Send Letter to Editor
Captain Santa and The Christmas Tree Ship
Edmund Fitzgerald | SS Milwaukee | S/V Denis Sullivan
Things that go bump in the night
While the shipwrecks tend to be the sweethearts of armchair adventurers and divers alike, it is often the captain and crew who commanded those doomed vessels or in more cases, saw ships to safety, that make the most intriguing stories.
On November 10, 1975, in the most famous – and infamous – shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank about 17 miles off Whitefish Point, Michigan in a treacherous storm. Its crew was lost in the icy waters of Lake Superior and later memorialized in a 1976 song by Gordon Lightfoot.
What happened that fateful night is the subject of debate. People have blamed everything from flying saucers to broken hatch covers for the fact the ship came to rest in two pieces on the floor of Lake Superior. While the Fitzgerald is not located in Wisconsin waters, its legend intrigues worldwide believers of the "witch of November," the strong gales that doomed many ships on Lake Superior.
Fall 1929 has gone down in Great Lakes maritime history as one of the roughest seasons on record. At a time when the stock market was plunging, business interest on the Great Lakes was hit again by stormy waters.
The SS Milwaukee was a car ferry that traveled from Michigan to Wisconsin. Its skipper was Captain John "Heavy Weather" McKay.
Heavy Weather's luck ran out, however, on October 29, 1929 when a fierce storm claimed the SS Milwaukee and its crew. Sixteen people died.
S/V Denis Sullivan
So significant were schooners to Milwaukee's maritime heritage that Pier Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization, commissioned a schooner to be built as a floating classroom and link between Milwaukee and the Great Lakes.
In 2000, the S/V Denis Sullivan was constructed on site. The tall ship is a rare glimpse of days gone by and is named after a prominent 19th century Great Lakes sailor and businessman, Captain Denis Sullivan.
Sullivan was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1849 and as a child immigrated with his family to Dunnville, Ontario near Lake Erie. He began sailing when just 17, and in 1873 settled in Milwaukee. As an active sailor he got to know local shipping companies and was awarded command of a new schooner called Moonlight, which he sailed from 1874-1885. Sullivan later commanded a steamship, served as a marine inspector, a vessel manager and a marine insurance broker. He eventually formed his own company in Chicago and by the end of his career became a valued member of the Chicago Harbor Commission and the Chicago Board of Trade. He died in 1918.
Things that go bump in the night
Lighthouse keepers hold a reputation for being extremely dedicated and sometimes eccentric. So dedicated are they, in fact, that in some cases they are thought to never leave their posts even after death.
Among the stories of eerie apparitions reported in the documentary, "Haunted Lighthouses of The Great Lakes" (Southport Video Productions) are:
In his book, "Gone Missing," Wisconsin folk tale author Dennis Boyer recounts supposed supernatural brushes in harbor taverns, on car ferries and within lighthouses along Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
But it is the Apostle Islands that perhaps supplies the prime fodder for Great Lakes maritime folklore as the islands are rumored to house dozens of characters who linger on land and along the water's edge long after their last fishing nets were cast.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.