I was sitting on the dock at North Manitou Island, waiting for the ferry to take me back to the mainland, when I overheard a conversation between two national park rangers. They were talking in hushed tones about how, the night before, another ranger on South Manitou island had apparently gone berserk, brandished his firearm, and demanded to be taken off the island because ghosts were tormenting him. Now, this was interesting.
Two months later, I decided to visit South Manitou Island.
The Manitou Islands are located approximately eight miles offshore from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. They are both parts of the national lakeshore. They are uninhabited except during the summer when they receive backpackers and tourists.
Both islands were previously inhabited until they became part of the National Park system. Settled in the 1800s, they were populated by farmers, timber men, artists, vacationers, and seemingly ghosts.
When I visited South Manitou Island for the first time, I found a beautiful island with restored village buildings near the ferry docks. A few of these are maintained for use by the park rangers for summer housing and administrative purposes, while others are historical displays.
The Manitou Transit company operates the ferry and offers a historic sightseeing tour of the island. During this tour, the guide described many features of the island, spoke of the history, and mentioned that the island had a rich history of hauntings.
On the tour, our guide pointed out the location of what is known to be a mass grave. As the legend goes, in the late 1800s, a steamship pulled into the harbor one night and dropped off more than twenty passengers infected with cholera, some dead, the rest nearly so. The captain and crew promptly left the sick for the local islanders to manage.
Unfortunately, the islanders had little choice but to dig a mass grave and bury the victims, both dead and alive, to preserve their own lives. Soon after, the first appearances of ghosts and hauntings began. The mass grave is believed to be located near the Old Cemetery just north of the Bay Campground. This is near where the old dock used to be located.
Hazards of the Manitou Passage
The crossing between mainland Michigan and the islands is known as the Manitou Passage. The passage is the deadliest section of Lake Michigan. Weather can change quickly, and the shoals amidst the passage create a navigational hazard.
There are over 50 known shipwrecks, mainly from the heyday of the steamship era. Traffic was quite busy here during the late 1800s, and there were frequent accidents where ships would literally run into each other. Add treacherous weather and a narrow shipping channel, and you have a recipe for disaster. Some scuba divers have told stories of hearing tortured cries while diving off of shipwrecks.
The wreck of the Francisco Morazan lies visible off the southwest shore. It ran aground during a snowstorm on November 27, 1960. No lives were lost, but a local island boy drowned while swimming near the wreck several years later.
South Manitou Island Cemetery
Located in the official cemetery is a simple cross with the inscription, "Human skeleton found on dunes 1933".
The identity is unknown, as is what fate the deceased encountered. It is unknown if the remains were from a shipwreck that washed ashore or if it was a long-lost resident or visitor to the island.
Faithfully Walking the Beach
Another tale is of the lady ghost that is seen walking along the beach near the dock carrying a lantern at night. It seems that she was either married or engaged to a man from the island, and one day he sailed to the mainland but never returned. She awaited his return, but he never came back. Every evening she would dress in her finest dress, walk down to the dock, and wait for him to return. Years went by, and she continued her daily watch without ceasing. She grew old but continued her nightly walk until she was found dead on the beach one day. Seemingly, she died hopeful that her betrothed would return to her one day. After her death, the locals saw her ghost waiting at the dock and pacing the beach just as she did while alive.
It is claimed that the South Manitou Lighthouse is haunted by its former keepers. One day in 1878, lightkeeper Aaron Sheridan and his wife Julia made their way on a small fishing boat with their infant son to the mainland. Unfortunately, their boat capsized in heavy seas upon their return, and all three perished. A detailed account of Aaron Sheridan, his wife, and his child can be found at Lighthouse Digest.
My Own Experiences
Over the last two decades, I have been a frequent visitor to South Manitou Island. I love backpacking and exploring the island. For me, it is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places that I have experienced. I have met other campers who claim to have seen or felt otherworldly spirits. Personally, I have not. One time, when I was of only a few campers on the island, I heard voices in the forest that didn't make sense given where I knew the other campers were. Was this a case of their voices carrying or echoing over a long distance?
Another odd occurrence was when I was hiking through the forest heading south from the Poppel campground. I came upon a clearing and smelled lavender, and the air suddenly chilled. The smell of lavender was odd as it was late May; too early for lavender to be in bloom. A short distance later, I came upon the cemetery. Later I read that lavender is associated with ghosts or spirits.
A Park Ranger’s Story
A few years ago, I was camping on the island, and a passing storm caused large waves that prevented the ferry from making its scheduled trip. The result was a day without the arrival of day visitors or new campers.
The park rangers give a daily tour of the lighthouse. As it was a slow day due to no ferry, the ranger had more time to talk to the few of us who were touring the lighthouse that day. One of the other campers asked about ghosts and hauntings, and the ranger affirmed the popular stories. I asked him about the ranger that had gone berserk a few years earlier. He confirmed that another ranger had indeed broken down, drawn his weapon, and demanded to be taken off the island. The park service arranged for the Coast Guard to fly a helicopter to the island that night and remove the ranger. The house he had been living in had a history of hauntings. The ranger received medical treatment and is now doing well, in a new career, according to the ranger who confirmed this story.
The same ranger said that he, too, had experienced hearing voices, footsteps, and slamming doors inside buildings that were otherwise unoccupied.
The one absolutely for sure ghost story is that of the trees that the shifting dunes have overtaken. The sand eventually kills the trees and leaves their dead remains behind. The best example of this is seen along the Perched Dunes.
So whether there are actual ghosts or spirits is debatable. The beauty and solitude that South Manitou Island offers are not.