I was waiting at the dock on 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 went berserk, brandished his firearm, and demanded to be taken off the island because ghosts were tormenting him. 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. The only public access is by ferry from Leland, Michigan. They are both part of the national lakeshore and are uninhabited except for during the summer months when they receive backpackers and tourists.
Both islands were previously inhabited until they became part of the National Park system. Settled in the 1800’s, they were populated by farmers and timber men, artists, vacationers, and seemingly ghosts.
When I visited South Manitou Island for the first time, I found a beautiful island with restored buildings of the village 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 as well as offering a historic sightseeing tour of the island. During this tour, the guide described many features of the island, spoke of the history, and yes, 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 1800's, a steamship pulled into the harbor one night and dropped off more than twenty passengers who were infected with cholera, some dead, the rest nearly so. The captain and crew promptly left the sick behind for the local islanders to deal with. The islanders had little choice but to dig a mass grave and bury the victims, both dead and alive, in order to preserve their own lives. Soon after, the first appearances of ghosts and hauntings began. The mass grave is believed to be near the Old Cemetery just north of the Bay Campground. This is also 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 creates a navigational hazard. There are over 50 known shipwrecks, mostly from the heyday of the steamship era. Traffic was quite busy here during the late 1800's and there were frequent accidents where ships would literally run into each other. Add in 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 several years later, a local island boy drowned while swimming near the wreck.
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 up in her finest dress and walk down to the dock and wait for him to return. Years went by and she continued her daily watch without cease. She grew old but continued her nightly walk until one day she was found dead on the beach. Seemingly she died still hopeful that one day her betrothed would return to her. After her death, the locals saw her ghost waiting at the dock and pacing the beach just as she did while she was alive.
It is claimed that the South Manitou Lighthouse is haunted by its former keepers. A detailed account of Aaron Sheridan, his wife and children 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 been. 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 in the island, I heard voices in the forest that didn't make sense given where I knew the other campers were at. 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 had 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 if 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 of 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 was one that 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 confessed that he too had experienced hearing voices, footsteps, and slamming of doors inside buildings that were otherwise unoccupied.
The one absolutely for sure ghost story is that of the trees that have been overtaken by the shifting sand dunes. The sand eventually kills the trees and leaves their dead remains behind. The best example of this can be seen along the Perched Dunes.
So whether there are actual ghosts or spirits is debatable, the beauty and solitude that South Manitou Island offers is not.