The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Post (Detroit, MI), 15 Sep 1884

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A Mysterious Light over the Wreck of the Marine City

A few years ago the steamer Marine City, plying between Detroit and Lake Huron ports, caught fire just off Harrisville and was run near shore when the passengers were nearly all rescued, after a struggle in the water, and the hull sank.*

She had been at one time a fine craft and a favorite passenger boat. In one of my trips along that shore I chanced to fall in company with a dweller of that country and the conversation turned upon the mystery that followed the destruction of that old craft.

"Have you heard of the phantom light which can be seen at midnight on the anniversary of the burning of the Marine City?" asked the intelligent old fisherman.

"I never did; no, what is it?"

"Come out her on the dock with me tonight at 12 o'clock and you will see."

I accepted the invitation, and at the appointed hour we strolled out on the pier; and while we were on the way, "There, look," said he, and sure enough, as plain as the stars that twinkled in the heavens, a light, apparently a lantern, hovered above and around the old wreck.

I confess I was somewhat startled, and rubbed my eyes to make sure it was no optical illusion. It moved about slowly, as if carried by some unseen hand. Was it not some boatman moving about? No, for it was not so dark nor so far away but a small boat would have been seen and heard.

I did not like to give it up, and so we engaged a boat and rowed up the shore towards the light. The crisp, evening air was as still as if hushed in a sleep, and as I bent over the oars with a vigorous will, I instinctively feathered them and handled them as noiselessly as if engaged in some midnight adventure requiring nerve and daring. Somehow the love of adventure does not seem to desert us as we creep out of our boyhood and enter the sedate period of manhood; and the desire to fathom the unfathomable is a part of man's nature. The old fisherman entered heartily into the spirit of the occasion, and offered to relieve me at the oars.

"Your a good 'un at the oar, but if your hand is not in you'll lame yourself, for it's a good mile up there."

Easing up a bit and pulling more cautiously, I glanced over my shoulder toward the light. It seemed to be receding, a sort of ignis fatuus;** and again I doubled over the oars.

Soon we were at the old sunken hull, but the light had disappeared. We rowed around the burnt wreck resting in shallow water and looked down into its coal black depths, but could see no cause for phosphorescent lights. Then we rowed to the shore and examined the banks - sand and gravel - nothing else; no swamp or rotten wood, nor stream of water near; in fact nothing, that I could discover, that would cause this will-o'-the-wisp.

We got into the boat and my companion seemed depressed and inclined to silence, and I saw that he was seized with a sort of superstition, and so I thought to distract his thoughts a little and drew him out as to his theory regarding the mystery, and this was it:

"You believe that men have souls that live after death?"

"I most certainly do."

"Well, don't you believe that souls have the power to talk to us in one way or another?"

"I am not so sure about that."

"You've heard of folks dreaming about their friends being in danger and soon after get word that the danger was real, and possibly their friends died at the very hour they were dreamed about. Now, what would you call it?"

"Well, I should call it a communication with the spirit world that I don't care to have anything to do with until I have done with this world."

"Then you are a spiritualist, I see?"

"Not if I know myself; unless in the sense that all professedly Christian people (whether really or professedly I do not say) are spiritualists, to a certain extent. But what about that light? Are you getting into the theology of the light? What is it?"

"Well, sir, I'll tell you what I think it is. It was said that the Marine City was set on fire by one of the deck hands or firemen out of revenge for some real or imaginary wrong, and that he was one of the few that was lost, and my opinion is, if that is true, that he is doomed as a punishment to bring that light here every night during the month in which the boat was lost, to light the others that were lost safely over the "dark river," and possibly as a warning to others that may be like tempted to murder or other wickedness. We can't tell what God's ways are, but we can see the warnings all around us, and I believe this is one of God's beacon lights."

"Well, my friend, there is certainly no harm in the thought. I am at least ready to give it up as a mystery that I can't fathom - and here we are at the dock again."

Media Type:
Item Type:
*August 29, 1880 - up to 20 lives were lost
**ignis fatuus - "A wide variety of spectral lights, whose alleged purpose is to herald death or play tricks on travelers at night. It literally mean "foolish fire" and is so named because anyone who follows such a light is foolish." (The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley)
Date of Original:
15 Sep 1884
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Dave Swayze
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Detroit Post (Detroit, MI), 15 Sep 1884