Door County Compass
emagazine covering Door Co
Find A Grave
listing of the county's cemetery and partial burials
The Political Graveyard
where politicians are known to have been buried 
Government statistics
agriculture, population, demographics, and more
Rootsweb's Door County Resources
genealogy sites and stats
The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871
the worst forest fire in North American history
Cyndi's List
genealogy sites on the internet covering Door county
The Wisconsin Mosaic (1848-1905) chronology based on the Frautschi letters
Wisconsin Stories Wisconsin history one town at a time
Door RickNet Door county's ISP
Door County Maritime Museum nautical history of Door county
Egg Harbor Business Association visitor center
Door county Chamber of Commerce official website


When the early French explorers found their way to the upper lakes it was not long before they discovered that the door or passage leading from Lake Michigan to Green Bay at the extremity of the Door County Peninsula was an extremely dangerous passage.


They therefore called it Porte des Morts-the Door of Death. Here strong currents and fierce winds were often suddenly encountered which capsized their crafts or drove them irresistibly on to the rockbound shores. Here, according to tradition, La Salle's Griffin, the first sail vessel to ply the great lakes, was wrecked about 1680 and here since then hundreds of proud vessels have met their doom.


One week in September, 1872, no less than eight large vessels were stranded or wrecked in "the Door." In the summer of 1871 almost a hundred vessels suffered shipwreck here.


Just as turbulent as these straits are in summer just as treacherous are they in winter. The ice forms late and disappears early. At no time is it absolutely safe. Owing to strong currents brought on by shifting winds the ice quickly breaks up. Where the ice maybe several feet thick in the morning the waves may wash in the evening.


Many stories could be told of terrible adventures in crossing this treacherous bridge of ice. Many a man and horse have here had a desperate battle with death while plunging through the smashing ice, and more than one man has seen his last hope of life perish as clinging to a cake of ice he has been driven out into Lake Michigan where soon his frail raft would break up.


One of the most remarkable of these terrible adventures was that of Robert Noble on New Year's Day in 1864. In the matter of endurance-almost superhuman-it is unique among all the narratives of those who lived to tell the tale.


On December 30, 1863, Robert Noble left Detroit Harbor after haying spent the Christmas holidays visiting with friends. He was a splendid young fellow physically, was twenty-five years old, weighed 220 pounds and stood six feet in his stockings. He had an old scow and for a while had but little difficulty in making his way among the broken ice floes outside of the harbor.


Abreast of Plum Island, however, he struck a large field of thick ice through which it was impossible to force a passage. With some difficulty he finally made a landing on Plum Island, hoping that the wind might clear a passage for him to the mainland. It was now getting dark, it began to snow and the weather which had been mild was getting very cold.


Groping about in the darkness he finally came to an abandoned fishing hut which had neither roof nor doors and windows. Here he made a fire but had difficulty in making it burn owing to the falling snow. By morning it went out altogether.


Ice was now forming all around the island and seeing he would have to remain there for some time he thoroughly explored the island. He found that the only other building was a ruined lighthouse of which only the chimney and the cellar remained. Here was a sort of a fireplace and here he managed after much trouble to light a fire, but not before his very last match had been used.


This fire he heaped up with the fuel he he could find, becoming quite hopeful as its warmth began to be felt. Suddenly, however, his hopes were blasted. The chimney was full of snow. When this began to melt there was a rush and a tumble and his fire was buried under an avalanche of snow. This was a most depressing blow as it was now getting dark again and the weather was getting bitterly cold.


He had a revolver with him and made a number of attempts to start a fire by putting strips of lining from his overcoat over the muzzle, hoping that the explosion would cause the cloth to catch fire. But this was all in vain. Yet he managed to hold out in the little cellar all that night without food, sleep or heat.


Through the interminably long hours of that bitter night he paced about in his little prison, keeping from utterly freezing by all kinds of exercise, moving stones and logs about and otherwise exerting himself. Finally the gray dawn of January 1, 1864, appeared.


January 1, 1864! Old settlers have not yet after a lapse of fifty years forgotten the intense cold of that day. It is remembered as the coldest day in the history of Door County. Tales are told of water freezing alongside of burning stoves; of the impossibility of keeping warm in snug beds; of cattle freezing to death in their stalls.


Robert Noble did not know anything about this. He only knew that it was indescribably cold, that he was starving and that he had gone for two nights without sleep. He realized that his only hope of life was to leave that deserted island at once. The wind had now broken up the ice which was bobbing about in a slushy formation.


He launched his boat and for a quarter of a mile managed to force his way toward Washington Island. Then the ice became firm and he could make no further progress with the boat.


