Harbor Lights owners Bill and Grace Hines watched Oronto Creek’s flow flood in a flash, obliterating Saxon Harbor Marina and Campground one night in 2016 when a high-powered, unrelenting thunderstorm struck the Northwoods.
The couple knew the park was done for that evening as boats crashed up onto Highway A, then awash in flood waters, before sinking back into the marina.
“We were watching it all by lightning flashes,” Grace Hines said.
The storm, which would go down in history for washing out highways throughout northern Wisconsin, leaving tens of millions of dollars in destruction in its take and killing at least two people, started at about 5 or 5:30 p.m. in the Saxon Harbor area, Hines said.
“Bill said, ‘This isn’t going to be good. It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop,” she said.
Bill Hines swiftly swept patrons out Harbor Lights bar’s doors and closed down. The move saved customers from being trapped — like the Hines and their neighbors — on a virtual island after the storm washed out roads on either side of them.
Nearly three years later, the Hineses are holding on to their bar by their fingernails after suffering more than two years of lost business as damage around them was repaired. The county still is rebuilding the marina and campground wrested from it by 15 inches of rain, but the end — and a brighter future for Harbor Lights — may be nearing.
Season washed out
Iron County recently marked its third lonely and empty Memorial Day weekend at Saxon Harbor County Park, but it should be the last with the marina slated for completion in August.
Saxon Harbor, sitting on Lake Superior, was a sitting duck for Oronto and Parker creeks on July 11, 2016, when a storm packing powerful winds and torrential rains parked itself over the Northwoods, washing away roads, sparking flash floods and downing power lines.
Oronto Creek’s watershed covers about 14 square miles, Iron County Forestry and Parks Department Director Eric Peterson said, and its elevation drops 400 feet between Highway 2, about five miles to the south, and the lake.
“If we get a 1-inch rain event, you can see Oronto Creek visibly rise in just a matter of minutes almost,” Peterson said.
When the creeks finished scouring out Saxon Harbor County Park, its campground and marina were memories. Boats and RVs had been washed miles out into the lake, and former County Board member Mitchell Koski, who had come to the park to see if he could help, was killed when his vehicle was swept off Highway A as he attempted to drive through running water.
Since that night nearly three years ago, the county has toiled during construction season on a $14 million effort to bring Saxon Harbor back to life.
Iron County, with the help of engineers, isn’t just rebuilding the harbor. It is also tweaking the park’s layout to mitigate future damage as devastating flash floods and storms grow more common in the Northwoods.
Highway A’s 40-foot bridge spanning a curve in the creek proved to be a problem when the flash flood hit on July 11, Peterson said. So crews set to work on both the highway and bridge.
Instead of making a beeline to Lake Superior, Highway A now makes a graceful S-bend to the west. A new bridge boasting a 100-foot span crosses the highway between the curves, which puts it in a better position to handle Oronto Creek flooding.
The Federal Highway Administration and state Department of Transportation helped to cover the road and bridge project’s $1.5 million cost with the county kicking in 20 percent.
Creekside, a rocky berm has been built up between the creek and marina to guard against rising waters, and a spillway has been positioned so creek overflows are guided to the lake via the marina’s opening instead of bottlenecking at the Parker Creek confluence.
The campground, slated for 28 sites instead of its previous 33, is moving to higher ground, and each site will have water and electricity. Once FEMA approves plans, hopefully within a few weeks, Peterson said, the contractor can launch a four-month construction project for a 2020 season opener.
That will be none too soon for Saxon Harbor camping fans. The county fields calls weekly from people looking for sites, Peterson said.
“We think we’re going to be pretty busy when we finally get open,” he said.
Anglers, too, are eager for reopening. The boat launch at the campground was the jumping-off point for big-game fishermen stalking salmon and trout.
The marina, which dates back in some shape or form to the 1930s, will have 81 slips instead of 91 to accommodate wider boats. It’s slated to open mid-August, and boaters will be welcome, Peterson said.
The marina also features a new, second boat landing in an area better protected from wind and Great Lakes waves. The old boat landing near the entrance to the docks has been refurbished as well.
The county aims to replace what it lost instead of improve upon the park, Peterson said, because FEMA’s public assistance program won’t pay for improvements, just replacements.
Money down the drain
Pre-storm revenues at the marina and campground tallied about $130,000 annually, Peterson said. The park will have been out of commission for essentially 3½ years by the end of the season, leaving the county $455,000 behind since July 2016.
Grace and Bill Hines, too, have seen bar receipts dip precipitously. She estimates they lost two-thirds of their business.
“It’s been a long three years,” she said.
While the county is going strong and focused on reopening, Grace Hines isn’t certain as to her and her husband’s future at Harbor Lights.
The couple have owned the bar for 44 years and are licensed for a small campground, and Hines said she’s loved the experience, meeting world travelers cruising the lake and establishing a rapport with local residents.
But the struggle to stay afloat over the past three years without the marina, campground, and lake and boat access drawing in visitors has left a mark.
Hines simply doesn’t know how much longer she and her husband will stay. They may decide to list the bar for sale for the first time since they bought it and “find a palm tree” somewhere, she said.
But in the meantime, she said, “We’re hanging on.”