Our Mission is: "To continue the over 100-year presence of family heritage, culture and rich human tradition on Isle Royale; to assure the preservation of historic family dwellings; to enhance the experience of NPS staff and Park visitors by serving as authentic links to Isle Royale's rich human history."

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Pre-Summer 2006 UPDATE


I have been advised that part of the paper has been torn off of the Big Boat House, but the new crib held! . The "professionals" are coming back, lead by the indefatigable Scott Mershon, his partner Ely "Skip" Salyards, Peter Salyards, and Chris Edwardson. My son  Matthew , me and one other new partner in the boathouse project will start on July 20th. Our objectives are to remove and replace the two cribs on the south east corner. I will update our progress this fall.

David C. Barnum

Big Boat House Restoration Project
written 11/11/2005
by David C. Barnum

As the Voyageur II nudges between Barnum Island and Washington Island for its weekly visit a large drive in boat house looms in the distance on Barnum Island. It is an icon in this remote harbor, and it is the building  that as a small boy I spent many glorious hours enjoying. One of the first things I did when our family arrived at Isle Royale was to go to what we all called the "big" boathouse. It was large and mysterious, but not scary to me. Until 1971 the Scout, my great grandfathers fishing boat, was situated over the water resting on logs, having been  hoisted out of the water many years prior. The Scout was well secured so I was able to climb all over the boat and inspect it from bow to stern. My brother Steve and I could spend a lot of time just hanging out on the old boat. One year it was gone. In 1971 my dad, George G. Barnum I, sold it to Westy Farmer of Rock Harbor. It was sad to not have the old Scout where it had rested in the big boat house for so many years, but I learned that even on Isle Royale things change.

The big boat house was built around 1910 for my great grand father. It was built out of cedar logs, probably harvested somewhere on Isle Royale. The logs were sawed in half length wise. My grand father once commented that sawing those logs was one of the worst jobs he ever had and quit after one days work. Undoubtedly, one of the primary architects of building it was Edgar Johns, who's family first settled on Barnum Island in the late 1800's. The building is over 40' long, 25 wide and perhaps 30' in height. Drive in boathouses  aren't seen much, on Lake Superior anymore. I only know of  5 others that were on Isle Royale. Our small boathouse that is still standing, the Andrews boat house once located on Barnum Island just east of our place, the Johns family "Warehouse" that had a small slip, one in Crystal Cove and the Savage boathouse. Our two drive in boathouses are all that now left standing. The others can be mostly be viewed at the bottom of the lake.

In about 1980 Enar Strom made extensive repairs to the big boat house. He spent most of the summer working on the shore side or north side of the boat house straightening the wall and shoring up the support of the building. Around that time the roof was re-papered. The south side of the building, where the lake side cribs are located was given little attention at the time. Over the years the ice has moved some of those main cribs to a degree that we all wondered whether the old building would with stand another winter. The crib in the worst shape was located on the SW corner of the building. There were in fact two cribs, one inside and one outside. The challenge in a short season, without the aid of modern equipment, and few ready resources was how to lift the boat house, pull the old crib out and install a new crib. This would be job way beyond my limited capabilities. After years of searching for someone willing to come out to the island, I came across Scott Mershon and Ely Salyards of Duluth. They are engaged primarily in remodeling, but had built a number docks using crib systems on Sunshine Lake. In the summer of 2004 they agreed to come out to the island in order to inspect the building. It was determined that the cribs on the SW corner could be replaced. After getting permission from NPS, we spent the winter planning and contemplating the project. It was agreed that we would need at least two more "professionals" to help, and Ely's brother Peter and his partner Chris Edwardson agreed to join the project. A final planning session took place in Duluth with Enar Strom joining in to advise the group as to what materials and tools would be available on the island.

On July 15th 2005 Scott Mershon, Ely and Peter Salyards, and Chris Edwardson arrived in Grand Portage where I met them on the Halcyon IV. We had chartered the Voyageur II for the 2000 pounds of equipment to be hauled over. Along with myself, I was joined by my son Matt and our friend Mark Sedzik from Poland. There would be 7 of us working shoulder to shoulder on the project. We agreed on working for 10 days at the most. I didn't figure I could afford the "professionals" for any longer, in spite of a generous discount on their normal hourly rate of pay. Matt and Mark came free.

The first order of business after we got settled on Barnum Island was to analyze and make the final plan on how to proceed. It's one thing to discuss plans over the phone, it's another thing to actually get started. But by the end of the day we slowly started to move forward. It was agreed that 4 temporary cribs would be built to support the building. We used materials that had been stock piled by the Johns family for their restoration project on the old hotel on Barnum Island. They gave us permission to "borrow" timbers that they had brought up from Windigo two summer before. These timbers had come from the old Windigo dock that had been recently replaced. They were 4" by 12", and cut to a 4 foot length. We hauled, perhaps, a hundred of the pieces from the east end of the island to the boat house. We also were able to secure 4 of the timbers that were 25' in length.  Once this was down the professionals set about building the temporary cribs. Mark, Matt and I were given the task of securing as many 12' logs as we could find, which turned out to be about 10. We took only trees that had already fallen, which are always in plentiful supply. We cut them then hauled them down to the dock where we stripped all the bark off of them. These logs would later be used to build the permanent crib. Having completed the building of the temporary cribs they were floated out, 2 inside the boat house and two outside the boat house, and we filled them with rocks.  The 25' timbers were screwed together in two pieces to make them wider in order to be better able to support the building. The boat house was lifted on jacks and the 25' timbers were connected between the inside and outside  temporary cribs.

Having now completed this critical portion of the job, the professional set about building the permanent crib. This crib would replace two smaller cribs, as it was decided that the ice had been leveraging off of the two cribs over the years and one larger crib be an improvement to the design. While the was done, Matt, Mark and I were tasked with removing the rocks from the old cribs and pulling them out, salvaging what ever logs were still good and cutting up the rest. Once built, the permanent crib was floated over to be installed. Naturally it didn't just slide in. After further jacking of the building to the point that nobody wanted to jack even a fraction of an inch for fear of the whole building collapsing it was decided that the only way to get the new crib in would to to dig a trench under water. All told, it took about 3 more hours to dig our trenches and finally the crib slide in. Rocks were placed in the new crib, and finally the building was secured to it by removing the 25' timbers from the temporary cribs. Those cribs were taken apart and all those materials were carefully returned back to old hotel for use by the Johns family in their restoration project. The inside of the boat house put back together and we declared this first phase of the boathouse repairs were complete. Although this work was hard, and done during some of the hottest weather that could be remembered (one day got up to 92) we all agreed that it was some of the most satisfying work that we had ever been involved in.

This entire project took 8 days. We all worked from about 7:30am until 6pm every day, no days off. The final cost of labor and materials was over $11,000 all contributed by myself, my brother Steve and sister Mary. We have 4 more cribs to replace before the project is completed. This is a highly questionable "investment". But I hope to keep going. I believe this building and the other few remaining original buildings on Isle Royale, mostly dating back to turn of the century, should be preserved as long as possible. Considering the priorities of the park, it is highly doubtful they will ever try to preserve many of them, and they will eventually "molder" into the lake or the ground unless caring people get involved. I believe the best people to maintain these buildings are the ancestors of the ones that actually built them in the first place. We are already starting to plan phase 2 for the summer of 06. It'll be a lot work and a fair amount of money, but as I said, I can't think of anything more satisfying than preserving the big boathouse, which as served the Barnums for nearly 100 years and gave me such joy as a youngster.


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Last modified: June 28, 2007