November 12, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
In an essay written in 1941 for a WPA Writers’ Project compilation about Michigan, Ivan Walton explored the lore of the Great Lakes and its sailors.
Included: a brief discussion of “yarns” — fantastical narratives of peril, told to a novice as sort of a hazing rite. You can almost hear stifled, grimacing laughter from the sailors who are in on the joke:
The tower of the Ford Gratiot Light at Port Huron, for example, was pointed out to apprentices as marking the place where George Washington was scalped by the Indians and buried. Saginaw Bay was the haunt of the particularly ferocious tigerfish which, at times, would attack passing vessels and do great harm if not appeased by a good dinner — and of course, like their jungle namesake, they preferred tender boys to toughened sailors.
In northern Lake Michigan, the Mormon pirates who lived on Beaver Island not infrequently lured vessels to their destruction at night by false lights and … made away with the crew and cargo. Distant Lake Superior was the home of some great sea serpents, which, at long intervals, would come to the surface when a vessel was passing and pick off any convenient member of the crew.
This Wednesday marked the 35th Anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster. Yesterday, for Veterans Day, we visited the grave of my grandfather, who served in the Navy during World War II.
I’ve been dreaming of sailors all week — of the bones of steamers and cargo and Captains and immigrants and husbands strewn at the bottom of the Lakes.
Ivan Walton’s essay* filled that tragic little hollow with fondness and legend. And that was nice.
(*which also provides a robust collection of shanties!)