Isle Royale Dassler Cabin Artist in Residence. Credit: Dennis Hockman
June 24, 2016

The Rustic Cottages of Isle Royale

  • By: Dennis Hockman
  • Photography: Dennis Hockman

In the Summer 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, we take you to northern Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park, a wild and remote archipelago that’s home to wolves, moose, loons, bald eagles, and a collection of historic cabins, cottages, and boat houses dating from the late 19th century to the early 1930s. Constructed before Isle Royale became a national park, these places represent a time when people would seasonally inhabit the island either to make a living as commercial fishers or to seek respite from the increasingly industrialized and polluted cities.

Isle Royale Merritt Dock. Credit: Dennis Hockman

Isle Royale Families and Friends Association members gather on Merritt Island for a potluck supper and to discuss options for how they can work with the Park Service to ensure a sustainable future for the historic places that have bonded them together.

Today, although the historic structures are part of one of America’s least-visited national parks, descendants of the people who originally constructed these places still maintain them, visiting each year under special permits issued by the park service. Many of these descendants have come together as the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association (IRFFA), a group established to "assure the preservation of historic family dwellings and enhance the experience of park visitors by serving as a link to Isle Royale's rich human history."

Last August, IRFFA members opened their summer residences to National Trust staff for a week-long nautical/history tour of the park. We also explored a variety of options park staff could pursue to ensure a sustainable future for its historic structures. Following is a sampling of the places we were able to visit.

Isle Royale Tobin Harbor. Credit: Dennis Hockman

Tobin Harbor is a historic resort community comprising twelve private camps and a commercial fishery.

Isle Royale Snell Cottage from Merritt Island. Credit: Dennis Hockman

The Snell dock and complex, which is located on Isle Royale's main island, as viewed from Merritt Island.

As the Preservation story details, the park may soon be assuming responsibility for maintaining these historic buildings, presenting Park Service staff with a dilemma. The National Historic Preservation Act requires the park to be good stewards of historic places under its care, but the Park Service’s $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog means that inheriting new places to maintain is a challenge at best.

Later this year, Isle Royale National Park will publish a Cultural Resource Management Plan on it's "History & Culture" page for public review. Please review the plan and let the Park Service know what you think should be done with the historic camps, cottages, and fisheries of Isle Royale.

Snell Cottage Sitting-Dining. Credit: Dennis Hockman

The light-filled front room of the Snell Cottage, built in 1905, overlooks Tobin Harbor.

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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