Superior’s Barker’s Island, just off the eastern shoreline of Superior, is well-known today as a tourist attraction and recreation center. The island plays host to restaurants, a 420-dock marina, a luxury home community, a hotel and convention complex, and even a ship museum. Often considered the “jewel of the city” today, technically the isthmus is little more than a pile of dredged sand, the byproduct of five years of dredging by Charles S. Barker and his crew to improve the Superior Entry. It took more than a half century for Superior to recognize the island’s potential, and today it stands as an enduring legacy to Captain Barker.
By the early 1920s residents of Superior had co-opted Barker’s Island as a popular playground for picnicking, swimming, fishing and boating. But for several years the city dumped raw sewage into the bay, making swimming unsafe; the island soon became a far less pleasant destination. As the popularity and affordability of automobiles increased, travel to inland lakes became more convenient and Barker’s Island fell out of favor.
By 1941, with the exception of the occasional duck hunter and young boys who braved the polluted waters to swim or fish, the island sat abandoned. The viaduct and footbridge that once granted easy access from the mainland had been all but dismantled by vandals scavenging for firewood. Further, waves eroded the island, carrying the sand back to the bottom of the lake. That year the Superior Evening Telegram reported, “It’s only a matter of time now that Superior’s Coney Island will be completely inundated by the currents.”
But Barker’s man-made island was not about to sink into the bay, forever forgotten. In 1945 the Superior Chapter of the Audubon Society claimed the strip of land and designated it a bird sanctuary in order to protect the Piping Plover. Reasoning that the only rightful owners of the sand bar would be descendants of the early Ojibwe population who staked claims that extended into the water, the society was willing to take the chance that no one would ever make a legal claim on the land. They were wrong about the ownership—the property belonged to the Great Northern railroad—but guessed right that there would be no dispute over the property.
The society received donations of a variety of shrubs and trees that would provide food and nesting for waterfowl, and George A. Corine, general superintendent of Superior Water Light and Power, provided access to the island by boat. After completing the planting, the ladies of the society told the Telegram they were hopeful “children, and grown-ups too, will stay away from the island and help make a quiet and beautiful home for Superior birds.”
While discussion of developing the island as a recreational site began as early at the 1950s, the bird sanctuary was rarely threatened, as improvement plans were repeatedly moved to the back burner in favor of more pressing city projects. In 1954 dredging operations to maintain the channel once again resulted in depositing sand on the deteriorating island, filling in low spots and widening the existing sand bar about a block in width the entire length of the island.
In 1958 the city constructed a modern causeway to the island, which shaped its future (and likely reinforced the shoreline at the same time). While intended for use by city workers, the roadway provided easy public access to the island. For years afterwards the island became the launch site for the city’s Independence Day fireworks show, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the isthmus truly became a tourist and recreation destination.
That was the year the S.S. Meteor—a whaleback steamer built in Superior at Captain Alexander McDougall’s American Barge Company—returned to its original home port to be converted to a maritime museum. (You can read about the history of the Meteor here.)
The museum was an instant success, receiving thousands of visitors annually during its first several summers of operation. That success revived discussions of developing the island as a recreation site and tourist destination. The following year Duluth’s Harbor Excursion Co., which first operated tours of the Duluth-Superior Harbor aboard the vessels Flame and Flamingo beginning in 1959, expanded to Superior and built a dock, ticket office and boarding site on Barker’s Island. About the same time the company changed its name to the Vista Fleet.
In March of 1974 the question of who owned the island was finally cleared up when the Burlington Northern Railroad (formerly the Great Northern and now Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Inc.) transferred the property to the city of Superior—a gift with an estimated value of $600,000 at the time. Though preservationists would object to further development of the island, causing the state of Wisconsin to challenge the city in court, eventually jurisdiction over most of the island was granted to the city. As a compromise, fourteen acres of the south end was fenced off to remain as a bird sanctuary.
Development began with a boardwalk and about half a dozen small retail shops—both city-owned and leased—offering gifts, souvenirs and refreshments. Additional amenities added over the next several years included a pavilion, a park and play area, trails, a miniature golf course, a fine dining restaurant, a boat launch and a beach and swimming area. The city next erected a ten-foot bronze statue, William Frost’s Seaman’s Memorial, on the north end of the island. The statue commemorates the 29 men who lost their lives when the Edmund Fitgerald sank on November 11, 1975.
In 1977 Superior voters overwhelmingly approved the construction of a marina and hotel on the island. The city received a $3.7 million federal grant for marina construction, and in 1980 the Barker’s Island Marina, opened for business. Two years later the Radisson Inn & Yacht Club—now the Barker’s island Inn & Conference Center—was complete. The island became a hub of activity and the site of numerous community events.
In the late 1980s, after determining that no Piping Plovers had been seen on Barker’s Island since 1960, the State released the bird sanctuary to the city, freeing up those 14 acres for development. That same year Jack Culley—owner of Sailboats, Inc., which operates the marina—and two partners formed the he Barker’s Island Development Corp and purchased 10 of those reclaimed acres. Culley moved into the island’s first home, and the company eventually built 20 townhouses and seven single-family houses.
By 2000 talk began for plans to renovate the north end of the island to better compliment the south end’s upscale housing community, including replacing the deteriorating boardwalk and wharf shops. In a series of open meetings, the city arrived at an ambitious plan. The estimated $1.2 million idea included construction of a new and expanded retail space with boardwalk and lighting, a charter fishing dock, redesigned public parking, a playground, a perennial garden and a festival park with a band shelter, trails, a boat launch and swimming beach complete with restroom facilities.
The city received nearly $1 million in federal funding and other grants toward the project. Demolition of the existing boardwalk and shops began late in 2004. That same year, Vista Harbor Cruises invested $3 million in improvements to their dock and boarding area to accommodate the mooring of a ship. They added a modern, twin-peaked building to accommodate ticket sales and a gift shop, leasing additional space to Deco Bay Bike and Kayak, Cheese to Please, and Kanine Krunchies.
Unfortunately, the development on the island’s north end coincided with a national recession. The Boathouse restaurant closed it doors in April 2009; that the same year Vista Fleet shut down their Superior operations, citing a decrease in boarding and activity. Today the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research and Reserve facility and laboratory occupies the former restaurant and Vista Fleet building.
Where retail failed, new housing continues to succeed. The Barker’s Island Development Corp. purchased the former bird sanctuary’s remaining four acres in 2010, planning to build six to 12 homes, some of which are currently under construction.
Captain Barker’s Island remains an important resource and recreational site in the Superior community, with the largest full-service marina on the Great Lakes attracting boaters from hundreds of miles around the Twin Ports, including a large contingency from the Twin Cities. The island also continues to hosts the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, the Great Lakes Pond Hockey Classic, the Barker’s Island Farmer’s Market, concerts by Bayside Sounds, and many other events.
Each month on Zenith City Online Judith Liebaert tracks down a piece of the history of Superior, Wisconsin. You can read the first part of this story here. And catch up with Judith’s previous stories here.