Ghosts Of The Apostle Islands


Originally published in
Lake Superior
July, 2004

Received bronze award, "Best Feature" category
Minnesota Magazine & Publications Association

“Are there any ghosts out on the islands?”

That’s the question I hear most often in my job as Park Historian at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Sooner or later, whether I’m telling visitors about the park’s superb collection of lighthouses, or sharing stories of the islands’ farmers, loggers, and fishermen, The Question will come up.

“Are there any places that are… haunted?”

It’s hard to answer, because I believe there are many haunted places in the Apostle Islands… but maybe not in the way that the questioners mean.

In years of  research, I’ve still to come up with a single traditional story featuring eerie apparitions or things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Yet there are plenty of spots on the islands that give me a chill every time I visit them: places suffused with the spirits of the men and women who lived, and sometimes lost, their lives on the Apostle Islands. These sites are not hard to find; you just have to know what to look for.


Quarry walls, Basswood Island.

Quarry walls, Basswood Island


There’s the abandoned quarry on Basswood Island, for instance. It’s hard for me to stand beneath its looming, moss-covered  walls without thinking of Mrs. McCrea, a quarryman’s wife who lost her life in a Christmas Eve blizzard more than a century ago.

We don't know too much about this young mother - even her first name has long been forgotten- but we know what happened on the day she died.

On the morning of December 24, 1893, Mrs. McCrea joined two of her neighbors from the little quarry village to walk across the ice to Bayfield. The goal of their trip: Christmas shopping. With her husband Dan at home to mind their two small children, the excursion must have been a welcome break in the island wife's winter routine.

At three that afternoon, their presents bought, the trio started back toward Basswood. The three-mile trip should have gone quickly enough, but the weather changed suddenly. A blinding blizzard enveloped the party, and they lost all trace of their route. Pummeled by the storm, they wandered for hours on the frozen lake.

As darkness fell,  Dan McCrea grew worried. Leaving the children, he took a lantern and compass, then set out onto the lake. He walked all the way to Bayfield, hoping to find her waiting out the storm. Receiving the unwelcome news that she'd left hours ago, he turned again toward the island.

It was on the way back that McCrea found them. Cold and exhausted, the party was barely a mile from safety. His wife was in the worst condition of the three, too weak to walk. McCrea picked her up and began carrying her homeward. Before they reached Basswood's shore, she died in his arms.

The quarry closed for good a few years after that sad Christmas, but its stone walls bear witness to the work of quarrymen like Dan McCrea. Nearby, keen observers will also find faint traces of the cottages where their wives and children lived.


McCloud-Brigham Farm site

McCloud-Brigham Farm site

About two miles up the trail from the quarry is another place where I often

look for Basswood Island’s ghosts. Here, the forest opens into a grassy field, edged with crumbling stone walls that extend from nowhere to nowhere. At one end of the field is an ancient apple orchard; at the other, the jumbled remains of several wooden buildings.

This deserted farmstead had several residents over the years; among them was the eccentric recluse, Joseph McCloud. “Judge McCloud,” people called him, because he had been a prominent jurist in Wisconsin’s early statehood days: district attorney, then county judge.

Perhaps his experiences in the legal system soured him on mankind, because around 1870, Judge McCloud retired from public life and built a cabin on the island. His passion, however, was not in farming, but in music. He brought a small pump organ to the island, and when rare visitors stopped by, he would insist on playing his latest compositions for their bemused appreciation.

Judge McCloud died in 1900, and the farm was totally abandoned by 1923. Nonetheless, the site is easy to recognize, and tasty apples still grow on the untended trees. I haven’t heard organ music yet, but I keep listening.



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