by Loren Rhoads
Just north of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies Mackinac Island, the #1 tourist destination in the state. When I was a kid, my folks took me and my brother up several times to explore the old fort—complete with costumed soldiers doing marching drills and cannons fired out over the water—and a museum dedicated to a doctor who had studied digestion through another man’s abdominal war wound. We loved it.
In 1898, the island banned motorized traffic, so the chief modes of transportation remain bicycles and horses. Horse-drawn taxis deliver tourists from the ferry docks to their hotels. Horse-drawn tour buses circle the island, lecturing about the island’s native history, the time it served as a hub in the fur trade, and the two battles fought on its soil during the War of 1812. Since those exciting days, Mackinac Island has become a quiet, relaxing retreat, where life moves at a slower pace.
I hadn’t been up to the island in twenty years when my mom suggested a trip. My parents and I reached the Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-naw) Island Visitors Center ten minutes before it closed for the afternoon. Mom asked if they offered the night tour of the village, led by a schoolteacher, which she’d taken on a previous visit. The answer was no. Not missing a beat, Mom asked, “Is there a tour of the graveyard?”
I couldn’t have been prouder of her for thinking to ask. Lucky me: there was a one-time cemetery tour. Tickets were ten dollars. I would have happily paid for Mom and Dad to join me, but they didn’t seem inclined. It was hard to decide to go alone, since the tour didn’t start until dusk and I wasn’t all that familiar with the island, but I really wanted to take a night tour—my first—of a cemetery. I bought an advance ticket, so that the tour wouldn’t be called off for lack of interest.
As the afternoon wore on, I grew progressively more anxious. I don’t like to explore unfamiliar places alone. Fifteen years earlier, I was attacked by a man my university had on suicide watch. He grabbed me in a busy hallway in my dorm as I walked with a girlfriend. Since then, my sense of safety requires the presence of other people. I have no illusion that just being with them would stop an attack—but maybe, like the last time, they could chase down my assailant. Still, my parents had no desire to climb to the top of the island to reach the cemeteries. If I went, I would have to go alone.
After dinner, I walked my parents back to the hotel to get Mom’s umbrella. They planned to stroll through the village and watch the sunset, but rain clouds threatened from the north. We said our goodbyes and I marched off like I wasn’t a coward.
My heart thudded in my chest as I climbed steep Bogan Lane. The street dead-ended at a wooden staircase that led upward for more stories than I could count. I wouldn’t have chosen such an isolated path, but I didn’t have time to find another way up the bluff to the cemetery. I paused at the foot of the stairway, trying to calm down. I would be safe, of course. This was an island. No one would dare molest me because they’d have no way to escape. The ferries stopped running at sunset.
Unless they owned a boat, I thought, realizing that it would look suspicious to sail away after dark.
It crossed my mind that I could just eat the ticket price, go into “town,” and have a drink somewhere until I could slink back to the hotel. Mom and Dad need never know that I was afraid to wander the island alone. All the same, I really, really wanted to attend the graveyard tour.
I would be safe, I promised myself, then started upward. Trees shadowing the stairs made them feel enclosed. Even though I didn’t pass a soul as I climbed, I couldn’t allow myself to pause and rest. When I reached the top of the staircase, my knees quivered.
A handful of mansions lined a paved street that stretched off to my right. I’d expected to find a bench at the summit, where I might catch my breath and load film into my camera. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. I guess the locals didn’t want tourists loitering in front of their houses. An old-fashioned street lamp stood there, so I knew I’d have at least one light on the walk back. I checked my backpack to be sure I’d brought my mini flashlight.
The path turned left, into the forest. I felt like I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs, so I could find my way back after dark. The lonely road dwindled to what seemed like a bike path between the trees. My nerves twanged again. I wished my sixty-year-old parents had come along, although my dad could never have made the climb.
I’d left the island map with Dad, but remembered that I wanted Garrison Road. When I reached the path that ran behind the fort, I found a sign pointing to the cemeteries half a mile away. Cemeteries, plural, I noted with excitement. I picked up my pace. I didn’t have any sense how long I take to walk half a mile. Usually distances aren’t so carefully measured for me. I hustled, since the ticket said the tour started at 7:30, instead of the 8 p.m. printed on the flyer I’d cajoled out of the clerk at the Visitors Center.
