No account of Chequamegon Bay ferry boat history would be complete without discussing winter crossings. Although Lake Superior rarely freezes over entirely, Chequamegon Bay generally does, at least between the mainland and closest of the Apostle Islands. The annual “freeze-up” and “break-up” of ice have long been significant events for area residents, because of their impact on the way of life.
Freeze-up marks the changeover from lake transportation by boats to various means of travel over ice. The original and unusual have long characterized the methods employed by Chequamegon Bay residents to cross the ice. Long winters and the challenges of ice and snow, have, and continue to lead to experiments in transportation and travel. For instance, it was on a day in March of 1871, when Jim Brown traveled all the way from the Sioux River to Bayfield on a hand sled, with a double blanket for a sail and a stiff breeze from the south. And an ice boat owned by some La Pointe residents was said to come over and back to the island like a “red hot locomotive.”
A century ago, there was often no choice but to walk across the ice. Father John Chebul tried it in 1871, and almost didn’t make it, as reported in the newspaper:
On Monday last, Rev. Father Chebul started from La Pointe to fulfill his engagement to lecture before the Lyceum of [Bayfield], but owing to the high wind, drifting snow and his near-sightedness, lost his way on the ice and wandered about for some hours up and down the harbor, at one time returning to La Pointe while thinking he was traveling in this direction. He at last reached this shore, below Vaughn’s mill, some distance from the proper road leading from La Pointe to this place. Had the weather been very cold we think Father Chebul would have suffered severely.
Sometimes people didn’t make it. In February of 1858, a man was found frozen to death on the ice between Bayfield and La Pointe. His six year-old son was with him, wrapped in blankets on a handsled and suffering from frostbite. The incident was blamed on “Sunday rum selling and drinking.”
Mail had to be delivered to the island come rain or shine, and was a factor in the establishment of year ’round commercial transportation to the island. Mail was generally carried by dog sled in winter, and by boat in summer. But the intervals between seasons were often eventful. In January, 1891, the mail carrier crossed over by boat on a Monday. The lake froze over so quickly, that by the next day people were crossing on foot. And in 1896, the mail carrier had quite an exciting experience. He started from Bayfield in a boat Sunday morning and when about a mile from La Pointe the opening in the ice closed up on him. He got the boat onto the ice and dragged it ashore, arriving back home late Sunday evening.
Ice conditions contributed to one of the area’s major lake disasters of the 20th century. In April, 1915, five men from La Pointe took a small rowboat over to Bayfield to transact business and purchase supplies. They were Charles Russell, Captain Angus, William Johnson, Chauncey Wright and Nels Teigen. At three o’clock in the afternoon, they headed back to Madeline Island, with six hundred pounds of mail and provisions. Though the bay had been practically clear of ice when they had come over in the morning, shifting winds had blown it back to almost completely cover the channel. However, the men made their way through the ice field until they reached a clear area about ten minutes out from La Pointe. Suddenly, Charles Russell was struck by a heart spasm, and his shift of weight caused the heavily-loaded boat to take on water. Realizing their only chance to save the boat, the men quickly over-turned it completely, so that it would remain afloat.
The icy water revived Charles Russell, and he joined the other four men clinging to the hull of the boat. The group finally succeeded in attracting attention on shore, but rescuers had great difficulty maneuvering through the ice field. By the time they reached the stranded boaters three and a half hours later, Russell, Teigen and Wright had slipped to their deaths in the cold waters. Miraculously, Angus manned the oars of the rescue vessel and rowed the boat into La Pointe. The accident was a tremendous tragedy for the small island community.
Dog teams were a practical and popular means of crossing over the lake. While area sled dogs were renowned for their abilities, and most trips went without incident, there were exceptions. The Bayfield newspaper reported one such trip in 1883:
Nelson Cadrant, of La Pointe, visited this village Tuesday with his dog team and before leaving for home took on board a liberal supply of the beverage that causeth one’s heels to fly upwards and his tongue to take on thickness. In this condition he left for Nome in the afternoon in the face of the blinding storm, and nothing further was heard from him until the following afternoon, when he was picked up near Houghton Point by the stage on the way from Ashland to this place. Whiskey had so confused his brain that he had lost his bearing and wandered about all night, and when found was completely exhausted and would soon have been where whiskey would not have saved his bacon.
The account of Father Chebul losing his way on the ice in 1871, is probably the earliest reference to the winter “ice road” between La Pointe and Bayfield. Indeed, weather did not slow the traffic between the two towns as recounted in the Bayfield Press:
January, 1872: The travel on the ice between [Bayfield] and La Pointe is quite extensive. Men and teams can be seen at all hours of the day passing to and from this place.
Horse teams commonly traveled all the way from Ashland to Bayfield on the ice. Ice roads existed between most Chequamegon Bay communities and this led to a truly unique concept in drinking houses in the winter of 1898. A saloon was established on the ice road in the middle of bay, about half way between Ashland and Washburn. Since it was situated beyond harbor boundaries, the enterprising owners could avoid paying a $500 city license fee.
In the 20th-century, the ice road has been plowed and maintained as a winter road; making it possible to drive a car across the lake to Madeline Island. The road is a seasonal extension of County Highway “H.”
In the 1940’s, some wild, new, motorized contraptions began crossing the ice. Called “windsleds,” they were combinations of airplane and boat parts. Both Harry Nelson and the Russell brothers of La Pointe pioneered these inventions, that were capable of safely crossing thin or dangerous ice.
Today, the windsled operated by Arnie Nelson, provides scheduled, winter ferry service. “Reading” the condition of the ice is an art in itself, and Nelson, like many La Pointe residents before him, is gifted in this unique skill. The windsled is operated twenty days per year, on average. When the ice is safe, a van makes scheduled runs between Bayfield and La Pointe.
While these unusual methods of winter transportation on Chequamegon Bay are intriguing to the outside world, they are part of everyday life for local residents, and part of the on-going history of ferry service on Chequamegon Bay.
NEXT: Today’s Ferry