Basswood Island: The Apostles’ Emerald Isle



Basswood Island shoreline

When I began studying the history of northern Wisconsin, I quickly became impressed with the rich assortment of ethnic and racial groups whose contributions have enriched the region's heritage. Any student of this area immediately encounters the Native Americans who inhabited the land first, the French who were the earliest Europeans to arrive, and the Norwegians who left such a distinct mark on so many facets of the Northland's culture.

But that's not all, by any means. As I dug further into the heritage of the Lake Superior country, I soon found that the region was a melting pot very much like the rest of the United States. There were Finns and Poles in Washburn, Czechs and Slovaks in Moquah, Italians in Hurley, and many other distinctive ethnic communities. However, research into northern Wisconsin's cultural heritage can be frustrating for a boy who grew up eating fish on Fridays and wearing green on St. Patrick's Day; a kid who learned both the Hail Mary and the words to Danny Boy along with his ABC's. There's seldom much mention of any Irish connection in the stories of northern Wisconsin.

Now it's not as if Irishmen never showed up in these parts; quite the contrary. Irish names turn up almost with the beginning of European presence.


Take John Johnston of County Antrim. Born into the landed gentry in 1762, he decided as a young man that his future prospects would be brighter in the New World. Leaving Ireland in 1790, he made his way to Montreal, where he secured employment with the great fur-trading firm, the North West Company. His first assignment took him to LaPointe, with instructions to reopen the trading post that had been abandoned by the French some thirty years before. Unfortunately for Johnston, the island was not as deserted as his bosses believed, and a group of rogue French fur traders stymied his plans and nearly cost him his life. They convinced his voyageurs to desert, and Johnston spent a desolate winter living, as he put it, "like Robinson Crusoe," before returning to Montreal for a new assignment.

Johnston's stay at LaPointe was brief, but he soon returned to the Lake Superior country, this time for good. He made his way back to Madeline Island in 1793, where he married Shagowashcodawaqua ("Woman of the Green Glades,"), daughter of the Ojibwe chief Waubojeeg ("White Fisher"). The couple quickly moved to the far end of the lake, Ba-Wa-Ting, or Sault Ste. Marie, where Johnston commanded the fur post and for many years was the community's leading citizen. His daughter Jane went on to marry the scholar and explorer Henry Schoolcraft, gaining renown as a poet and author in her own right.

About a half-century later came another young Irish gentleman to LaPointe: Dillon O'Brien of County Galway. O'Brien was a scholar and writer of some accomplishment, but his prospects were sparse in an Ireland shattered by the Great Famine. He arrived at Madeline Island with his wife and four children in 1857, where he became a teacher at the missionary school founded by Father Baraga. O'Brien remained at this post for only a few years, then moved to St. Paul where his family grew and prospered. The O'Briens' memories of their time on Madeline Island must have been warm ones, for in 1895, Dillon's son John returned to the island to build a fine summer home. More than a hundred years later, the O'Briens remain one of the island's most prominent families.


Quarry landing

Quarry landing along Lake Superior shore


While John Johnston and Dillon O'Brien are well-remembered, there were other Irishmen in the Apostle Islands whose memory has almost completely faded: the quarry workers of Basswood Island. These were not members of the gentry, like Johnston and O'Brien, but workingmen, like my grandfather and his father before.

For a period of about thirty years in the latter half of the nineteenth century, quarries on Basswood, Hermit, and Stockton Island supplied brown sandstone to the burgeoning construction industry of the Midwest. During this time, small villages grew up at the quarry sites. Many of the quarrymen brought their wives, and at least one baby was born on Basswood Island during this period. Census records from 1870 show that more than half of the quarry workers were Irish. The foreman was an Irish immigrant named Dean Monaghen; other workers bore names like Conlin, Gallagher, and Hannon.

One of the saddest incidents in the history of the Apostles involved the wife of an Irish quarry worker named Daniel McRea. On Christmas Eve, 1893, Mrs. McRea (we don't even know her first name) set off over the ice to Bayfield with two neighbors, to buy gifts for her husband and two small children. A sudden blizzard engulfed the party as they walked home that evening, and they wandered lost on the frozen lake for several hours. Dan McRea finally came out looking for his wife; he found her near death from exposure, and she perished before he could get her back to their island cottage.

The Bayfield and Ashland newspapers reported this sad story in some detail. They were quick to spread the word when a quarry worker engaged in a saloon brawl, too, or when two quarrymen, returning to the island after a night on the town, capsized their boat and lost their lives. The stereotype of the hard-fighting, hard-drinking Irishman was alive and well in nineteenth-century Wisconsin.


Quarry Walls

Quarry walls, or altar stones?


But there's another side to the Irish character besides drinking and fighting: for so many of us, to be Irish is to be Catholic. The sectarian identity that underlies the island nation’s history survived the trip across the Atlantic, and on at least one occasion, a man of the cloth made a shorter water crossing to affirm the importance of faith to the Irishmen and Irishwomen of Basswood Island. Scanning old copies of the Bayfield Press one afternoon, I came across a brief item published on March 25, 1871:

The Reverend Father Chebul, Catholic Missionary, by request of Mrs. Monaghen, grandmother of the first child on Basswood Island, celebrated a Mass and administered the Holy Sacrament to several persons at that place March 17, St. Patrick's Day.

My pulse quickened as I read this item. I’ve often explored the south end of Basswood Island, scuffling through the brush and leaves surrounding the National Park Service campsites. Though there are no markers to point them out, it’s easy for a careful eye to pick up the ditches and berms that mark the outlines of the quarry workers’ vanished homes. “Which of these,” I’ve often wondered, “was the cottage that Mrs. McRea left on that sad Christmas Eve, and in which one of these was the Monaghen baby born?”

Now there’s something else to ponder on my visits: the memory of Erin’s devout sons and daughters, kneeling respectfully on a wild island in Lake Superior, to hear the Mass and be reminded of the deepest foundation of their faith and culture.

I turned away from the microfilm reader, moved to a degree that I would never have expected. I had to share this news, but with whom? Who would care?

Suddenly, I knew. I picked up the phone and dialed the first number I ever learned.

“Hello, Mom? I think you’ll get a kick out of something I just found…”



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