Mysterious, madness and intrigue of the Manitou Passage

By Christina Campbell
Sun contributor
One late afternoon in prehistoric northern Lower Michigan, a Native American war party lay siege to an enemy group and left only seven survivors. These survivors surreptitiously followed their attackers to South Manitou Island and silently slaughtered most of them in their sleep. Those not killed awoke the next morning to believe that murderously evil spirits inhabited the island and her northern sister. This legend is just one of many mysterious South and North Manitou tales, stories that scream like gulls but shift like the sands of the Manitou Passage.

The Manitou Islands are part of an archipelago dribbled from a retreating glacier 10,000 years ago. This same busy glacier raked out the bold blue Manitou Passage between the islands and the mainland. Hikers, campers, and summer boaters may not realize that the area’s pristine beaches and bluffs are burdened with legacies of the long dead: ghost towns, ghost farms, ghost forests, ghost ships, and even ghosts themselves.
The Manitou Passage is seven miles wide from South Manitou Island to the mainland’s Sleeping Bear Point. But the navigable deepwater channel is only a mile across. It is the most dangerous passage on the Great Lakes.
In the mid 19th century, the Manitou Passage was incongruously both a mariner’s nightmare and a tempting shortcut for steamships traveling between Straits of Mackinac and Chicago. The ships sheltered at South Manitou and loaded up with cordwood fuel before continuing to their destinations.
Well, some of them continued to their destinations. Many others succumbed to shoals, sudden storms or ship collisions. Littering the lake bottom near South and North Manitous are at least 50 known ship carcasses. Probably hundreds more wrecks are still undocumented. The cold water and sandy bottom preserve hulls, masts, anchors, and even sailors’ personal effects. One ship went down at the mouth of South Manitou’s harbor with 15 Native Americans locked in its hold. Their bodies remain entombed in the bay to this day. Island residents say that on stormy nights, they’ve heard wailing out on the lake, uncannily like the cries of panicked people drowning and freezing on foundering ships.
Many of these shipwreck victims are buried in South Manitou’s Crescent Bay Cemetery. Their bodies were washed ashore or found frozen to grounded wrecks. Also in the cemetery is a human skeleton of unknown origin. The skeleton was discovered on a South Manitou dune in 1933. Was he a wrecked sailor who washed or crawled ashore and then melted into the sand? Was he a murder victim? Or was he vomiting and seizing from cholera in his last minutes?
Cholera thrived in the holds of the ships shortcutting through the Manitou Passage. Many holds were stuffed past hygienic capacity with European immigrants going west to Chicago. Often by the time the vessels reached the Manitou Passage, more passengers were dead than alive. Local lore says that the captains of such ships would pull ashore at South Manitou to bury their dead. And their almost dead. Passengers still fighting the cholera were thrown into mass graves alongside genuine corpses. Ships’ crews shoveled dirt and sand to the rhythm of the living victims’ groans. It is said that those buried alive still moan at midnight. And on the anniversaries of their untoward burials, their spirits rise up and walk the island.
On their walks, do they cross paths with the woodcutter’s wife? Her story may be a classic ghost fable adapted to South Manitou, fueled by the imaginations of skittish campers. Maybe. Years ago, a poor woodcutter wanted some extra money with which to buy his wife a Christmas present. So he went fishing, even though it was far too late in the season for safety. A storm rolled in and the woodcutter never made it back to shore. His wife and the villagers paced the beaches for three days and nights looking for his body. When they didn’t find him, his wife was convinced he’d left her for some more beautiful mainland girl. She continued walking around the island, lantern held high, searching and going insane from cold, fatigue, and disappointment. She convinced herself that if she could become as beautiful as those girls on the mainland, her husband would come back to her. So on each sandy trek past her house, she popped inside to put on some makeup, or jewelry, or a Victorian dress. Again and again she rounded the island, scanning the shore with her lantern. She smeared on rouge. She walked some more. She layered on extra necklaces. She tottered along. She wore her best scarves, all of them. She tried not to stain the cloth with lantern oil as she slogged through the sand. Still her husband did not come home. A couple weeks later, the villagers found her lying dead on the beach, wearing an evening gown and high heels. Nighttime beachcombers still see her walking South Manitou’s shores, swinging a lantern and trying to be beautiful.
A better documented beach-walking story is the tragedy of Aaron and Julia Sheridan, keepers at the South Manitou light. They and their small baby were thrown from a small sailboat that capsized in sudden squall. None of the three resurfaced. The Sheridan’s two older children saw the entire accident from the shore. They wandered up and down the coast for days, in tears, searching for their parent’s bodies.
The islands’ inland waters are not free of dark dramas. Not many years ago, a plane was flying over North Manitou. The pilot may have mistaken snow-covered inland Lake Manitou for a field. He landed on the lake and crashed through the ice. The pilot and copilot swam from the sinking plane. They crawled over ice and through snow to land. But they had no way to warm up. Although a search had begun after their plane disappeared off radar, the rescuers came too late. The two aviators were found frozen to the shore of Lake Manitou.
The Manitou Passage’s most bizarre wreck is not underwater at all. In the woods of South Manitou sits a big old wooden rowboat. This boat is heaped high with bones. Probably cow bones, however no one has ever checked the entire pile? Was this boat a dumping ground? A worship site? A massive prank? Its logic is lost to history.