As the ice was not very thick he tore out the seats in the scow and by help of some ropes fastened them to his feet in the shape of rude snowshoes. He hoped by this to distribute his weight on the fragile ice. For a few steps this worked all right when suddenly the ice broke and he was plunged into the icy water.


Fortunately he had a long pole with him which saved him from going under. He tried to kick the boards off his feet but could not. Hanging to the pole by one arm he managed to secure his pocket knife and reaching down cut the ropes that held the boards to his feet. Finally he managed to get out of the water and back to the boat.


He was now extremely cold, his wet clothing was frozen to his body and his arms and legs were thickly encased in an armor of ice. Yet such was his splendid vitality that by stamping and tramping about in the scow he once more got circulation through his limbs.


As soon as this was obtained he again took two boards out of the scow and lying down on these, so as to distribute his weight over as large surface of the ice as possible, he attempted to pull himself toward the shore of Detroit Island about 1 1/2 miles away. He had not gone far, however, before the ice again broke and he went down head first. By the time he could turn over in the water the current had carried him under the ice.


Then followed a terrible struggle under water hampered as he was with his heavy garments which were frozen stiff. In his youth he had accustomed himself to diving and remaining under water a long time. This now saved his life. After an interminable struggle against the current and the ice he finally regained the surface through the hole he had fallen into.


He now gave up the attempt of gliding over the treacherous ice by means of boards or otherwise. Instead of that he stayed in the freezing water, using his ice-encased arms and hands as sledgehammers to smash the thin ice and open a passage. Through this he glided like an animated iceberg, half swimming, half crawling by help of his elbows. When he came to a floe of heavy ice he pulled himself on top.


For hours this incredible struggle against the merciless elements continued. Time and time again he believed himself lost but again and again he conquered, smashing, plunging, rolling and swimming with the temperature 40 degrees below zero.


This went on till late in the afternoon when he reached the shore of Detroit Island. Here he encountered a high barrier of ice made by the freezing spray of the waves. Loaded down as he was with several hundred pounds of ice he was not able to pull himself across this barrier. Finally he found a tunnel in the barrier, such as is sometimes formed by the dashing spray, and wormed his way through this.


By this time his feet and hands were frozen stiff and senseless but yet he was able to keep on his feel. He crossed the ice of Detroit Harbor without further accidents and came about dark to the house of one of the fishermen. He was met at the door bythe owner who stared amazed at this bulky apparition of ice in the shape of a man.


To him Noble quickly explained what had happened and begged him to provide a tub of water in which he could put his feet and two pails for his hands. This was done, his boots, trouser legs and sleeves were cut away, and his limbs were submerged in cold water. Immediately upon this the poor sufferer who had had no food or sleep for three days and two nights, fell asleep.


Unfortunately for him a meddler just then appeared upon the scene. A neighbor came in who upon hearing the story said cold water would not take the frost out: kerosene was necessary. This was done and the poor man's feet were soaked in kerosene. However the kerosene was bitterly cold, far below the freezing point of water, and, instead of taking out the frost it effectually prevented the frost from leaving the affected parts. When Noble awoke his limbs had turned black.


Then followed bitter months of suffering for poor Noble. There was no physician on the island-the nearest was at Green Bay, 100 miles away. Nor was there any means of getting him there. There was not a horse or an ox on the island, and nearly all the able bodied men were off to the southern battlefields.


Bert Ranney, the Washington Harbor storekeeper, ever ready to help a sufferer, took him over to his house and here he received as good care as the island could give. Here for month after month Robert Noble sat, as helpless as a child, enduring fierce agonies of pain in dreary idleness. One by one his foul smelling fingers dropped off and little by little the putrid flesh of his legs peeled off.


After a while only the white, lifeless bones of his feet were left while his system with never ceasing pain and agony adapted itself to the changing conditions.


Finally in June, 1864, an opportunity presented itself to send Noble away. There was at that time no local physician at Sturgeon Bay but a Doctor Farr from Kenosha was temporarily there while negotiating the purchase of Graham's saw-mill. This Doctor Farr was willing to do the operation but lacked the necessary instruments.


He obtained some from Green Bay, but the only saw to be obtained was an ordinary butcher's saw. With this rough tool Robert Noble's legs were amputated below the knees.


The operation was successful and soon Robert Noble once more felt fit for work. By the help of friends he obtained artificial limbs and soon he was back in the harness drilling wells.


In spite of his lack of fingers he developed a marvelous dexterity in handling the tools of his trade and he was never one to ask for favors because of his physical deformities. Later on he for many years operated the ferry between Sturgeon Bag and Sawyer.


Such tremendous energy, such indefatigable endurance, such fortitude in suffering should be rewarded with a public monument and a pension. Unfortunately the keen competition of later years has driven this sturdy old pioneer to the wall and his reward now is a berth in a poorhouse.