Washington Island | Door County

Town of Washington Island, Door County
Population: 704 (July 2018)
Organized: June 20, 1850

Washington Island Snippets

     ★ Washington Island is about six miles square and has a shoreline of 26 miles. On the north and west sides the shores are very high and precipitous, particularly at the northwestern extremity, where Bowyer's Bluff towers its limestone ledge imposingly to the height of almost 200 feet from the water's edge. These cliffs are seamed with caves and fissures, and carved into fantastic figures by the storms of bygone ages, but now the clinging cedars are weaving a drapery of green for their rugged sides. The south and east sides, on the contrary, are mostly low and sandy with a shallow water front. On the north side is Washington Harbor, a bay which extends into the island about a mile and a half, surrounded by sloping timbered hills. On the south, too, is a big indentation, known as Detroit Harbor, which is made a landlocked anchorage by the long Detroit Island, which lies across its mouth. The water here is, however, too shallow except for vessels of light draft.

     ★ In the mid-19th century Dr. William Ellis aspired to minister to the physical needs of the little community. He evidently was quite a hustler, as it is told of him that he once skated from Washington Island to Green Bay -- 90 miles -- in one day. In spite of his hustling he found the locality too healthy for a physician, and after some years he moved west. In fact, according to reliable testimony, obstetrics was the only department of therapeutics for which there was any demand, as might be illustrated by the growth of James Cornell's family. He had 10 children who all grew up and had good sized families. With their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the family numbered more than 200 by 1917.

     ★ In the latter 1860s the first government mail service was installed. The mail was carried from Ephraim or Ellison Bay to Washington Island on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month in winter and once a week in summer. Mr. H. D. Miner was the first postmaster and received a salary of $10. The service was gradually improved until finally in 1900 a daily mail service was established and the long isolation of the island ceased.

     ★ The Town of Washington Island sent more soldiers to the Civil War than any other town in Door County.

     ★ According to the U.S. Census of 1879 there were on Washington Island, June, 1870, only 189 acres of cleared land. On this was produced the previous season 30 bushels of wheat, 1,151 bushels of potatoes, 58 tons of hay and 1,628 pounds of butter. There were only 10 horses, 16 cows, 4 oxen and 14 swine on the island.

     ★ (In 1917): Washington Island is a land of many charms and progressive people but suffers under a serious handicap -- the passage across the Door. For months in the fall and spring no man is sure of his footing in crossing the Door. Where the ice may be perfectly safe in the morning the waves may wash in the evening. The shifting winds that rush through the Door play all sorts of havoc with the ice. The following is an account of the various modes of crossing the Door on a single day in March, 1914, copies from a Door County paper:
"St. Patrick's Day will long be remembered as a remarkable day on account of the various modes of crossing and the abundant travel across the Door. The mail went and returned in a motor boat; Peter Anderson drove across the Door after passengers with a sleigh; Bo L. Anderson returned from the county seat with a horse and cutter; Charles Jensen arrived home from Chicago with a horse and buggy; and Harry Dana came across with an auto. Each one of these parties report that the going was good for this particular rig."
The foregoing "snippets" content adapted from History of Door County Wisconsin The County Beautiful, Volume I (1917), by Hjalmar R. Holand, M.A., this author's great-uncle.


Atlas Obscura: How a Tiny Wisconsin Island Became the World's Biggest Consumer of Bitters, by Leigh Kunkel, March 5, 2018

Door County Pulse: Behind the Scenes at the Death's Door Juniper Harvest, by Aleah Kidd, September 28 2018

Washington Island is located
at the northern tip of Door County.






Little Wisconsin will be available May 7, 2019.

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