History Mystery: Who is considered the “father of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore?”

History Mystery Gaylord Nelson

A Legacy of stewardship. 

Gaylord Nelson was born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin on June 4, 1919.  Nelson was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1948 and held that office for a decade before becoming the Governor of the state. After two terms as Governor, he was elected to the US Senate in 1962 where he served until 1981. 

Gaylord Nelson
Gaylord Nelson

In 1969, then US Senator from Wisconsin, Nelson formulated one of the most powerful ideas of the century.  On April 22, 1970 the first Earth Day was a resounding success, celebrated by 20 million people across the US who came together in their communities to support the environment. The American Heritage Magazine called this first Earth Day “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.” Earth Day, now an annual international event, continues to inspire environmental movements around the globe.  

“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” 

Gaylord Nelson on Stockton Island
Gaylord Nelson on Stockton Island

 Long before the idea of the first Earth Day, this tireless champion of the people and the environment, cultivated a dream to preserve the magical landscape of the Apostle Islands. He sought to safeguard the undeveloped shorelines, red sandstone cliffs, unique landforms, flora, and fauna of this special place.  

This love of the natural environment and concern for the wellness of all through conservation was well received in Washington. Both Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and President John F. Kennedy recognized the value in developing a national recreation area in the Chequamegon Bay region and traveled to Ashland in 1963, flying over the Apostle Islands as part of a national conservation tour.

resident Kennedy and Gaylord Nelson (right side of photo) at the Ashland, Wisconsin airport in 1963
President Kennedy and Gaylord Nelson (right side of photo) at the Ashland, Wisconsin airport in 1963

Years of negotiation, compromise and collaboration came to fruition on September 26, 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed legislation creating the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The bill included 20 islands and a 12-mile strip of mainland containing the sea caves. 

 “This is a unique collection of islands…..there is not another collection of islands of this significance within the continental boundaries of the United States. I think it is tremendously important that this collection of islands be preserved.” 

gaylord nelson
Gaylord Nelson
Gaylord Nelson at Quarry Bay on Stockton Island in 2003

 Gaylord Nelson’s determined efforts to preserve this region cause many to consider him the “father of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore”.

NPS Midwest Regional Director William Schenk makes Gaylord Nelson an honorary park ranger in 2002
NPS Midwest Regional Director William Schenk makes Gaylord Nelson an honorary park ranger in 2002

On December 8, 2004, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness was created as President George W. Bush signed legislation designating 80% of the land area of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore as Wilderness. 

Gaylord Nelson at book signing in 2004
Gaylord Nelson at book signing in 2004

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.