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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Local Histories, Pictures & Event Archives

article number 263
article date 08-22-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Rise and Fall of Rowleys Bay, Northeast Door County Wisconsin, 1800s
by Hjalmar Holand
   
Door County Northeast Shore, 2013.

From the 1934 book, Old Peninsula Days.

I am monarch of all I survey;
My right, there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute… William Cowper.

About a thousand miles from New York and apparently as far from a railroad, lies Rowleys Bay. It is the last little cove of Lake Michigan to the northward, dipping deep into a land of reeds and rushes, of mink and muskrat, of marsh-marigolds and fragrant balsams.

At the head of the bay is a sluggish lagoon, masquerading under the name of Mink River. Here the pickerel in June are reckless and the black bass bite with abandon. Aside from these annual piscatorial activities, Rowleys Bay is as quiet and secluded as the North Pole, as indolent as the sunrise of a June morning.

   

But the name of Rowleys Bay has not always been the synonym of peace and pickerel. There was a time when the commercial possibilities of Rowleys Bay were eagerly discussed from Chicago to Tacoma, and glowing lithographs eloquently describing financial investments at Rowleys Bay, possible and impossible, were scattered by the tens of thousands. But we are anticipating.

Away back in the early morning of Door County’s history there was a querulous old man by the name of Peter Rowley. He was one of that eccentric tribe of western pioneers who feel themselves crowded to suffocation if they have a neighbor within a day’s journey.

In 1836 he became oppressed by the imaginary congestion of the little frontier post at Fort Howard. He packed his possessions into a boat and fled northward past an uninhabited wilderness. Fifty miles away he came to Sturgeon Bay, as quiet and undisturbed as the morning after creation.

Here at the mouth of the bay, on the west side, where now stands Cabot’s Lodge, he pitched his tent, thinking he had left civilization behind forever.

But an evil fate pursued him. After a few years other eccentric pioneers followed his trail and settled in secluded coves not many miles away. On a clear day he could see the smoke from their cabin chimneys rise above the tree-tops of the distant horizon. This was intolerable. Once more he fled from congestion.

He followed the shore of Door County to its extreme northern point. Not a living soul of white men had settled north of him on the peninsula, and Peter Rowley grew hopeful. Then, as his boat was bobbing on the waves of Death’s Door passage, his keen old eyes discerned the boat of a lonesome fisherman who lived at Washington Harbor, fifteen miles away. Sadly he rounded the point into Lake Michigan.

   

Where should he go? To the south of him lay Chicago and the pioneer camps of Milwaukee and Sheboygan. Restless fellows would soon push up the shore. In that direction lay no hope of peace. To the north was the impertinent fisherman of Washington Harbor. Where should he go?

Then he discovered Rowleys Bay. He examined it carefully and believed he had discovered an oasis in the desert of civilization. Swamps to the north of him, swamps to the south of him, the great lake in front of him. Here surely was a spot where he might live and die in peace. Contentedly he reared his cabin on the shore and ate his venison and his fish.

In times of extreme need he made up a raft of logs from the timber on the government land around him. In this he was assisted by two women who lived with him. Whether they were his wives, sisters, or mothers-in-law is not known. As far as we know he lived and died contentedly, his name preserved to posterity as the discoverer of Rowleys Bay.

Strictly speaking, Rowleys Bay was not discovered by Peter Rowley. A few years before he began to fish in Mink River, some other white men camped there for several weeks and ate of its fish until they loathed the sight of it. The story of this adventure is as follows:

In 1834 northern Door County was surveyed by a man named John Brink and his assistants. At one time in the fall of that year he found that provisions were running low and a messenger by the name of James McCabe was dispatched to Hamilton Arndt’s trading post at Green Bay for supplies. Mounted on a trusty pony, named Polly, the messenger started off with instructions to join Brink and his men at a certain place near Death’s Door in three weeks.

The trip to the Indian trader’s was made without incident, but on his return, when not far from Death’s Door, he was taken prisoner by a band of Indians, who thought he was a deserter from the army. McCabe was about one hundred yards from the pack horse at the time, having stopped in a grove to camp over night. When the Indians seized him they did not know that he had a horse with him, and they would not, or rather could not, let him explain, as he did not understand their speech.

The Indians were sometimes called upon to assist the soldiers in running down deserters, and when they were of any assistance they were always supplied with a little whiskey for their services. With the prospect of getting some “fire-water” for the return of McCabe to the government fort, they watched him carefully. The more he remonstrated the more the Indians believed he was a deserter.

McCabe, therefore, not knowing whether the red men intended to burn him at the stake, was compelled to go with the Indians, while Folly, with the pack of provisions, was left grazing in the little grove.

   

“Those fool Injuns actually made McCabe carry a canoe five miles across the peninsula,” said Mr. Brink when telling the story, “and he was taken to Hamilton Arndt’s headquarters, where the Injun trader had some difficulty in making the varmints believe that McCabe was not a deserter from the army.

