Rock Island is fast becoming a favorite hiking destination. With Lake Michigan water levels continually falling, it is now possible to walk to Rock Island without getting your feet wet. At least that’s true on most days. In fact, the water levels are now reaching a point where it will soon be possible to walk to Rock Island from the northernmost spit of land rather than the larger southern spit.
A portion of what appears to be the bow of the Kate Williams. Photo by Melody Walsh
It was while walking this new route several weeks ago that I noticed some exposed lumber in the shallow water that still separates the two spits of land. It was hard to tell what the lumber was from, as it was still half buried in the sand beneath the water. The exposed wood was approximately 12 feet wide and 20 feet long.
Was it an old rudder, a part of a hull or just some waterlogged barn siding?
In discussing my “find” with Randy Holm, the ranger at Rock Island State Park, he expressed surprise that there was any wreckage in that area. He had been at that location in the past and not seen anything. He agreed to check it out and let me know what he thought it might be.
A couple of days later I saw Randy again, and he was excited about the find. As he described what he saw through the ice that had by then formed over the site, I understood that even more of the hull had been uncovered in the interval between our two visits.
Randy believes that the wood is a newly exposed portion of the hull of the wreck of the Kate Williams.
Second, smaller portion of the wreck located about 10 yards north of the bow section. Photo by Steve O’Connor
Pieces of its hull have previously been identified on the south side of the entrance to Jackson Harbor and on the southwestern point of Rock Island. Randy produced a file that Kirby Foss had received from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin back in the early 1990s. At that time, the society was documenting a portion of the stern of the Kate Williams near Rock Island.
The Kate was a 113-foot tug that had been built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1862. It met its end in October 1907 after having been impounded by a U.S. marshal for failure to pay back wages to its master. While anchored, the Kate Williams was caught in a storm out of the northwest and driven aground in Jackson Harbor.
According to the Door County Advocate, initial attempts to re-float the boat failed, and the Kate spent the winter of 1907–08 hard aground. A second attempt to free it was made the following spring. However, with the tug up on ways and progressing toward deeper water, another storm came up out of the northwest and blew the Kate off its tramway and smashed it on the rocks.
Its engine, propeller, shaft and new boiler were removed, and the Kate Williams was left to end its days lying on the southeast side of Jackson Harbor.
Drawing of the Kate Williams when it was a working boat. Wisconsin Historical Society Archives
I revisited the site of the new wreckage a few days ago. It appears that the shifting sand, currents and ice may be recovering old sections, uncovering new sections, or perhaps shifting portions of the wreckage around in the shallows that still exist between the spits of land.
What will we find in the spring? That depends on what poor Kate will have to endure in its 105th winter on Washington Island.