With its beautiful trails, white sand beach and lighthouse, it’s a remarkable treasure.
• Abridged from the Wikipedia entry for Rock Island [Wisconsin] •
Rock Island is a wooded island off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula at the mouth of the Bay of Green Bay. The 974.87-acre uninhabited island is almost entirely owned by the Wisconsin DNR, which maintains Rock Island State Park. It is the northernmost part of the Town of Washington.
Rock Island was originally settled by Native Americans. European explorers and missionaries used it as one of several stops along the Grand Traverse route between upper Michigan and Wisconsin. The island was home to the first permanent European settlement on the Door peninsula, a small fishing village on the eastern shore. The settlers later relocated to nearby Washington Island, leaving the original village abandoned. On the North shore of the Island you can still find the grave markers of some of the original villagers.
The island became a navigational landmark in 1836 following the construction of the Potawatomi Lighthouse on the northern tip.
In 1910, wealthy inventor Chester Thordarson purchased 775 acres of the island. 30 acres on the southwest side of the island were cleared in 1920 and Thordarson began construction of a summer estate. His large boathouse, which is decorated in with characters from the Norse Runic alphabet, is open to the public.
The Wisconsin DNR purchased the island and buildings from Thordarson’s heirs in 1965. Today the only other landholder on the island is the US Coast Guard, which maintains an automated navigation light near the old lighthouse.
The Rock Island Lighthouse was one of several the government had constructed at the time, and the woodworking around the door frames and windows are from these plans. The main structure is two stories, four including the basement and lantern room. The main two floors have walls of foot-thick limestone surrounding them, but the lantern room is only surrounded by wood. There is also a summer kitchen, where the lighthouse keepers would cook in the summer so the rest of the house wouldn’t get too hot. This room is today used for a gift shop, makeshift kitchen, and a place to take your shoes off before touring the lighthouse.
In the summer, lighthouse keepers stay for a week at a time, and live in the lighthouse giving tours. There is no running water or electricity in the lighthouse, but a heater in one room of the lighthouse is heated by propane for the keepers.
Rock Island has flowers such as Trillium, Jack in the Pulpit, and Lady’s Slipper in abundance, and other plants, such as cow parsnip and poison ivy, also grow there. Indian paintbrush can also be found.
Rock Island can be reached via passenger ferry from Washington Island. No vehicles, including bicycles, are permitted on the island.
How To Get There:
Take Wisconsin Highway 42 to its end at Northport, the tip of the Door County peninsula. Take the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island. The ferry carries people, vehicles, bicycles, and freight. Take County Highway W to the opposite end of Washington Island, to Jackson Harbor. Leave your vehicle or bike there and take the passengers-only Rock Island Ferry, the Karfi, to Rock Island. There are reasonable fees for both ferries.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Rock Island State Park: