Washington Island, a Speck of Old Iceland in Wisconsin

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You tin inactive find traces of Nordic past successful the trails and trees of tiny Washington Island, Wis. And instrumentality a dip portion you’re determination — if you dare.

Two women successful  agleam  pinkish  bathing suits clasp  hands arsenic  they wade into blue-green h2o  connected  a formation  covered with rounded achromatic  stones.
Schoolhouse Beach, connected Washington Island, Wis., is covered with creaseless achromatic stones, galore of them stacked successful cairns. The h2o of Lake Michigan, adjacent successful the summer, tin inactive beryllium chilly.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

Aug. 24, 2023, 5:01 a.m. ET

Five hours aft leaving Chicago, we ran retired of pavement. At the extremity of the Door Peninsula successful northeastern Wisconsin, the crystal pick parlors disappeared. The vino shops and creation galleries, too. Just a elemental tollbooth, and the breakwaters beyond, and a tiny archipelago gathered similar clouds connected the horizon. A grinning crewman waved america aboard a 92-ton ferry, and earlier my wife, Mel, and I could exit our car, the Arni J. Richter was plowing done Lake Michigan. Like us, it seemed anxious to fly the crowds.

Washington Island beckoned little than 4 miles ahead, but a definite acheronian whispered beneath the lake. The French called this strait Porte des Morts, oregon Death’s Door, astir apt cribbing the moniker from the Potawatomi. Here, wherever the warmer and shallower waters of Green Bay conscionable the darker and cooler waters of Lake Michigan, the currents swirl and rocky shoals fell conscionable beneath the surface. Shipwrecks inactive litter the shallows.

From the starboard side, we struggled to place a tiny smudge betwixt water and sky. One antheral asked if it was a freighter earlier another, squinting astatine his cellphone, concluded it was Pilot Island, named for a lighthouse present colonized by cormorants. We passed Plum Island and Detroit Island, neither accessible by ferry. And finally, we slipped into the dock connected Washington Island, 30 minutes and a satellite away.

Though it’s technically portion of Door County — a benignant of Midwestern Cape Cod — the 24-square-mile land leaves the trappings of tourism for the mainland. Its biggest acquisition store doubles arsenic a True Value hardware store. Cellphone work is spotty, astatine best. There’s nary trade brewery, nary concatenation hotel, nary definable concern territory — and that’s the point. As Matt Poole, a co-manager of the Hotel Washington, aboriginal explained: “Washington Island is wherever Door County radical spell to retrieve what Door County utilized to be.”


The Hotel Washington, built successful 1904 by an Icelandic migrant named Ben Johnson, was erstwhile Washington Island’s societal hub. It offers a farm-to-table edifice arsenic good arsenic impermanent accommodations.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times


Sand Dunes Park, connected the confederate seashore of Washington Island, which is astir 4 miles disconnected the seashore of Wisconsin.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

In the autumn of 1870, 4 young bachelors from the Icelandic sportfishing colony of Eyrarbakki landed connected Washington Island. Their arrival, successful turn, drew much immigrants from their homeland. By the extremity of the century, the land had go a halfway of Icelandic culture.

“For those with capable wealth to bargain wherever the onshore is much fertile, the Island is 1 of the worst places to travel to; but for the mediocre it is 1 of the best, for they tin unrecorded disconnected the h2o and disconnected the land,” wrote 1 of the bachelors successful a missive reprinted by an Icelandic newspaper. “I situation accidental determination is nary lazy and idle antheral successful Iceland, nary substance however galore children helium has got, who cannot unrecorded the bully beingness here.”

Just weeks aft returning from that present tourist-swamped federation myself, I was possibly aiming for a glimpse of what Iceland utilized to be. Washington Island is the second-oldest Icelandic colony successful America, and if you cognize wherever to look, I assured Mel, hints of that past inactive abound.

Hidden beneath a grove of towering maples, our charming edifice adjacent the harbor was nary exception. Established successful 1904 by Ben Johnson, different Eyrarbakkian, the colonial-style Hotel Washington present offers 8 tiny impermanent rooms and 2 shared bathrooms supra a farm-to-fork edifice awash successful earthy light. Once the island’s societal hub, the edifice retains an old-world feel, contempt the updates.

After unloading our bags and exploring the hotel, we returned to our vehicle, and without immoderate crippled program whatsoever, we started driving.

We passed vineyards and lavender fields, woodlots and wetlands and tiny ranches, too. Various Nordic flags whipped from bare porches. Consonants spilled from the thoroughfare signs: Bjarnarson Drive, Gunnlaugsson Road. We climbed 186 steps to the lookout operation successful a shady pullout called Mountain Park, past climbed the tower, too. We stared astatine the wood below, wrapped successful silence. No Interstate drone. No wailing ambulance. We held our breath, definite it couldn’t last.


The chromatic boathouse and Viking Hall astatine Chester Hjortur Thordarson’s erstwhile property connected Rock Island. Thordarson, an Icelandic American tycoon, bought up each privately held parcel connected Rock Island and developed 30 of his 777 acres there.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

When Johnson needed a $500 indebtedness to physique his hotel, helium turned to the richest Icelander helium knew: Chester Hjortur Thordarson, a manufacturing millionaire who would soon acquisition the land adjacent door. Richard Purinton, a section historiographer and writer of a astir 500-page tome connected Thordarson’s exploits, joined america connected the 10-minute ferry thrust to Rock Island the adjacent morning.

Thordarson immigrated to America successful his youth, Mr. Purinton explained. At 27, helium started his ain institution successful Chicago, amassing astir 100 electrical patents, and gained planetary personage for creating the world’s archetypal million-volt transformer. Having earned a fortune, Thordarson bought up each privately held parcel connected Rock Island. A naturalist astatine heart, helium developed conscionable 30 of his 777 acres, leaving the remainder untouched.

A mammoth chromatic boathouse loomed implicit america arsenic we stepped disconnected the ferry. Thordarson called it the Crown Jewel of Art and Nature. Nobody other did, Mr. Purinton said, but fewer could contradict its grandeur. Designed by the designer Frederick Dinkelberg, champion known for his enactment connected the Flatiron Building successful New York, this ostentatious show of wealthiness is now listed connected the National Register of Historic Places.

From its cavernous underbelly, which screamed astatine the water via 2 yawning arches, we followed Mr. Purinton into the Viking Hall above. The hearth unsocial could location a Honda — astir apt two. The prima blasted done 18-foot windows wrapped astir the building. And exquisite oaken furnishings carved by the Icelandic creator Halldor Einarsson depicted scenes from Norse mythology.

Instead of hosting parties, Thordarson aboriginal filled the hallway with his million-dollar rare-book collection, present housed astatine the University of Wisconsin. Still, Mr. Purinton explained, Thordarson loved to amusement disconnected the estate, and plentifulness of notables took him up connected the offer: the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold, and “Big Bill” Thompson, possibly the astir corrupt politician successful Chicago history, for whom helium built a tiny compartment connected the island, fueling rumors of bootlegging.


Rock Island draws visitors with tree-lined trails, water views and the existent iteration of the archetypal national lighthouse connected Lake Michigan, which was archetypal built successful 1836.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

Fortunately for us, Thordarson’s heirs aboriginal sold the full property to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Today it’s known simply arsenic Rock Island State Park.

Mr. Purinton caught the adjacent ferry location portion Mel and I deed the fashionable Thordarson Loop Trail, a five-mile trek that circumnavigates the island. Along the way, we toured the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built of section chromatic successful 1858. Replacing the archetypal national lighthouse connected Lake Michigan, completed successful 1836, the existent iteration is present unfastened to the nationalist and restored to its 1910 interior.

Distracted by the scenery, we soon missed our crook and completed the soundless and sun-dappled Fernwood Trail instead. We past paid our respects to Thordarson himself, buried beneath a humble tombstone successful the woods, and reluctantly boarded the past ferry backmost to Washington Island, wishing we’d packed our tent.


The Arni J. Richter, a 92-ton ferry, crosses the Porte des Morts, oregon Death’s Door, strait from the extremity of the Door Peninsula to Washington Island.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

My regrets faded the adjacent morning, however, erstwhile I recovered myself nether the spell of a section curio. A whale bony carved successful the visage of Gudmundur Gudmundsson, 1 of the archetypal Icelanders connected the island, stood upright successful a tiny solid lawsuit — different stunning, if peculiar, portion by Einarsson, the aforesaid creator whose carvings we’d admired the time before. We were perusing the Jacobsen Museum, named for Jens Jacobsen, a Danish migrant and salient section eccentric. Jacobsen had assembled thing of a people’s past of Washington Island: Indigenous and migrant artifacts, fossils, maps, exemplary ships and that bony — each successful a compartment smaller than an R.V.

For lunch, Mel and I shared a chickenhearted pesto panini astatine Jackson Harbor Soup, watching from our waterside array arsenic the Rock Island ferry crawled into port. Afterward, we stopped for refreshments astatine Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Club, which — were it not connected a tiny land successful the mediate of a large lake, and possibly the astir iconic concern successful municipality — 1 mightiness beryllium tempted to disregard arsenic different tin-roofed roadhouse. Established successful 1902 by Tom Nelsen, different Danish immigrant, the barroom survived Prohibition by applying for a pharmaceutical licence and selling Angostura bitters — past considered a tummy tonic — by the shot.

“It was besides 90-proof,” said Sarah Jaworski, whose parent has owned the pub and edifice since 1999. “So the loophole successful the strategy was found.”

Today, Nelsen’s Hall sells much than 10,000 shots of bitters a year. After Nelsen died, his woman and nephew started the Bitter’s Club, offering a rank paper to each archetypal timer. I signed excavation astatine the barroom portion Ms. Jaworski poured maine a syrupy shot. It was lukewarm and tasted similar a mouthful of cloves.

I mightiness person gone different round, but our clip was moving short, the time was increasing hot, and the water beckoned — it is an island, aft all. Just beyond the municipality cemetery, Schoolhouse Beach spills into a harbor lined with gangly greenish cedars. In the parking lot, signs threatened a $250 good for removing formation stones, which seemed excessive until the panorama unfolded: a Milky Way of rounded rocks — polished creaseless implicit the millenniums by crashing waves and glacial erosion — glistened achromatic done the azure water.

Toddlers bounced successful the surf. Teenagers leaped from a agleam reddish pontoon. We hadn’t considered what their younker mightiness bespeak astir somesthesia until we jumped successful ourselves. Unable to shriek, we gasped. Our limbs seized. The h2o was astir 50 degrees. We scrambled backmost to our blankets. I nary longer tasted the bitters. I nary longer felt my toes.


Rock Island is present owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which operates it arsenic a authorities park.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times


The tar-paper shack wherever Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian American economist who coined the word “conspicuous consumption,” spent his summers connected Washington Island for astir 30 years, learning Icelandic from the locals who inactive spoke it.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

The acold plunge revived america from the day doldrums, truthful we tacked connected 1 past excursion. That morning, leaving the museum, we’d passed a tiny tar-paper shack that had erstwhile belonged to the Norwegian American economist Thorstein Veblen, writer of “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” a classical 1899 treatise successful which helium coined the word “conspicuous consumption.” According to the placard, helium summered present for astir 30 years, reading, penning and learning Icelandic from those who inactive spoke it.

That inconspicuous shack had erstwhile stood elsewhere, respective locals told us, on a way they were reluctant to expose. Owned by the Door County Land Trust, the spot is present portion of a poorly marked 32-acre quality preserve.

We parked connected the enarthrosis of Main Road, parted the trees and followed a constrictive way done a wood of cedar and hemlock. Maybe 20 minutes later, we glimpsed Lake Michigan lapping astatine the shores ahead, and then, to our left, Little Lake, freckled with h2o lilies.

And it was here, overlooking a water wrong an land wrong a lake, that Veblen — a benignant of Thordarson successful reverse — steeped himself successful quality and Icelandic, squirreled distant successful that shack, a crown jewel of his ain design, questioning the treacherous waters of capitalism and consumption. Mel and I stood connected the economist’s slanted dock, purple irises crowding the cedar pilings, buoyed by an land inactive warring the tide.


KK Fiske, a edifice owned by Ken Koyen, the past commercialized fisherman connected Washington Island, tempts diners with locally caught whitefish, burbot and more.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times


A food boil astatine KK Fiske. Waves of immmigrants from Icelandic sportfishing villages contributed to Washington Island’s agelong past arsenic a sportfishing hub.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

The Washington Island Ferry Line operates betwixt Northport Pier, astatine the extremity of Wisconsin Highway 42, and Washington Island. A circular travel is $15 for adults, $8 for children ages 6 to 11. Cars outgo $28 extra. The aforesaid enactment besides operates a passenger-only ferry ($15 for adults, $6 for children) betwixt Washington Island and Rock Island.

Lodging options are limited. Most of them are independently operated, and fewer are listed with large online question services similar Expedia and Booking.com. Rooms astatine the Hotel Washington commencement astatine $135. Gibson’s West Harbor Resort offers lakeside views from some a main location and six abstracted cottages; rooms commencement astatine $40, cabins astatine $100. Newer cottages astatine Four Elements Lodging commencement astatine $199, sleeping a maximum of two. Camping is disposable astatine some Rock Island State Park and Washington Island Campground, which besides offers cabins. For a database of accommodations, sojourn the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce website.

Though eating options are besides limited, respective restaurants are land staples. For a acold brew and a plateful of the section drawback — usually whitefish oregon burbot — don’t miss KK Fiske, owned and operated by Ken Koyen, the last commercialized fisherman connected Washington Island. Entrees commencement astatine $13. For an old-fashioned milkshake and immoderate of the champion burgers successful Door County, don’t miss the Albatross Drive-In. Near the terminal for the ferry to Rock Island, Jackson Harbor Soup offers prime crockery and sandwiches with a near-perfect presumption of the harbor. Panini commencement astatine $7.75. Fiddlers Green, successful a school-turned-grocery store, features unrecorded music, a rotating paper and a afloat bar.

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