Courtesy Isle Royale Ferry Line
by Donald Kilpela Sr.
I first sailed to Isle Royale in 1945 at age 15, aboard a small, elegant passenger ferry named the Copper Queen, owned and operated by Charles Kauppi of Copper Harbor, Michigan.
We intended to take a large family party to Isle Royale: my Dad, my two sisters and me (on vacation from Detroit), my uncles Jack and Bill Kilpela of the Keweenaw Peninsula and one or two of Jack’s kids.
We arrived at the Kauppi dock only to discover that Copper Queen was already filled to capacity. Speaking in Finnish, Kauppi’s native tongue, Uncle Jack pleaded with the fisherman-captain, whom he knew well, whom everyone seemed to know well.
Uncle Jack lived in Calumet, 35 miles south of Copper Harbor. Jack used every argument he could to get on that boat. He even tried, “We go to the same church.” (I later learned that Kauppi didn’t attend any church, which explains why that appeal failed.)
But Uncle Jack finally found Kauppi’s soft spot: “My brother drove 600 miles for this trip.”
Kind as he was, Kauppi relented and stuffed us aboard.
Since then I’ve made hundreds of trips between Copper Harbor and the island - 56 statute miles. I came to own the ferry service. But that first trip still stands out in my memory as one of the roughest trips I ever endured.
The passenger area of Copper Queen was low in the boat; they sat at a level half under water, and there were no seats in the cabin. The wind blew and the waves increased. It looked like it might be a long ride.
During the trip, Uncle Bill took me to the galley, forward and a few steps below the main cabin deck. He coaxed me into eating sandwiches and crackers to keep me from becoming seasick. It worked; I never felt ill. Later I discovered that I don’t have any propensity to seasickness, even during rough crossings as captain of the Isle Royale Queen II and Queen III.
After that overnight trip in 1945, I knew I would return to Isle Royale. But I waited for 23 years to take my own family there. My wife, Elizabeth, and I brought our children in 1968. We returned every year thereafter, until we bought the ferry that sailed from Copper Harbor, the Isle Royale Queen II, in 1971.
A lot had changed for the island.
The process of making Isle Royale a national park began in 1922 when several Michigan citizens promoted the idea. By March 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed legislation authorizing Isle Royale National Park, but it was officially established in 1940 by the signature of another president, Franklin Roosevelt.
Ferry service from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale began well before the island was fully established as a park. Charlie Kauppi started the first charter ferry in summer 1930; six boats have served since then. Kauppi, a commercial fisherman from Gay, brought his fishing boat, Water Lily, to Copper Harbor to run resort guests, campers and fishermen to the island.
There were several small but ruggedly beautiful lodges on Isle Royale at the time, but Kauppi faced the daunting task of establishing a new business in a remote town at the beginning of the Great Depression in a county that would soon reach 30 percent unemployment.
In short, Kauppi’s new business would be a normal man’s nightmare.
But Charlie Kauppi was not normal. Besides being a risk-taker, he was extraordinarily brave. Sailors have testified that he was one of the most courageous captains to sail Lake Superior, a man who would venture out on the open lake during treacherous storms to rescue a vessel in dire distress - often at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard Lifesaving Station in Eagle Harbor.
Kauppi was short and powerfully built. Taciturn in the way of Finns, he had a wonderful sense of humor. Halfway through a 6-1/2-hour crossing, he would go below to crank up the kerosene stove for his coffee. Before heading to the galley, he’d select a passenger, usually an elderly woman or man, to hold course while he got the coffee going. The results were always amusing, as the new wheelsman wove back and forth, leaving a long snaky wake behind the ferry.
Water Lily was not entirely suitable as a ferry. She was a converted gill-net fishing boat, 40 feet long with a wood hull. Kauppi operated her as a charter, though somewhat regularly. But Kauppi planned something new and better - a ferry to catch the eye and do the job.
Publicity surrounding the 1931 park authorization and efforts by The Detroit News and others to promote Isle Royale made business brisk for Kauppi. After sailing the cramped Water Lily for several years, he contracted with a local Keweenaw boatbuilder to fabricate the wood-hulled, 48-foot Copper Queen, a handsome yacht-like craft with a straight stem, a slightly rounded transom and a 48-passenger capacity.
But his charming Copper Queen, lacking watertight compartments below the waterline, could not be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard for a regular passenger schedule. Kauppi continued running charters, stopping at the lodge at Rock Harbor, at the lodges on Belle Isle and Tobin Harbor and at places with campgrounds. The price round trip to Isle Royale: $5; today, more than $100.
Kauppi wanted to run regular service. In 1938, he commissioned the 40-foot, wood-hull passenger Isle Royale Queen from Wiinikka Boat Works of Portage Entry. With watertight compartments, she was certified to operate a set schedule.