Chilling Great Lakes lore

Event draws many to Marquette Maritime Museum

Glass bottles illuminated with light set the mood for spooky stories of the Great Lakes at the Marquette Maritime Museum Thursday night. (Journal photos by Cecilia Brown)

MARQUETTE — Tales as bone-chilling as Lake Superior’s waters were shared at the Marquette Maritime Museum Thursday night, as ghost-story lovers arrived under appropriately gloomy skies to hear accounts of the Great Lakes told by renowned storyteller Orion Couling.

“Tonight, I encourage us to play in the shadows, just a little bit,” Couling said at the opening of the storytelling.

Couling said that he feels facing fears surrounding the “darker side” of supernatural lore and happenings can help people gain a better understanding of themselves, as well as history, culture and society.

The stories shared, he said, have been collected from many times, places and people.

“Let ourselves imagine, let ourselves enjoy this folklore — because, my friends, these are legends and lore and these are all based upon someone’s encounters, passed on from person to person, gathered in books and passed on over campfires,” Couling said. “People say, ‘Are these stories true, are these true stories, are these true?’ What is true, my friends, is subjective.”

Couling shared many of his hair-raising stories about the Great Lakes under the light of a Fresnel lens in a darkened exhibit hall of the museum, surrounded by historic maritime artifacts and glowing glass bottles that were initially mysterious to the large audience.

The storytelling began with an old, ominous tale about the mysterious disappearance of the first tall ship to ever sail the Great Lakes — the 60-foot Griffon, which disappeared without a trace on Lake Michigan in 1679.

To this day, the physical remains of the Griffon haven’t been found, even with advances in modern shipwreck detection technology, he said.

“We’re finding more and more shipwrecks all the time, all the time — to this day, no one has any idea what happened to the Griffon. She’s gone,” Couling said.

However, many ill-fated crews have seen her specter while on the waters of the Great Lakes, Couling said.

“They talk about how she brings storms, they talk about how she brings howling winds and squalls,” he said. “They talk about, as you sail by her, seeing the skeleton crew reaching out, and they say, should you see her, it’s an omen of absolute death.”

After his first story, Couling left the story selection up to fate. Those mysterious glowing glass bottles turned out to each contain a story, and he directed the audience to select one.

The audience picked wisely, he said, as the next tale was about tommyknockers — shadowy spirits of mines and tunnels that are oft forgotten in modern times.

“Tommyknockers, … the ghosts of the dead miners, they live in the mines, they hang out in the shadows,” he said, noting they “could be dangerous.”

Couling advised that these shadowy spirits can be appeased with offerings of pasty crust, which just might inspire the spirit to knock before an impending cave-in.

“You know that if you’re smart, you will leave a bit of the (pasty) crust there for the tommyknockers because, you see, you want them to like you, because if they like you, they’ll warn you about the cave-ins. That knock will come,” he said.

Even in modern times, Couling said, it can’t hurt to leave a little offering of pasty crust beneath a tree — just to be safe.

Couling also shared stories about the Great Lakes’ very own Bermuda Triangle.

“If we compare (the Bermuda Triangle) to our local neighbor, to a more geographically local event, it doesn’t actually stand up in comparison,” he said. “See, it’s like seven or eight crafts in the Bermuda Triangle. The Lake Michigan Triangle, however — 22 ships have gone through, all kinds of sizes, and just not come out.”

The wreckage has never been found, even with the aid of modern technology, he said.

“(These ships disappeared) in the southern basin of Lake Michigan, off two rivers,” he said. “It’s only 300 feet deep there. We can map that, we scan that, we do all kinds of figuring out shipwrecks, but where are they? They don’t exist.”

Beyond the disappearance of so many ships, Couling said, a ship’s captain “ceased to exist” in the night while sailing over the region — as did an airplane in the 1950s.

“Sometimes, despite your best planning, your ticket has been called,” he said.

One of the final stories Couling shared hit home for much of the audience — as the ghost story takes place at Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, just several hundred feet away from where the audience sat.

“There’s a little girl nearby I want you to meet. We actually don’t know her name, it could be Jessie, it could be Celia, we’re not really sure who she is but she lives up in the lighthouse — well, does she live? Not really. But she’s there,” he said. “She’s been encountered left and right. Some folks say they see her out there in the light looking down, a little pale face looking out the window. Some folks say they see her just behind that dark little staircase down below next to the winch room.”

Visitors have also felt a little hand tugging at their elbow, only to find no one there — and footprints repeatedly appear on the lighthouse’s deck, no matter how many times it’s been repainted, he said.

The most mysterious part of it, Couling says, is that there’s no record of a child ever passing away at the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. But he has a theory about who the girl is — and how she ended up at the lighthouse.

“Maybe it was on a summer’s day in Marquette, a little girl playing with the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, playing out there with Celia, and she has the single best day a human can have … We don’t know who she is, but she has bounced back and now she’s living (that day on) repeat,” he said.

Several more tales were shared with the audience, including one of a little girl who disappeared at Fort Wilkins at Copper Harbor and is fabled to wander the land, as well as the legend of Mishipeshu, a sea monster of the Great Lakes.

Couling says ghost stories provide a valuable bridge between history and imagination.

“Ghost stories have the ability to capture the imagination and yet still inspire and desire for the truth,” he said. “And so when you’re hearing the history about a place and you start hearing the ghost stories about a place, it somehow ties in that left and right brain at the same time and you’re completely invested.”

Couling has gathered inspiration for his stories from books, historians and individuals with tales to tell, he said, then, he weaves many details together to make a story his own.

“You go out and move past reading them in books and you start collecting them from people firsthand and you ask them about their experiences,” he said, noting his whole family has worked together, collecting and honing spooky folklore to share with others.

Couling has told ghost stories and given ghost tours across the country, and has worked as an educator and interpretive guide at Old Mill Creek at Fort Mackinac, The Michigan Renaissance Festival and multiple tall ships. He said he’s grateful for the opportunity to share the stories at the Marquette Maritime and he plans to return next summer, as he has many more stories to tell.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is