“All this time, we of course, were waiting for the packman at the place appointed, and were without anything to eat, having waited two days, and lived during that time on nothing but hope. Still no packman, and we had no firearms to kill game, even if any could have been found.

“At the expiration of two days you can imagine that we were pretty hungry. We concluded to get something to eat when the third day rolled around, and we moved on toward the lake and discovered a little creek running into it.

“As luck would have it the stream was full of fish, and we had no trouble in catching all the big fellows we wanted. There was one man in our party who was so hungry that he didn’t even wait to cook the fish. He just scraped off the scales and chewed the stuff up almost before the finny creature was dead.

“For just eleven days we lived on nothing but roasted fish. It was fish for breakfast, fish for dinner, and fish for supper, and you had better believe we were sick of fish before we got through with our experience. We had no salt or anything to flavor the stuff with. It was simply roast fish day after day. It sickened me of fish and I haven’t eaten any since. It kept life in us, however. When relief did come it came unexpectedly.

“The twelfth day, when we arose to begin the day with a fish breakfast, we heard the tinkling of a bell, and on the crest of a little hill we saw old Polly. As soon as she discovered us she came galloping up, neighing as if overjoyed to see us. She was so pleased to see us that she actually laughed. I could see her eyes blaze with delight, and as she rubbed her nose against my shoulder she appeared to be brimful of happiness.

“The pack containing the pork and beans and flour was still strapped to her hack, and you can bet all you have got that we had a good square meal that day. As far as we could learn, Polly had gone back to the place from where McCabe had started with her, and, not finding us there, had wandered around the country following our trail, and finally discovered us.

“The next day McCabe appeared, having been released as soon as the Indian trader explained matters to his captors. He expected to find a rather sickly looking lot of men, and if he didn’t find what he thought he would, he certainly did find a fishy crowd, for we were covered with scales and smelled like the inside of a whale.”

The history of Rowleys Bay for the next thirty or forty years is a blank as far as human interest is concerned. Gradually the lumber companies found their way thither. Camps were built where the men sat in their bunks and swapped stories of the woods. A pier was built, and huge cargoes of telegraph poles, ties, and cordwood were shipped. The work of destruction pursued the even tenor of its way.

   

In 1876, S. A. Rogers arrived from New York. He had a farm in Illinois which, through the medium of a real estate agent, he traded off for a vast acreage of land and water at Rowleys Bay. Unfortunately, the land and water were mixed together after a somewhat haphazard formula, constituting a 4000-acre tract of swamp land covered with a pretty good stand of cedar.

Being a man of energy, Mr. Rogers built a large sawmill which sometimes scaled a run of seven or eight million feet of lumber in a season. He built a commodious pier along which nearly always lay a vessel or two loading. He also built a store and other buildings for the accommodation of the growing business of the place.

All this business centered in the cedars which were large enough to cut. But there were millions of cedars too small even to make a fence post. Of what use were they? Much cogitation on this subject followed.

About 1885 a man was found who solved this puzzle. This was J. H. Mathews of Milwaukee, who understood the process of making cedar oil. He built a factory on the northeast side of Rowleys Bay, where he employed about twenty-five men. Cedar twigs were cut and placed in a tank or retort.

The dimensions of this retort were four by twenty-two by eight feet, the top being convex. The steam from this retort was taken up into a four-inch pipe and cooled and conducted through a succession of pipes of decreasing diameters placed zigzag fashion in a bed of a small creek fed by cold spring water.

After the steam had meandered through these cold pipes for a distance of about two hundred feet, it trickled into a receiving tank in the shape of limpid oil which sold at eight dollars per gallon. For two years the business was pushed and paid very well.

   

Mr. Mathews was a man of enterprise and ambition. He reasoned that if good money could be made out of waste timber products in such an inaccessible place as Rowleys Bay, much more could be made if the business was enlarged and established in a more central place.

Accordingly, he pulled up his cooling pipes and moved to Marshfield, Wis., where he undertook to make wood alcohol. He promptly failed in business, and with this his part in the history of Door County is finished.

About 1892 Mr. Rogers found an opportunity for trading off several hundred acres of his swampy estate for a farm in Missouri. Through another trade this tract of swamp land was transferred to a Mr. Ditlef C. Hanson, a thrifty little Dane of Tacoma, Washington. In the course of time Mr. Hanson came to inspect his purchase.

He found the land too low for farming, too high for fishing. The timber was all gone. It was too inaccessible for a frog preserve, and muck was drug on the market. What was it good for?

Mr. Hanson had one great ambition in life. He had heard of other men laying out a townsite, waxing rich by the sale of building lots, and famous by having the town named after them. He reasoned that since his Rowleys Bay possession was fit for nothing else, if it was not created in vain it must have been intended for a townsite.

True, it was wet, but Mr. Hanson, being a man of reading, recalled that a wet foundation was no barrier to the most shining successes in city building. Chicago was built in a marsh. Venice was built in a lagoon, and Shanghai was originally a frog pond.

