The Ghost Ships of Lake Michigan

As you probably know, I love the ghost ships and ghostly tales of our beautiful and fearsome Lake Michigan.  In fact, I love them so much I created our popular Rouse Simmons fragrance in tribute to one of them.  Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of Chicago ghostlore is the belief that Lake Michigan boasts a supernatural “triangle” which seems to share many qualities with the famed “Bermuda Triangle,” that enigmatic portion of sea which has—reportedly since the voyages of Columbus– claimed strange effects on navigational instruments, wild jags in time perception by travelers, and frequent disappearances of ships and planes.  Even more haunting than these anomalies, however, are the legends of the ghost ships of our own beloved waters: misty masts and crewmen forever searching for ports and homes long gone.


During my research these past years into the hauntings of Gary, Indiana, I encountered stories of Lake Michigan ghost ships I hadn’t heard before.  Fascinating is the story of the phantom of Flying Cloud, a filmy form glimpsed off the coast of Miller Beach where the schooner capsized in November 1857, taking the lives of seven.  Nearby sails the ghost of the vanquished John Marshall, which is said to effect the instruments of those who pass through its ill-fated path even today.

As a Chicago ghostlorist, I’ve been long familiar with many of the phantom remains of the city’s maritime past.  There are the sorrowful souls yet seen and heard in the waters off the Wacker Drive dock where the 844 victims of the Eastland Disaster met their fate on the Chicago River on a summer morning in 1915.  At times, too, passers-by still feel compelled to leap into the river, possibly influenced by the panic of observers who made the plunge that day to save their loved ones. 

There are the ghosts of the Lady Elgin¸ which sank during a violent storm in 1860. Over a century later, victims are still seen walking out of the Lake Michigan waters, clothed in period dress, both on the shore at Northwestern University and at Whihala Beach in Whiting, Indiana, where many bodies washed up days later.  One particularly tragic spirit was reported for a generation at a nondescript burial ground in Highwood on the North Shore, where so many of the bodies were laid to rest, her vaporous form pleading with visitors to be noticed.

Above, Captain Hermann Schuenemann and crew of the “Christmas Tree Ship," the Rouse Simmons.

Above, the ruins of the Rouse Simmons. When she was discovered, Christmas trees were still found on board.

Late in each year, ghost hunters search for signs of the Rouse Simmons, the so called “Christmas Tree Ship” which vanished from Lake Michigan in November of 1912 while ferrying pine trees to the city to be used as holiday decorations.  No trace of the vessel or the crew—save for the captain’s wallet—was found for years, until a diver, searching for another wreck, discovered her remains with the Christmas trees still on board.  During all those lost years, visitors to the site of grave of the captain’s widow—in Acacia Park Cemetery—reported the strong scent of pine needles. 

Trees were planted near the grave in honor of the lost crew and captain.  Pedestrians traversing the riverside dock area near the Clark Street bridge, where the ship was scheduled to arrive, report each December the strong scent of Christmas trees. Our Rouse Simmons fragrance was inspired by this thrilling tale of history and hauntings. 

While these ghost ships have all found a welcome home in Chicago ghostlore, a fascinating figure I’d never encountered until now, however, is Louis Groh, captain of the tug O.B. Green, who was apparently a well-known Spiritualist who frequently consulted the spirits for advice as he navigated the Great Lakes waters.  Like so many Americans of the time, Groh accepted spirit communication—and aid—as part of normal life, a progressive advance that was as much a part of scientific growth as a thousand other advances of the 19th century.  

In a Chicago Tribune  article entitled, “Captain of O.B. Green Aided by Spirits,” the captain confided that he and his wife maintained contact through a sort of turn of the 19th century Skype/gps tracking service, thanks to the spirits:

Why my wife puts them to frequent use. When she mislays anything and cannot find it she asks the spirits. They write in words of fire just where it is, and sure enough there we find it. We put them to dally use thus in countless ways. …Often my wife feels worried about me and wants to know just where I am and what I am doing. She calls upon her guiding spirit and asks the question. The spirit goes out and sees me and comes back and tells her, all in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes even she wants to send to me and has no way to do so. She merely calls in spirit, asks to have me told, and knows it is done. The spirit appears to me here and writes the message for me. Sometimes I can see just the hand, tracing the burning letters. I am used to these things and they do not seem at all strange to me though they might to another.

Groh was known for the numerous spirits that populated his vessel, causing a variety of paranormal phenomena on board, and in talking about his long career related numerous stories of mysterious ghost ships that were frequently sighted by crew sailing the Great Lakes and beyond:

When the Maine was blown up it was said by New England fishermen that the specter of the destroyed vessel manned by a spirit crew was often seen cruising up and down the coast. It used to come along in a fog, and when it was abreast of a vessel the breeze would die out. A chill would come over the water and the vessel passed would seem to shiver as its salts hung idle. The specter crew stood at the guns and the foghorn was moaning.

From the masthead flew the signal, ‘ Cannot rest until avenged. ' 

Years ago the Thomas Hume sailed out of port one evening, and since then not a vestige of it has been found. Annually, however, on the date of its disappearance a specter schooner glides from under the lee of the northeast breakwater and moves off down the lake, regardless of wind. Once a tug Captain followed it to find where it was going, but when it was of Grosse Point and about ten miles from shore suddenly the masts and sails tottered and fell and the hull lurched and disappeared the sea, while a wall from the crew came across the water.

The captain then talked about his practice of “trumpeting” séances. A spirit or séance trumpet is a tin or aluminum cone which has traditionally been used in physical mediumship as a means of allowing spirits to communicate with the living.   It was during his talk of trumpeting that the captain’s attention turned to the vanquished Chicora, a beautiful vessel which was regarded as the gem of the Great Lakes when, on January 21, 1895,  it disappeared during a voyage from Milwaukee to St. Joseph, Michigan.  January 1895 had brought unusually thick ice to the waters of the Great Lakes, and experts theorize that the ice tore holes in the hull as the Chicora battled a ruthless gale on its return trip. The vessel was lost, seeming to vanish into thin air.

Above, The famed Chicora, a marvel of engineering and beauty.

The disappearance of the Chicora was a popular sensation, as many Wisconsin and Michigan residents had traveled on this state-of-the-art vessel to the World’s Fair of 1893: the Columbian Exposition which had made the White City—and Chicago– an international star.  Days after the vanishing, barrels of flour began washing up near South Haven, Michigan, forcing loved ones to accept that their hopes should be laid to rest.

After the disappearance, Groh claimed he had been contacted during a trumpet seance by the spirit of a man named John Ericson. Ericson had been a fireman on another vessel,T.T. Morford, which had exploded, leading to Ericson’s death.  After the Chicora’s disappearance, Captain Groh claimed that the spirit of Ericson had promised to help him locate the wreckage of the elegant ship with the aid of ghostly knowledge. Through mediumship, Ericson had vowed:

I’m coming back to see you again and locate it on paper. But if you pass over the spot before that I’ll strike you with a chill and throw you to the floor of the pilot- house so you’ll know it’s the place.

Sadly, and despite the unswerving faith of Groh in his spirit friends, the information never came through.  To this day, the Chicora remains lost under the icy waters of the Great Lakes, though its phantom counterpart still sails.  One can only believe that Captain Groh, too, still pilots the ghost tug O.B. Green, sailing the routes of time past, out on the Lake Michigan waves.


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