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After The Storm, Saxon Harbor Picks Up The Pieces

Community Bands Together To Rebuild Popular Tourist Attraction

Oronto Creek
Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Nearly two months have passed since Grace Hines and her husband Bill Hines watched a powerful storm through flashes of lightning from their bar as the rain poured down on Saxon Harbor.

“I never experienced rain like that. It was torrential. It was biblical,” Grace Hines said.

The July storm caused severe flooding that gutted Saxon Harbor in Iron County, causing at least $10 million in damages. Residents are beginning to pick up the pieces and looking to what the future may hold for the harbor’s marina and campground.

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The Hineses lost power and phone service at the Harbor Lights, the bar they’ve owned for 42 years. By the next morning, Grace Hines said their livelihood had become an island.

“We were able to get across the Oronto with ATVs once the creek went down to where we could get over to the other side,” she said. “But, then we had to just make do.”

For six weeks, the Hineses were cut off by washouts on roads to the south and north.

The storm had beached 19 boats west of the harbor. Many had either sunk or been set adrift. Resident Sue Gilbertson lost her “Pride and Joy” – the name of her Hatteras fishing boat.

“We stood on Harbor Drive and watched that night as the boats went out the harbor forwards, backwards, sideways — some boats, including ours, with the docks attached,” said Gilbertson. “We saw them in an eddy spinning around outside of the harbor.”

Damage to Saxon Harbor’s marina. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

The 91-boat slip marina has been reduced to a carved-out shell of standing water and mud. There are few boats. Crews are clearing debris with heavy equipment at the nearby campground. Piles of wood and metal are scattered around the harbor.

The hull of Neil Gilbertson’s fishing boat rests upside down. The bow is lying in the grass close by. He said the harbor looks bad, but the cleanup is inching forward.

“The National Guard’s been down here. They’re removing trees, stumps, all sorts of debris that’s been hauled away,” he said. “Some of the restrooms and shower houses that were compromised, they’ve been destroyed and hauled away. The boats are out of the water. There’s no longer boats on stumps or on the beaches or elsewhere.”

Iron County has enlisted a local engineering company to help with plans for the harbor’s future. Iron County Board Chair Joe Pinardi said he’d like an early warning system installed to prevent loss of life. His friend and fellow board member, Mitch Koski, drowned during the storm. Pinardi said he hopes to see Saxon Harbor rebuilt bigger and better than it was before.

“There’s bigger boats coming into the picture now so we need bigger slips, and we’re trying to work it into a pattern right now through our stumpage money through our forestry where we can rebuild our share of it with whatever grants we can get available,” Pinardi said, “And build it without putting a burden back on our local taxpayers.”

Gov. Scott Walker recently toured the damage. He said the state will help foot the bill.

“If it’s upwards to $20 million, that’s a huge chunk of change for a county of this size,” Walker said. “I think we’d look to try and find ways in addition to the state’s match to try and help the county so you’re building it right so it’s sustainable.”

As for Grace Hines, she doesn’t know what the future holds for their business. Even with roads reopening, they see few customers because there are no boaters, no campers, no tourists. But, she said the view and the people are what tie them to Harbor Lights.

“I didn’t realize how affected so many people are by this because they call and they always wish us the best and say we’re in their prayers,” she said, adding that that’s the kind of people they are in northern Wisconsin.

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