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The Vernacular Watercraft of Isle Royale: A Western Lake Superior Boatbuilding Tradition

Hawk Tolson
Thesis: August 1992
Nautical Archaeology Program

The fishing and resort communities that arose on the archipelago of Isle Royale, Michigan required small watercraft to meet their needs for transportation, cargo hauling, and commercial fishing. Those that ultimately developed were the result of a complex interaction of cultural and environmental factors, and were produced by both master craftsmen and amateur builders. These boatwrights worked primarily from mental templates as opposed to written lines and plans. The collapse of the American Lake Superior fishing industry, the transition of Isle Royale to a national park, and the lack of young apprentices to carry on the boatbuilding trade have combined to reduce this once-large fleet to a few scattered remnants. Most of these have been abandoned on and around Isle Royale, and their hulls represent the only record of the design and building process operating in the region from the 1880s to the 1960s. Archaeological field methods are a means by which these designs can be preserved, and the collection or oral history interviews with surviving boatbuilders and commercial fishermen assists in the interpretation of details of evolution and use that would otherwise remain obscure.

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