SHORT: MICHIGAN’S CEMETERY ISLAND

It was the 1850’s, and people were scared. There had been sightings, bumps in the night, cries carried on the wind. It began as a murmur among the people of the small mining outpost on an island in Lake Superior. People were whispering of wandering ghosts and disturbed spirits. The murmurs lost their inhibitions and turned into gossip, and the gossip left unchecked became hysteria.

The problem, they decided, was that the mining operation had disturbed a burial ground and now the disinterred spirits were on the move, seeking rest once again. Mining operations in the dark shafts had stopped. People scuddled quickly about by day making sure they were safe in their cabins by night.

A desperate plea for help was sent across the straits to Jesuit priests living in Thunder Bay, Canada. The Jesuits, who knew how to handle such matters, came. Plans were made for the holy men to remove the graveyard’s remains transferring them across the harbor to a tiny lump of land breaking the surface of Lake Superior. Everybody knows spirits can’t travel across water. Both the people and the ghosts could then rest in peace. And this is what they did.

Isle Royale has copper mining pits dating back to 2,000 BCE. Native Americans pounded the malleable metal into tools and weapons. Because of the great technological advance it brought, great spiritual significance was attached to copper. It was obviously a boon from benevolent Spirits who otherwise guarded it carefully and should be received with humility, gratitude and reverence. Simply taking the precious metal in an attitude of entitlement would irritate the spirits charged with the gift of copper.

Trail sign at the Siskowit Mine site

The French stumbled across Isle Royale in their explorations early in American history. The Native Americans had long abandoned their copper mines on the island and the explorers made a note of it. In 1837, Michigan was given control of the island. The Siskowit Mining Association began operations on Isle Royale a few years later in 1847.

Life was harsh for families relocated to the remote outpost in Lake Superior. Where there’s life, there is also death. A graveyard was hastily created for those who died during the brief years the Siskowit Mine was in operation. With little to show for their efforts, the mining operation shut down in 1855.

Cemetery Island in the foreground

If you’re backpacking on Isle Royale in Lake Superior and if you happen to spend a night at Daisy Farm campground, you might want to get up early for a beautiful sunrise over Rock Harbor. As the night recedes and dawn breaks, Caribou Island appears across the harbor out of the gloom. As the orange sky turns to lavender turns to blue, and the morning mist drifts away, you’ll notice a small nubbin of land has emerged, seemingly from the depths of Superior herself, right in front of Caribou Island – Cemetery Island.

There are nine marked graves on Cemetery Island, maybe more unmarked. Exactly who they are, or were, is unknown. One is that of a child. The graves themselves disturbed once again, looted by grave robbers mining them for whatever treasures they may have held.

It is evening and I’m sitting out on the dock at Daisy Farm campground looking across Rock Harbor to the islands on the other side – Mott Island, Caribou Island, Cemetery Island. I’ve come down to the water’s edge to look for the loons I have heard crying. But sitting there scanning the rippling surface for the birds in the fading light, waves softly patting the sand, forlorn cries drifting in from all around, there are no loons.

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