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Retelling History: The House That Plunged Into Lake Superior in 1977

The House That Plunged Into Lake Superior in Bayfield, WI
Credits Rockey Barker

I can’t make this up…

It happened long before Isaac and I were born – so even longer before we became the husband-wife team running the Seagull Bay. In fact, Isaac’s dad was a high school senior at the time. Which goes to show how good stories last the test of time. 

Lake Superior is full of survival stories, famous shipwrecks, and even tales of pirates. But nobody could’ve guessed this story would be one of them.

A story so unbelievable it went viral before Facebook and TikTok were even a thing. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg was even alive when this happened.

This week, just shy of its 47th anniversary, I’m retelling a wild story from 1977 when a two-story, fully furnished house sunk to the bottom of Lake Superior.

If I could travel back in time, this would’ve been something worth seeing – but from the safety of the balcony at Seagull Bay, which overlooks the route of this historic event.

How Thick Does the Ice on Lake Superior Have to Be to Safely Tow a House?

A truck is towing the house.
Credits Rockey Barker

Driving on the ice of Lake Superior isn’t new. Anybody who’s lived in a cold climate or near an inland lake knows of the ice-fishing villages that decorate the ice like polka-dots as soon as the ice is thick enough. But how thick is thick enough?

Ice thickness required to support a:

  • Human on foot – 4”
  • Small ATV or side-by-side – 5-8” 
  • Small car, medium SUV, or small truck – 9-12” 
  • Heavy-duty truck – 16-17” 
  • Heavy-duty truck with trailer – 20+”1

In March of 1977, the ice measured around 16” thick – surely a safe thickness for towing a house, right?! 🙄

The movers hired to carry out this incredible task were “Dale Movers: The Best in Heavy Lifting,” out of the Twin Cities. The plan was to tow four houses across the ice. But this house was the first and the last.2

Here’s the full story.

How Far Did It Go Before Falling Through the Ice on Lake Superior?

The moment when the house is submerged into Lake Superior.
Credits Rockey Barker

On March 2, 1977, the plan was clear…

Starting from Port Superior, south of Bayfield, a six-wheel truck and a set of dollies loaded with a two-story, fully furnished house, set out across the ice. Its destination was the town of Lapointe on Madeline Island, about four miles away.

The whole story, including pictures, was captured by Rocky Barker, a young reporter for the Washburn-Bayfield County Journal.

In his article, Rocky quoted Lyle Rhine, the mover hired to complete this job. “I wouldn’t try it if I didn’t think I could make it.” But just to be safe, Rhine enlisted the help of Harvey Nourse, a local who was well acquainted with Lake Superior and the Bayfield area.

Rhine and Nourse drove cautiously for about three of the four miles when one of the back wheels fell through, and the house tilted to the side.

Rhine quickly gunned the engine, hoping to yank the house and trailer forward, but it didn’t work. With only one thing left to do, Rhine and Nourse bailed from the cab of the truck and onto the ice. The truck was still running as it bubbled, sinking into 90 feet of frigid water.

The house, still leaning, froze in place and, over the next few weeks, slowly sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, about a mile from shore.2

Is the House Still at the Bottom of Lake Superior?

Dive and recovery team is raising the truck and the house out of Lake Superior.
Credits Rockey Barker

In the weeks following this incredible event, the sinking house became a destination of curiosity. People would snowmobile across the ice to have a look until it was completely submerged and resting on the bottom of Lake Superior.

In May of 1977, when the ice had melted, a dive and recovery team was assembled to raise the truck and the house out of the water.

The Outer Island, a barge with a crane, used for constructing marinas, docks, and piers, was hired for the job. 

The first task was to lift the truck out of the water. The truck was successfully retrieved and is claimed to have continued to run for many years following this incident.

The dive team responsible for attaching cables to the house said it felt “eerie.” They said it felt like entering a house that had been unexpectedly abandoned. There were still dishes in the dishwasher! To be honest, I didn’t know they even had dishwashers back then.

The crane slowly and carefully attempted to lift the home – in its entirety – to the surface but failed. The wooden structure fell apart and needed to be recovered in pieces.

As for the other three houses…

They were successfully carried from the mainland across Lake Superior using a barge after the ice melted.

Despite this amusing and scary tale, residents continue to drive from Bayfield to Madeline Island using a different route from the one the house was on. The Madeline Island Ice Road is an important roadway during the winter months for locals – conditions permitting.

The Madeline Ice Road Connects Bayfield to LaPointe

The Ice Road to Madeline Island is an important road for locals in the winter months. 

For islanders, it means freedom – they no longer have to adhere to the Madeline Island Ferry Schedule. It makes getting groceries, going to doctor appointments, and their children’s sporting events almost effortless.

Each year, the two-mile “road” is lined with everyone’s dried-up Christmas trees and is monitored by Arnie Nelson and Family several times a day.

During the shoulder season when there’s too much ice for the ferry and not enough ice to safely drive, a windsled is used to carry passengers to and from the mainland.

Once the ice is thick enough, the “road” is opened and carefully maintained. In fact, it becomes County Highway H, and all traffic rules apply.

It’s important for visitors and locals to keep an eye out for rapidly changing conditions and closures – especially when the cold weather starts to break.

You Could Have Watched the Whole Thing From Seagull Bay

The Seagull Bay Motel, and our neighboring properties, Bay West and The Brownstone Cottage, all look toward the south channel of Lake Superior and Madeline Island.

From the balcony and private decks at Seagull Bay, you could have easily watched this historic event unfold and kept tabs on the sinking house throughout the following weeks.

Thankfully, no one has attempted to repeat this frosty experiment. It’s an event no one will forget. And like many local legends, the story is kept alive by sharing pictures and retelling the tale. A couple of locals even wrote a song about it! [Click “It Sunk”  under quick links to listen].

So whether you’re a returning guest or visiting us for the first time, imagine watching the spectacle of a six-wheel truck towing a fully furnished, two-story house across the ice of Lake Superior. 

It’s a stark contrast from the sunrises over Madeline island and the sail boats passing by that our guests usually get. Needless to say, Bayfield is full of adventure and some crazy antics.

To help you plan a Lake Superior getaway you won’t forget (for all the right reasons 😉) we’ve curated a Seasonal Adventure Guide with our favorite recommendations to help you get started. 

Click here to download your copy.

Enjoy the View!

Mollie, Isaac, Axel, Ridge, and Banks


  1. General ice thickness guidelines | Minnesota DNR
  2. 40 years ago this week: House falls into Lake Superior – Duluth News Tribune
  3. Pictures – House sinks in Lake Superior taken by Rocky Barker
  4. It Sunk! By Tim Chaney & Phil Anich 

February 19, 2024

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