Most residents of and visitors to Superior, Wisconsin, consider Barker’s Island—located just off the Superior Bay shoreline on the eastern edge of the city—as the community’s recreational focal point. After all, it is the home of a marina, hotels and restaurants, public museums, the site of annual dragon boat races and pond hockey tournaments. Few of those who play on or around Barker’s Island know of its long and storied history, but the man-made atoll dates back to Superior’s boomtown days of the late nineteenth century and—so the story goes—was created out of spite.
Barker’s lsland’s origins begin with the Rivers and Harbors Improvement Act of 1892, which mandated uniform 20-foot deep, 300-foot wide channels for all ports on the Great Lakes. Though much private- and city-funded dredging had taken place in the Twin Ports prior to the act, Federal dollars for improvement to meet these new specifications didn’t begin flowing into the area in great amount until the summer of 1896, when the federal government began improvements of both the Superior entry and the Duluth Ship Canal. That same year Captain Charles S. Barker began his dredging operations in Superior.
Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1848, Captain Charles S. Barker was barely out of his teens when he began working for his father, who won the dredging contract for the improvement and enlargement of the Erie Canal. The younger Barker spent ten years working on the waterway.
Many retellings of Barker’s tale date his arrival in Superior to 1885. However the Inland Ocean News reported he first visited area on March 17, 1886, for the purpose of exploring business interests in Superior and Duluth. Barker was 37 years old and well established in his trade; he actually came to Superior at the behest of a group of business leaders in the community, including officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad and General John Hammond, owner of the Land and River Improvement Company. A key player in the city’s early establishment, Hammond was responsible for most of the development of West Superior. Recognized by local media as a man of great wealth when he first arrived, Barker increased his fortune through private, city and federal dredging contracts in the waters between Superior and Duluth.
The local news outlets first portrayed Captain Barker as a humble and hardworking man, more concerned with getting the job done than with any notoriety. Despite his purported wish to avoid infamy, the Captain was hard put to stay out of the news over matters of business, particularly those involving money.
In December 1891 Barker was indicted and charged for illegally dumping dredged material off of a scow into a government waterway in the St. Louis Bay. A few years later the Superior Times reported that one of Barker’s tug captains, R. B. Coburn, “was arrested on the charge of dumping scows within the dock line in the Superior harbor.” Coburn was found guilty and fined $250.
For most of 1892 and well into 1893, Captain Barker also found himself in dispute with the City of Superior over collection of over $95,000 in bonds issued for dredging he had provided. Barker prevailed, but the city took until 1894 to pay off the debt.
Other miscellaneous and trivial legal skirmishes involving Captain Barker pepper the region’s news periodicals throughout his time in Superior, but none was quite as sensational as the account of the 1891 attempt on the Captain’s life.
According to the Superior Daily Call of October 19, 1891, Thomas Stanford—the estranged husband of Barker’s mother-in-law—arrived at Barker’s home carrying a loaded pistol. Stanford demanded to see his wife, who was residing with her daughter and Captain Barker. Stanford had visited Barker’s office earlier in the day, but the Captain turned him away and warned him against bothering his wife and her mother.
The warning did not stop Stanford, who various accounts described as insane. At the Barker residence, he thrust the pistol into the Captain’s face and shouted, “Now I will get even with you for this afternoon.” He pulled trigger once, but the gun did not fire. The two men grappled and the trigger was tripped twice more, firing on empty chambers both times.
Stanford managed to escape, but was later apprehended and jailed. He was tried, found guilty of attempted murder, and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Prior to his release in July of 1892, Barker secured a warrant against Stanford on grounds that Stanford still meant to harm the captain. The Superior Leader reported, “The complaint alleges that on February 15, 1892, Stanford stated he would ‘fix Capt. Barker as soon as released from jail.’ Stanford will be arrested as soon as he is released.”
Most of Barker’s legal issues weren’t nearly as dramatic, such as his December 1892 lawsuit against the West Superior Lumber Company. Captain Barker filed suit against the lumber concern for non-payment of work completed. The lumber company claimed the dredging of two channels for which they’d contracted was not satisfactorily done. Captain Barker won the suit in the amount of $2,000.
Barker cashed in on the federal government’s 1890s improvements of the Superior Entry and the Duluth Ship Canal. In 1896 he was awarded a contract by the United States Army Corps of Engineers for the dredging of over 266 million cubic yards of material in continuation of the deepening and widening of existing channels and basins in Superior Bay, Allouez Bay, and St. Louis Bay, as well as entrances to the harbor and a new channel in the flats of the St. Louis River.
Local newspapers, including the Superior Call, Superior Leader and Inland Ocean News, regularly published brief reports of Captain Barker’s dredging activity and clearly indicate that tons of dredged material scraped from the lake bottom indeed created the small island in the Superior Bay. This new land mass was located directly in front of Fairlawn, the opulent 1889 Victorian estate of lumber baron and mining investor Martin Pattison, who had been elected Superior’s mayor three times.
Perhaps playing off Barker’s legal disputes with the West Superior Lumber Company, a legend began to grow about why Barker picked that particular spot to dump the dredgings. Barker, the story went, was upset with Pattison because the lumberman raised the price of wood whenever Barker needed lumber—so in retaliation Barker had his dredgers dump material in front of Pattison’s mansion to ruin the lumber baron’s view.
Some accounts of Barker’s life indicate that he and Pattison were friends. It is much more likely that Barker dumped dredgings where he did because it was a less expensive solution to moving the sand elsewhere by rail or boat. Barker had his own fleet of tugs and dredgers, but he despised rail and was quoted as saying that [rail] proved too costly to make dredging a worthwhile endeavor. An October 16, 1941, Superior Evening Telegram article debunking the legend agrees, stating that, “Had the sand not been conveniently dumped on the site, it would have had to have been carried out of the harbor by boats and dropped into Lake Superior.” But that would have taken time, manpower, and fuel that would cut into profits.
Captain Barker passed of an apparent heart attack, on May 21, 1901, before work on the Superior Entry was complete. His company holdings were eventually sold to Duluth’s Lake Superior Dredging Company, and the work continued. Within 15 years of Barker’s death, the land mass appeared on maps. A 1914–1915 Department of the U.S. Interior Topography Map of the area clearly shows an island with what appears to be a roadway connecting it to the mainland at the northwest end of the island, but the land mass is not named or otherwise identified, suggesting it was then of little significance.
As the years went on the island, often referred to as nothing more than the sand bar, provided a convenient place for swimming, fishing, boating and picnicking for Superior’s residents. As The legend of its creation grew, Superiorite’s began calling it “Barker’s Island.” Next month: The story of Barker’s Island as Superior’s “Summer Playground.”
Each month on Zenith City Online Judith Liebaert explores another facet of the history of Superior, Wisconsin. Catch up on all of her stories here, including part two of the saga of Barker’s Island.