As an authorized concessioner for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Apostle Islands Cruises offers narrated boat tours of the gorgeous archipelago, which is surrounded by cool, majestic Lake Superior. Discover fascinating history on an Apostle Islands tour.

Apostle Islands Tour History: Devils Island Lighthouse from cruise

Twenty-one islands with breathtaking beaches, stunning historical lighthouses, vast wildlife, sandstone formations and sea caves are just some of the many wonders of the Apostle Islands. Although first declared a national lakeshore in 1970, the centuries of stories began much earlier.

Operating out of Bayfield, Wisconsin, Apostle Islands Cruises’ 2 ½ to 3 ¼ -hour scenic Grand Tour shows passengers the best parts of the park while featuring these historical landmarks:

1. Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Did you know that the Apostle Islands are home to the highest concentration of lighthouses in North America? Since the mid-1800s, the navigational beacons have guided boats around the islands. 

Apostle Islands Tour History: Raspberry Island Lighthouse pc Pete Markham
An Apostle Islands Cruises tour in Fall 2012 passes Raspberry Island Lighthouse. Photo by Pete Markham.

Considered the “showplace of the Apostle Islands,” the Raspberry Island Lighthouse was first built in 1862 and was rebuilt in the early 1900s to make room for the lightkeepers and their families. It is the most readily accessible of the Apostle Islands stations. During the summer season, rangers conduct tours of the historic tower.

2. Brownstone Quarries on Hermit Island

Apostle Islands Tour History: Historic image of Cedar Bark Lodge
Historic Image of Cedar Bark Lodge on Hermit Island. PC: National Park Service

Of course, Hermit Island is called “Hermit” for a reason. It dates back to a literal street fight between a local tyrant “King” John Bell and an employee of the American Fur Company, William Wilson. The loser? Exiled to live a solitary life on the island in the 1850s — only to later die in mysterious circumstances.

While one legacy might be an unhappy ghost, Hermit Island is also known for its brownstone quarries. In the 1890s, a man named Frederick Prentice opened the Excelsior Quarry on the island. He actually built a beautiful three-story house called the Cedar Bark Cottage. Though the cottage is no longer there, several blocks of stone cut from the quarry still rest along the shore.

3. Layers of History & Sea Caves: Devils Island

Despite the Apostles have countless lighthouses scattered along the lakeshore, people most commonly visit the area to explore the famous sea caves.

Apostle Islands Tour History: Sea Caves

As shown above, nature has carved delicate arches, vaulted chambers, and honeycombed passageways into cliffs on the north shore of Devils Island for millions of years. While onboard a tour, you’ll discover how the caves were artfully crafted.

Apostle Islands Tour History: Devils Island

The national lakeshore also illustrates the fascinating story of how North American nearly tore itself apart to form a new ocean. Instead, an 1,800-mile-long scar along created the gargantuan Lake Superior. The rift’s creation left behind minerals that cause the vibrant, multicolored layers of Devils Island.

4. Manitou Island Fishing Camp

Apostle Islands Tour History: Manitou Island Fishing Camp

The Manitou Island Fishing Camp, as it looks today, took shape in the 1930s. In 1938, Hjalmer “Governor” Olson and his brother Ted purchased the land and its then existing structures for $600 from a land company. “They sought a place with stable, thick ice for winter fishing. For the next three decades, this ramshackle camp became a favorite destination for fishermen,” according to the National Park Service.

Apostle Islands Tour History
PC: The National Park Service

“Governor Olson sold the camp in 1964 but retained use of the site until 1983. During this period the Governor’s friends continued to visit, fish, and party at the camp. By then it was more of a hangout than a frontier refuge. In 1983, the National Park Service began restoring the camp to recapture the 1930s appearance.”

5. Devils Island Lighthouse

Devils Island Lighthouse

First lit in 1891, the Devils Island Lighthouse eventually became the last manned station in the Apostle Islands. The lighthouse was automated in 1978, marking the end of over a century of lightkeepers tending lights in the Apostle Islands. You’ll want to make sure you brought your camera for this one.


Bonus: Basswood Island Quarry

Basswood Island Quarry shoreline in Apostle Islands. Chunks of cut rock can be seen.

Northern Wisconsin’s brownstone business got its start in 1868 with the development of the Basswood Island Quarry. Even though there was just a brief period of intensive quarrying — less than thirty years — Lake Superior brownstone managed to establish itself as a robust and exceptionally beautiful building material. Many gorgeous Wisconsin buildings were created with the brownstone excavated from this very island.


Planning for the The Grand Tour

A woman is taking a photo of Devils Island and its lighthouse from the top deck of an Apostle Islands Cruise.
For the best Apostle Islands photos, take a Grand Tour.

While the Apostle Islands are Wisconsin’s “Crown Jewels”, they could certainly also be considered a national gem! We highly recommend reserving your seats in advance to avoid missing out on the journey. Be sure to pack layers, as its always cooler on Lake Superior’s water. There are bathrooms available for use on the boat and beverages available for purchase. Learn how to spend a perfect weekend in Bayfield, WI, where Apostle Islands Cruises’ dock is located and come visit us soon!