Johns Cottage

Washington Harbor

Johns Residence, Hakala, 1953: [NVIC: 50-492], ISRO Archives.


he Johns Cabin conveys the vital role of fishing in Isle Royale's economy during the late 19th century and early 20th century, as well as the transition to recreation during the 1930s. Captain John F. Johns was a fisherman and entrepreneur who opened Isle Royale's first rustic resort on Barnum Island in 1892. Beginning in 1885, he also operated a fishery located on Washington Island southwest of Isle Royale, and employed several other men (Karamanski 1988, 158). Johns acquired nearby Johns Island and constructed a cabin circa 1888 for use as an intermittent dwelling and storage facility. The cabin was inhabited by the Johns family sporadically but was also used by Captain Johns' employees up until the 1930s. Fishermen stored boats in the cabin during the winters, facilitated by a six-foot removable panel cut from the south wall. As the fishing industry contracted in the 1930s, the cabin evolved into more of a private resort camp for the Johns family, even as they continued small-scale fishing operations into the 1950s. In return for the current Johns Island, Edgar R. Johns, Elizabeth Grace Johns, and Robert E. Johns were granted a life lease in 1940.

Originally situated closer towards the bay, the small cottage was relocated 20 to 40 meters inland in an attempt by the Johns to gain more land. The usual practice of the National Park Service to draw a north south line at a distance of thirty feet from the back of the structure was known to Edgar Johns. He would have any land from that line towards the cabin to the waters edge east. Mr. Johns rounded up a small group of individuals one afternoon to push and roll the cottage back to its present location. The Johns family successfully gained a few extra feet of land. Edgar R. Johns last visited Isle Royale in the summer of 1958.

On March 24, 1978, Robert Johns wrote to Park Superintendent John Morehead requesting permission to both enlarge and repair the existing cabin. Morehead wrote to Mr. Johns on April 17, 1978, approving his request. The Johns hauled construction materials in from Duluth for the project. Captain Roy Oberg assisted the Johns by transporting these materials from Grand Portage to Johns Island aboard the Voyager II. Oberg reportedly nudged the bow right up on the beach of Johns Island, keeping the stern out in deep water. The Johns ran two 2x4's down onto the dock and began off-loading boards as fast as they could. Tom Johns said that Oberg left the pilot house to watch and a short time later one of the props nicked a rock. Oberg returned to the pilot house warning the men that he was pulling out. The Johns then began throwing the rest of the lumber right into the water and managed to jump off the boat just as the bow cleared the dock.

Much to the displeasure of Superintendent Morehead, the Johns built an entirely new 10' x 15' structure a short distance north of the existing cottage. Morehead reminded Johns the new structure was in direct violation of Section D of the lease agreement, which states: "No new structure of any addition or alteration or improvement of any kind shall be erected or made on the premises hereby leased with the prior approval of the Secretary in writing." Further, Section F states: "Upon breach of any provision of this lease by the lessee or failure upon the lessee's part to conform to the laws of the United States or any rule or regulation regarding the Park whether now in force or hereafter enacted or provided, the Secretary may declare this lease void and re-enter the said premises, his decision in the matter to be final." Ultimately the lease agreement was upheld.

The adjacent "addition" cabin still stands immediately north of the historic cabin, and the buildings are joined by two plywood walls. The cabin's integrity and historic appearance was slightly impacted by the construction of the adjoining one-room cabin. Overall, Johns Cabin retains a high enough degree of integrity to convey its historic use both as part of a fishery and private resort camp. This is further enhanced by the Johns family's continued traditional use of the property and maintenance of the vernacular character.

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Help Tell The Story

Are you related to this family? Would you be willing to share stories or photos associated with related events? If so, we would love to hear from you! Please contact the Cultural Resource Manager at Isle Royale National Park. Or write to:

Isle Royale National Park
800 East Lakeshore Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1896


  1. National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Inventory. 2010. Johns Cottage. Park Historic Architecture and Cultural Landscapes Program, U.S. National Park Service.

  2. Newland, Dave. 2003. Executive Summary of the Johns Life Lease. Isle Royale National Park. Houghton, MI.