Throughout the islands’ forests, visitors report shocking cold spots on warm days and sudden views of specters standing in the windows of thoroughly locked and empty houses. One South Manitou home was said to be particularly uninhabitable.
A poor woodcutter lived in a dingy shack on the South Manitou. (If you wonder why it’s always a woodcutter, remember that someone had to prepare all that cordwood to fuel the ships.) A rich Chicagoan hired this woodcutter to do some carpentry work around his summer cabin. After some time, the woodcutter asked to marry his boss’ daughter. His boss laughed and asked how the woodcutter could imagine he’d send his daughter to live in that dingy shack. The devastated woodcutter decided to prove himself by building a house for his desired bride. He planned every detail with the daughter in mind. After a year he’d created a solid, attractive little white house in what is now called the “farm loop”. The rich Chicagoan was so impressed that he allowed the woodcutter to marry his daughter, who was also infatuated with her new home. The couple lived blissfully for a couple months, until the wife suddenly sickened and died. Her husband continued living in the house, but he always saw and felt his wife’s presence. She watched him, lay her hands on his shoulders, and moved things around. Unable to bear these heartbreaking reminders of his loss, he moved back to his dingy shack. Other families tried to live in the house, but the woodcutter’s wife was a territorial and intolerant spirit. No living humans had the energy to maintain a house so jealously guarded by the spirit world. On an island with many historical buildings tenderly kept in good condition, only the foundation of this home remains.
Perhaps the spookiest buildings on the Manitou Islands are the ones most heavily inhabited today: the South Manitou lighthouse and both islands’ former lifesaving stations. The South Manitou light had many incarnations between its first glow in 1839 and its 1958 closure, when the National Park moved its rangers onto the islands. Voices and footsteps of long-dead keepers echo up and down the lighthouse tower. In the lifesaving stations, phantom crews still practice their lifesaving drills, ever ready for the next steamship tragedy. Rangers and visitors have clearly heard the men’s crisp shouts and dialogs. A female ranger was in the shower when she heard sounds of a sudden bustle and strange male voices yelling “Hurry up! Hurry up!” Yet she knew she was the only person in the building. Another resident of the old lifesaving building had a recliner that she closed up religiously every night. But often in the mornings, the chair would be open again.
Some people believe that new Park employees have an easier time of it if they politely introduce themselves and their purpose to the island’s indigenous spirits. Take, for example, the large, robust ranger who wouldn’t seem like the type to be plagued by supernatural visions. Yet he had a history of seeing ghosts around the island and insisted the house he stayed in was haunted. Did he ever introduce himself to the apparitions? Maybe not. Over time he slept little and grew distraught over the constant ghostly companionship. The last straw was when he woke up to find phantom children jumping on his bed and laughing.
As guardians and suppliers of passing ships, the island people held hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in their hands, lives that could slip through their fingers with a moment’s carelessness. Perhaps yesterday’s lighthouse keepers and rescue crews still walk today. Are they unable to relinquish their ingrained sense of responsibility for the vessels on the Manitou Passage?
Even when still alive, there was nothing the Coast Guard crews could do against Pirate Joe Perry. According to an Empire legend, Joe Perry placed a lantern across the Passage at Sleeping Bear Point. Ships mistook Perry’s lantern for the South Manitou Light and ran aground practically at Perry’s feet. He then robbed and pillaged the ships’ abandoned remains. When Lake Michigan is low, at least parts of one of Perry’s wrecks sometimes poke through the surface, visible from shore.
People blamed Perry’s success on the relative dimness of the South Manitou light. Few were sorry when new radar technology made the light obsolete. But only two years after the lighthouse was decommissioned, the Francisco Morazan hit the island’s southwest shoal. Could a light have warned her away in time? All crew escaped from the Morazan’s awkward perch in 15 feet of water. Less lucky were the souls aboard the steamer Walter L. Frost, almost 60 years earlier. The Frost also sunk off South Manitou’s southwest shore. When the Morazan ground to her final stop, she was nearly on top of the remains of the Frost.
It’s an unlucky spot. Although the Morazan is decaying into an intriguing snorkel spot for vacationers, caution is warranted: decades ago an island farm boy drowned while exploring the Morazan. The ranger station receives regular calls for help from panicked campers saying a boy with orange swim trunks is drowning out by the ship. When the park authorities send out a boat to investigate, they see nothing.
Gulls congregate and nest on the Morazan by the hundreds. Superstitious sailors say seagulls are the souls of the drowned. They are reborn in tune with Michigan’s mercurial waters, instead of at their mercy.
Legends told in this story should not be interpreted as area history, as they may have changed over time while being passed down from one ear to the next. Some, like that of Pirate Joe Perry, may be legends that are rampant in many maritime areas, and transplanted here only to spice up one’s visit to the Manitou Islands. – Ed.
The Manitou Island Transit makes one run, daily, during the summer months to North Manitou Island, leaving the Leland harbor at 10 a.m. and picking up overnight campers on the island at 11:15 a.m. to transport them back to the mainland. The Transit shuttles passengers to South Manitou at 10 a.m., daily, and picks up campers on the island at 4:30 p.m. Passage on either ferry costs $25 per adult/$14 per child plus a $7 National Park entrance fee. Call (231) 256-9061 for reservations.