island dwellers were likely the Potawatomi and later the Huron (the island’s original name was Huron Island), among others, who arrived in flight from the bellicose Iroquois in modern Quebec.
Island-hopping voyageurs plying the expanses of New France found a ready-made chain of havens and temporary fishing grounds stretching from Michigan to the Door Peninsula, and thus to the Fox and Wisconsin Riverways. Purportedly, Jean Nicolet himself was the first European to set up camp on Washington Island. Pierre Esprit Radisson, who wintered here with the Huron, dubbed it the most pleasant place he had experienced in the Great Lakes. The most famous European presence still lends itself to the murky legends swirling in the cruel straits. In 1679, Robert La Salle sailed the Griffin into Detroit Harbor, where he met and bartered fur and iron wares with the Potawatomi and then left, destined for Mackinac Island. The ship vanished, and mariners have regaled the gullible with stories of a shrouded ship matching its description haunting the shoals around the Door ever since.
A large-scale European presence appeared in the early 1830s, when immigrants into Green Bay heard of trout the size of calves being taken from the waters around the island. The first fishers were Irish, but the true habitation mark on Washington Island is pure Icelandic—richest in the United States. Several thousand of the nation’s first Icelandic settlers arrived, took readily to the isolation, and set down permanent roots. Their heritage is clearly manifest in the stavkirke—the wooded stave church—being built gradually by island residents, one massive white pine log at a time, and by the proud Icelandic horses roaming certain island pastures.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition