Oak Island Inferno, 1943



Last week’s fire on Raspberry Island never got a chance to spread, thanks to damp weather and the efforts of firefighters. In general, the Apostle Islands’ cool, moist climate has kept wildfire from becoming a serious threat, and few of the fires recorded on the islands have grown beyond a handful of acres. The great Oak Island fire of 1943 was a stunning exception: by the time it was over, almost 3,000 acres – nearly two-thirds of the island— lay charred.

Oak Island is the fourth-largest of the Apostles, and its topography is among the most rugged, with steep cliffs along much of the shoreline and deep ravines dissecting the interior. Its summit is the highest point in the archipelago, rising almost 500 feet above lake level. Today the island has a wild feel, and all but a small enclave at the dock is included within the designated Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, managed as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Nonetheless, the island has a long history of human occupation, and the southwest corner, where the 1943 fire began, is actually one of the most complex historic sites found among the Apostle Islands.

Details of Native American presence are sketchy, but it’s likely that many generations used this convenient landing and camping place as they harvested maple sugar from the island’s uplands. In the 1850s, Benjamin Armstrong, first white homesteader of any island save Madeline, established his farm here. Some twenty years later, Bayfield’s William Knight established the Apostle Islands’ first large-scale logging operation, building a 400-foot dock near the point to serve as a fueling stop for wood-burning steamboats. Two further waves of logging followed: the well-known entrepreneur R.D. Pike set about harvesting the island’s pine in the 1890s, and the John Schroeder Co. of Ashland returned for the hardwoods in the decade following the First World War. At the height of the logging era, nearly 200 men were employed on the island, with the southwest point serving as their base of operations.


Oak Island Bunkhouse

Abandoned Bunkhouse, Oak Island, 1930
Photo by Harlan Kelsey

As the 1920s ended, the timber was finally depleted, and the lumber camp was abandoned. In 1928 or thereabouts, a middle-aged fisherman named Martin Kane grabbed the opportunity to make himself at home on the island. Recently widowed, Kane set up housekeeping in one of the empty shacks and would live a hermit’s existence there for nearly twenty years. Unlike foul-tempered William Wilson, who inspired the name of nearby Hermit Island, Kane was a friendly sort, and welcomed visitors, especially if they came bearing liquid refreshment. He was well-liked by those who knew him, and gained the affectionate title, “The King of Oak Island.”


Continue to Part Two


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