The Chequamegon Bay region, in the northernmost tip of Wisconsin, is a place of surpassing natural beauty. It is also a place “where history is ever present.”
Traces of the region’s rich past are as evident as the craftsmanship in Bayfield’s enduring hillside mansions or in the names of the city’s founding figures still visible in the sandstone blocks on historic downtown buildings. But beyond such incidental evidence there are a number of places dedicated to the important work of preserving stories of the past.
With the past ever-present in every building and along every inch of breathtaking shoreline, Chequamegon Bay Region visitors can easily find a little historic guidance at the history sites I detail in my new Wisconsin Historical Society Press book “This Superior Place: Stories of Bayfield and the Apostle Islands.”
The following are Seven Superior Sites I think visitors seeking the area’s history should visit:
The Bayfield Heritage Association, 30 N Broad St., would be the envy of communities many times the size of the little city it serves. The building includes both a museum with changing exhibits on area life and history—a major new exhibit in 2013 will highlight the onetime fishing families of Sand Island—along with a new research and educational facility named for influential founding father R.D. Pike. The museum offers informational programs, summer history lectures, tours and seminars and should be any curious visitor’s first stop.
The Bayfield Maritime Museum, on the waterfront at 131 S. Broad St., shares stories and artifacts about Lake Superior commercial fishing, lighthouses, boats, ships and the hardy people who made, and sometimes still make, livings from this inland sea. Come ring a ship’s bell, sound a hand-cranked foghorn and turn the wheel from a historic pilothouse. Access to both Bayfield museums is free.
The Madeline Island Museum, operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, is located a short walk from the ferry land in La Pointe and offers a thorough and entertaining look at early island history and development. The museum was created from four historic structures, including the last remaining building from the American Fur Company site that dates to 1835. The museum’s many artifacts range from Native American and early fur trade and missionary days to later activities such as commercial fishing and the arrival of summer fun seekers. A welcoming video gives a nice overview of local history in song and story. The season runs from late May to mid-October.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitor Center, located in Bayfield’s original courthouse building on Washington Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, is the starting place to learn more about the islands and park activities. The visitor center offers audiovisual programs and exhibits about park history, natural history and recreation opportunities.
The park also operates the Little Sand Bay Visitor Center, 13 miles north of Bayfield on Lake Superior. Open from mid-June through late September, the Sand Bay center offers films and exhibits about the park as well as tours of the Hokenson Brothers fish camp. Another visitor center is operated at Stockton Island, accessible by boat only.
For a peek at the rugged life of a lighthouse keeper, the beautifully restored Raspberry Island Lighthouse offers ranger-guided tours from mid-June through mid-September. Visitors can reach the island via daily shuttles operated by Apostle Islands Cruises. Reach Raspberry Island on a stormy day and appreciate the thin line between solitude and loneliness. Volunteer lighthouse keepers offer similar access at lighthouses on Devils, Michigan and Sand Islands.
In Ashland, the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center at Highways 13 and 2 features exhibits on regional history, culture and resources. The facility, free and open to the public, also offers interpretive trails, a five-story observation tower and boardwalk. Programs on specific topics are offered throughout the year.
Dennis McCann has spent most of his professional life traveling Wisconsin and the Midwest as a writer for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A Wisconsin native and graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is the author of four previous Wisconsin travel and history books. Dennis McCann’s book “This Superior Place: Stories of Bayfield and the Apostle Islands” journeys through the history and scenery of Wisconsin’s Chequamegon Bay region, from its majestic mansions through its fur trading roots and to its long fishing traditions. Dennis and his wife reside in Bayfield where “nearly every day begins with a superior sunrise.”