The last families of Isle Royale: What does future hold for historic cabins — and families — that predate national park?
We look at how the park service and historic families grapple with what the future could look like on Isle Royale as an era winds down in the third and final part in the News Tribune's series on families that have cabins in Isle Royale National Park.
TOBIN HARBOR, Mich. — Frederick Wilhelm Dassler, who was a judge on the first Kansas Supreme Court, first came to Isle Royale on a cruise in the early 1890s to escape the summer heat.
He liked what he saw so much he ended up buying land and building a cabin on the the tip of Scoville Point, a long and skinny stretch of land on Isle Royale’s northeast side separating Tobin Harbor from Lake Superior.
It would remain in his family for nearly a century, with his descendants continuing to use the cabin under life leases and special-use permits after Isle Royale became a national park in 1940.
Lee Dasler, his great-granddaughter, remembers spending her summers as a child raising frogs in the cove next to the cabin where she’d watch tadpoles grow into frogs within the puddles in the basalt.
READ OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES:
- The last families of Isle Royale: Island life in 21st century full of restoration work, sharing history
- The last families of Isle Royale: Cabins remain occupied by families that predate the island national park
But her family’s use of the historic structure ended when her father, Dale, the special-use permit holder, died in 1990.
After his death, one of the first calls the family received was from the federal government expressing condolences, but also telling the family they needed to pack up their belongings and leave the cabin the next summer.
For Dassler, the hardest part was seeing her family’s wooden boats lifted on the Ranger III, the ferry that connects Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor to Houghton, Michigan.
“Just watching them being lifted from the island onto the deck of the Ranger was just a very, very difficult thing,” Dassler said. “(The boats) lived here their whole lives.”
But other cabin families were on the dock that day and saw the pain. It’s a moment Dassler said helped galvanize an effort among families to preserve the cabins.
It stuck with John Snell, whose family cabin is further in Tobin Harbor than the Dasslers'. Though he and Dassler are in their 60s and spent summers growing up on the island, they were never up at the same time and didn’t meet until the Dasslers were packing up their cabin. The two reconnected decades later and are in a relationship today.
In a letter to the park's superintendent the following spring, Snell wrote about seeing the Dasslers leave, urging him to explore possibilities for a long-term preservation plan for the cabins.
“I was deeply saddened to watch the Dassler descendants bid farewell to (their cabin). I do not relish the time when my cousins and I will have to vacate my grandfather's,” Snell wrote. “Almost more painful, however, will be the slow death of the Tobin Harbor community that has remained virtually unchanged for more than 50 years.”
Today, only six cabins remain under special-use permits throughout Isle Royale , and while the structure’s preservation may be more certain, the families are still wondering what, if any, role they might have on the island after the permit-holder dies.
Most structures will survive
In the decade leading up to the establishment of Isle Royale National Park in 1940, families were presented with the choice to either sell their cabins or keep using them in exchange for a life lease for the owner and their children (special-use permits were later created to include children who were minors at the time and left off the life lease).
The park service often destroyed property that was sold, but had no lease, or the leaseholder died early on. The park was to be a wilderness, after all.
Sally Orsborn, the special-use permit holder for the cabins on the park’s Captain Kidd island, said her dad saw the cabins being destroyed and got permission to move two cabins from elsewhere in the park to their island where they remain today.
She saw other structures not survive. The family of her late husband, who she met when they were both working at the resort in Rock Harbor, also had a cabin on Isle Royale, near the present-day Rock Harbor Visitor Center. When her in-laws died, the cabin was destroyed.
“Soon after they died, their cabin was pulled out on the ice and burned, as were so many cottages during those early years after the national park took over,” Orsborn said.
Those days are long gone, said Seth DePasqual, a cultural resource manager for the National Park Service on Isle Royale.
“Back in the 1950s, that definitely happened, but these buildings weren’t historic at the time. Some of them were only 30, 40 years old and nor did we even have a National Historic Preservation Act, which would obligate us to kind of think about saving them in the first place at the time,” he said.
In 2019, the cabins within Tobin Harbor were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring a level of protection and preservation into the future.
Additionally, DePasqual said, the “vast majority” of historic structures and cabins throughout the park have been determined eligible for the registry, which also offers protection, though some of them may be too far gone.
“It takes planning efforts like this to determine which ones we're ultimately going to keep, which is pretty much all of them, or at least we’re trying to propose this in some of these wilderness locations,” DePasqual said. “But you know, we have to admit that maybe that one where the roof is collapsing, falling in, and the floor is all rotted out in the middle, well, maybe we’re going to have to let that one go, which is what some would call a compromise.”
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Management plan ongoing, but families want future on island
Just how the park will manage all of the structures has yet to be finalized.
For the past decade, the park has been trying to craft the cultural resource management plan, which would guide the preservation and management of cabins in wilderness and “proposed wilderness” — an area that will become wilderness when its current use is up. That is, when a cabin’s special-use permit holder dies.
More than 99% of Isle Royale National Park has been designated as wilderness, but in some ways, that wilderness is manufactured, made only after the park’s establishment. There have been generations of use by Indigenous people, mining and logging companies, resorts, fisheries and families and their cabins.
Writing in his 2010 historic context study “Cultural Resources on Isle Royale National Park: An Historic Context,” Philip Scarpino of Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis said wilderness can obscure that human history and create a “cultural myth.”
“Managing Isle Royale as an ‘actual’ wilderness not only denies or greatly diminishes the long and essential role of human history on the Island, but it also severs the intimate links between Lake Superior and Isle Royale; between water and land in shaping the meaning of that place over time,” Scarpino wrote.
Snell has grappled with that, too. He pointed out that there’s also thousands of years of Indigenous history that need to be told on the island.
“How do you balance all the layers of communities that have had a connection to this island over the years?” Snell said this August from the Tobin Harbor cottage his grandfather acquired in the 1930s. “My personal struggle is what is a fair thing to do that allows the community to connect to the island in a meaningful way in addition to all the various ways that people connect to the island: boating, camping, coming in by seaplane for a day or working out here?”
But DePasqual believes wilderness is fully compatible with telling the area’s human history and the laws have evolved to tell those stories since the days the park service burned down cabins when they were vacated.
Still, the families are urging their involvement in telling their story.
Carla Anderson, the president of the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association, a nonprofit that works to ensure their history and cabins remain part of the national park, has restored four cabins on Johnson Island that her family once used as a fishery. It’s under a special-use permit held by her aunt.
“I hope, in the end, we can form some sort of partnership with the park service, where we can continue to maintain these buildings, and have some sort of occupancy,” Anderson said.
DePasqual said the management plan will include the families.
“The park absolutely sees ways for these families to remain involved,” DePasqual said. “We have to explore ways to do continued historic preservation to these structures … we can’t just walk away from them. How can we involve the families, but also open access to these, which are public resources. All the money was exchanged back in the '30s … and so how does the public, who has been excluded from these buildings since the sale — the birth of the park — how do they participate in the upkeep management experience of these summer cottages?”
Others have suggested giving visitors the chance to rent out or stay in the cabins as an immersive history experience. But renting out buildings is not allowed in wilderness areas, DePasqual said.
Uses would have to be more "complementary" to wilderness, like the park's artist-in-residence program, which hosts artists in the Dassler cabin for two- to three-week stints, DePasqual said.
Grant Merritt, whose family has a cabin in Tobin Harbor, wants to go further. He wants a law to pass that would allow all the descendants of current special-use permit holders and families with volunteer-in-park permits continued use of the cabins.
He pointed to a 2004 law that allows more than 60 permittees in Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King Valley indefinite use of the historic family cabins.
“We have precedent to do that on Isle Royale,” he said.
He’s long lobbied for legislation that would allow for that, but hasn’t gotten anyone to introduce it. While he said he’s earned the support of past and present U.S. Senate and House members, it’s been on the condition that it also have the support of the House member that represents the district Isle Royale is a part of, something Merritt has not been able to secure.
DePasqual said the cultural resource management plan has taken longer than expected, having been set aside because of a park service-wide mandate halting wilderness decisions under the Trump administration.
“We got so far, but then the last administration completely, utterly shut down all wilderness decision making — stand down, do not not even talk about it,” he said.
So they focused on the structures that sit in the few areas that aren’t in wilderness or potential wilderness. Namely, the Edison Fishery near Rock Harbor Lighthouse, the Sivertson Fishery on Washington Island and the Johns Hotel on Barnum Island.
Those were purposely excluded from the wilderness areas on Isle Royale because they are examples of the island’s fishing, resort and mining histories that can serve as museums and interpretive sites, DePasqual said.
And the families that are connected to those places can have a role in telling those locations’ stories.
Johns Hotel future certain
Like many immigrants from Cornwall, England, Capt. John F. Johns arrived in the U.S. to mine.
He looked for copper on the eastern side of Isle Royale beginning in 1861 and worked for the various mines on the island, eventually moving to the island in 1877 and settling on what is now Barnum Island in 1883 (it was named Johns Island then) near the entrance to Washington Harbor on the island’s southwestern point nearest Minnesota.
There wasn’t a ton of copper to be found, so he operated a fishing business and resort, finishing the Johns Hotel in 1895 — a one-and-a-half-story log cabin. Later, the Johns sold the island to millionaire George Barnum, one of Duluth's first residents, who built his wealth as a grain merchant. He began a private resort on the island.
But the Johns family continued to use their hotel and island for their fishing operation and helping the Barnums.
Tom Johns, of Duluth, said his grandfather, Edgar, worked as a handyman for the Barnums and managed to keep the hotel in good enough condition to work as a family gathering space until his death on the island in 1958.
Eventually, the hotel deteriorated and the family spent more time at the nearby present-day Johns Island, where they had a life lease.
The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s, and then work on restoring the log structure began in earnest.
It was at about the same time the moose population on Isle Royale crashed because there were so many depleting the island’s limited food sources.
When the Johns family returned to the island one year to begin work on the hotel, they found moose had moved in.
“The moose used the hotel as a barn,” Johns said. “The doors were open at the time, they walked right in and they spent the winter in the Johns Hotel — and we didn’t even charge them. In 1996 and 1997, we cleaned out the hotel — it was a mess. All the logs had been rotting for years and the floors were sloping.”
For 25 years, the family would spend a few weeks every summer jacking up the cabin, replacing the floors and stabilizing the structure. At first, it was all funded by the Johns family. Then, in 2011, the park service stepped in.
They were awarded a grant to bring in a crew that specialized in log cabin restoration in 2011 and 2012 and, just as they were about to run out of logs, a blowdown toppled trees all over the island, giving them plenty of material to work with.
By next summer, the Johns expect to open the hotel to tours, a service they’ve been unofficially providing to curious boaters passing by.
Doing so helps teach visitors what early resort life was like on the island from the descendants of people that lived it.
“We’re attempting to try to keep the same history and family culture and preserve that for the park and for the future generations,” Johns said.
Johns, the fourth generation of Johns to spend time on the island, has long brought his daughter, Anastasia Johns, 30, also of Duluth, along to help. And, this summer, Anastasia introduced her now 17-month-old daughter, Adelaide, to the island.
“As the family, we’ve been able to preserve this small piece,” Anastasia said. “So I think there’s always going to be a familial investment that will hopefully keep it going — and prevent the moose from using it as hotels.
News Tribune digital content producer Samantha Erkkila and photographer Steve Kuchera contributed to this report.