   
Inlet and Lake Michigan south of Rowleys bay, 2013.

A townsite then it was to be, forever to immortalize its founder, Ditlef C. Hanson. He debated whether to call it “Ditlef’s Hope” or “Hansonburg,” but finally rejected both as lacking in euphony. Instead, he named it Tacoma Beach, which was both resonant and reminiscent of the city of his home.

This important point being settled, he immediately sought a printer.

Townsite lithographs are wonderful things. In 1836 a city was platted about where is now the present city of Kewaunee, and large fortunes were made and lost by means of an eloquent lithograph. A nomadic fur-trader had shortly before picked up something in the swamp at the mouth of Kewaunee River, which his imagination had transmuted into gold.

Rumor reached the ears of some enterprising promoters who proceeded to lay out a townsite. Not a settler at that time lived within thirty miles of the place, but that did not prevent the project from becoming a great transient success. A number of men of national fame became interested, among them being such men as John Jacob Astor, Governor Doty, Governor Beals, Judge Morgan L. Martin, Hon. Sanford E. Church, General Ruggles, Colonel Crocker and Salmon P. Chase, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

For a while there was much debate in the minds of great financiers whether to invest in Chicago or Kewaunee real estate. In April 1836, a forty-acre tract in the swamp was sold to Governor Doty for $15,000. Judge Martin had entered a tract of eighty acres in the swamp from the government. This he sold within a few days to his distinguished colleague, Chief Justice Chase, for $38,000.

   

These and other lands were subdivided into lots and on September 2, 1836, a grand auction was held in Chicago. There was a great rush for the lots, some selling as high as a thousand dollars, and the promoters reaped barrels of money.

For a while there was much slushing around in top boots in the Kewaunee swamp in search of gold. Nothing was found, the investors went sadly away, and the land reverted into an untaxed and unsettled wilderness for the next thirty years.

Our Ditley C. Hanson had no such rosy dreams of success. He did not know any governors or Supreme Court justices. But he did his best with the material in hand. He got out a stock of splendid lithographs. These showed a townsite plat more than a mile long with wide streets and curving avenues.

No such common names as Pike Street or Billings Avenue were here permitted. They were all sonorous Street names, reminiscent of the glory of the republic, such as Arlington Avenue, Columbia Street, Potomac Boulevard, etc. Along the shore a beautiful park was shown, enlivened by smart carriages and gay children dashing around on roller skates.

Some streets were marked with street car lines, and certain corners were marked as occupied by a public library, post- office, sanitarium, bank, or other institutions of importance.

Even sluggish old Mink River, as if taking new life by this activity, was pictured as a dashing stream, leaping over boulders and plunging at last into the lake by means of an inspiring waterfall. All in all it was the most imposing document ever published setting forth the charms of Door County.

Armed with these lithographs, Mr. Hanson returned to Tacoma and opened the campaign. He showed them to friends and foes, who were duly impressed and sometimes bought. He discovered, however, that the vastness of the American continent lying between Tacoma and Tacoma Beach deterred many who would otherwise have eagerly invested.

Because of this, and because, like Moses, he was slow of speech, though of great resource, he determined to go to Chicago and sell out. He went to Chicago where he met a man with a name something like Rosenstein. To him he sold his entire stock of lithographs, with the townsite thrown in.

   
2013 photo.

Mr. Rosenstein was enthusiastic about his purchase. He went out into the highways and byways of the city and explained the lithographs to all who would listen. He showed them how they could live happily at Tacoma Beach, or, if not, how they could die, secure in the faith that their money was well invested and that their widows would bless their memory. His arguments were irrefutable.

In due course of time many of these investors came to view the paradise of their purchase. Among them was a semi-invalid who came with a full equipment of paints, pots and brushes. He had taken the job of painting the cottages of the new city.

Some went as far as Sturgeon Bay, others went on to Fish Creek and Sister Bay, while still others persisted in pushing on to Rowleys Bay, before they were disillusioned. Alas, they each and all discovered that they had forgotten the most important part of their equipment for viewing the new city—top boots.

We will not linger over the gnashing of teeth or the bitter recriminations heaped upon old Rosenstein. The lots were sold and the lithographs used up, so he merely shrugged his shoulders and turned his thoughts to other things. So, also, after a while, did the dupes.

Their money was gone, so they wasted no more in paying taxes on their submerged lots on Lakeside Boulevard. It remained now merely for the long suffering county board to unravel the tangle. Finally the “streets” were vacated and the land sold for taxes. The affair cost the county about five thousand dollars.

After eight years’ flight in financial circles, Rowleys Bay returned once more to its undisturbed seclusion. In the parks of the new city the frogs croak by day and the crickets chirp by night. Even frisky old Mink River has ceased from its gambols, and settled into its sluggish solitude where the pickerel in June are reckless and the black bass bite with abandon.

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