History Mystery: How did his support for the park cost Julian Nelson a job?

History Mystery Julian Nelson

Julian Nelson was born in Bayfield in 1916.  His father moved to Bayfield from Bergen, Norway in 1897 and took a job with the Booth fish company.  He eventually became an independent commercial fisherman operating out of a fish camp in Julian Bay on Stockton Island.  

His sister watches Julian work on a gill net at his fish camp
His sister watches Julian work on a gill net at his fish camp

In 1938, at the age of 22, Julian bought out his father’s fishing business.  Julian bought property on Rocky Island in 1947 and moved his fishing cabin there from Stockton Island on a barge. 

Moving the Nelson cabin from Stockton to Rocky Island in 1947
Moving the Nelson cabin from Stockton to Rocky Island in 1947
Julian Nelson works on a gill net
Julian Nelson works on a gill net

 He continued working as a commercial fisherman until the 1960s when the fishery collapsed due to over-fishing and predation from sea lampreys.  

Julian Nelson works on a gill net in front of his cabin
Julian Nelson works on a gill net in front of his cabin

He then went to work on the Madeline Island Ferry. Julian operated ferry boats for eighteen years until he retired in 1980. 

In the mid-1960s Julian was also the mayor of Bayfield.  He recalled that… 

“I guess I became concerned about the use of natural resources back in the forties and fifties when I saw how that resource of all the fish in the lake was being mistreated. And that’s what really made me kinda think of what could happen to other resources that we have.  And when I saw how that fish was treated, I thought there’s some other resources that we need to maybe take a look at, and those resources were the islands, the lake and the landscape.  

So my decision was based on what would do the most good for the most number of people, and in either 1966 or 67 when the congressional hearings on the park were held in Ashland, I took the position to support the park.  It was not a popular position… and so the following election I was not elected back. But since then, I’m very comfortable with the position I took, and I grow more comfortable every day.“ 

Julian Nelson leaving the family cabin on Rocky Island in 2012
Julian Nelson leaving the family cabin on Rocky Island in 2012

 Julian was 100 years old when he passed away in 2017.


The Apostle Islands are full of beauty, adventure, and wildlife; they also have a rich and varied history. This summer, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the park, we are exploring that history with a little help from some friends: large, nearly life-sized standing poster board images of lighthouse keepers and sailors and ship captains and island lovers and more. Each one will ask you a question, present a mystery of island history, and offer you a QR code to explore the answer.

So look for the cardboard cutouts popping up in local shops, on the ferry, in the parks, all over town, and when you find them, introduce yourself, look for the question, and explore the answer to one of the History Mysteries of the Apostle Islands. Then join us at Friendsoftheapostleislands.org to support the protection of the islands, their beauty, their adventure, their wildlife, and their history.