I reached Sainte Anne’s Cemetery first. Its stone gates opened on the left side of Garrison Road, where a sign forbade riding horses in the graveyard. It struck me as sad that tourists needed to be asked to behave.
I stopped in the shadows at the side of the road to load my Pentax K-1000. My watch said 7:15. I felt sticky in the August humidity, even in a T-shirt. My hands shook as I tried to thread the film. The light was fading, but I thought if I hurried, I might be able to take some pictures with the aperture dialed all the way open. Hopefully I could hold steady enough, once I calmed down.
Mosquitoes whined around my ears. I needed to get some bug lotion on fast. While I slicked myself up, a couple of costumed players wandered by, discussing whether they would have sex. The woman asked cheerily if I could share some “bug juice.”
After I gave her a handful of lotion, I ducked into the Catholic cemetery. Sainte Anne’s sprawled across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north. The oldest graves seemed to lie on the Garrison side. I didn’t see any angels, but lots of stones dated from the last half of the 19th century. I knew they must have been ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” so finding them was a nice surprise.
As the afternoon light failed, the colors looked very strange. Everything took on a yellowy pallor as the setting sun tinged the overcast. I attached my huge flash and tested it a couple of times, but it took forever to recharge. I hoped my battery would last. If only I’d come prepared for this, instead of rushing around. I wondered if I could settle down enough, once the tour began, to enjoy myself.
I watched people come into the Catholic Cemetery, then climb over its low fieldstone wall to get out, rather than backtrack to a gate. Probably these were same people who needed to be told not to ride their horses through the graveyard.
About 7:30 I crossed Garrison Road to the Post Cemetery. The burial ground lay in a slight depression, surrounded by a white picket fence. Even though summer hadn’t ended yet, a tree inside the graveyard blazed orange. Regulation military headstones stood at attention in straight lines, joined by a variety of other sorts of tombstones. I liked seeing a military cemetery with personality.
My camera crapped out. It was too dark to figure out if the battery had died or if I’d screwed up loading the film. One more reason to switch to a digital, I thought. Scowling, I put the heavy Pentax into my backpack. I’d have to come back in the daylight, if I wanted photographs.
I needn’t have worried about the tour being cancelled. People kept arriving on foot and by horse-drawn taxi until eventually sixty people clustered around. The organizers split us up. My group of fifteen went off with a good-looking college boy named Brian.
Rather than touring just the Post Cemetery, we saw all three graveyards. My group started in the Protestant Cemetery, the farthest one west and the most recently opened. Oaks, pines, and beeches separated the Protestants from the military graveyard. A low wall of openwork stone, pierced like lace, surrounded their graves.
Fragrant with cedar and pine, the Protestant Cemetery was one of the best smelling graveyards I’ve visited. I had to watch my step as acorns rolled under my feet.
The first grave we visited belonged to the man who’d made Mackinac Island a nationally recognized resort. An actor with a silver mustache and a long black coat played Eugene Sullivan, social director for the Grand Hotel, who reminisced about his boss, Jimmy “the Comet” Hayes. James R. Hayes had managed the Grand Hotel during the Victorian era. He decided that Michigan alone couldn’t support the hotel, so he courted the wealthy of Chicago. When he heard Theodore Roosevelt planned to tour the country, Hayes invited the President to be a guest of the hotel. Before Roosevelt could decline, Hayes wrote all the major Midwestern newspapers to announce the President’s visit. Roosevelt never came, but the press attention cemented the hotel’s reputation.
I knew from the flyer that there would be costumed characters on the tour, but I liked that they didn’t play the dead people at our feet. Instead, actors played friends and family reminiscing about the dead.
One of my favorite stories in the Protestant Cemetery regarded William Marshall, Mackinac Island’s longest serving soldier. During the Civil War, Marshall manned the fort alone, guarding three soldiers from Tennessee imprisoned there. When his term of service expired, he reenlisted himself.
Our tour group returned to the Post Cemetery, where interments may have begun in the mid-1820s. Records show that forty American soldiers died at the fort between 1796 and 1835, but only a dozen graves remained marked in 1835. Those who fell during the War of 1812 probably still lie under the Wawashkamo Golf Course, where the British buried them.
I halted beside by the lamb sleeping atop the monument for William A. and Frank M., sons of William and Matilda Marshall, aged “2 years, 4 months, 9 days” and “2 years, 3 months.” While it’s rare for wives to be allowed burial in military cemeteries, I don’t think I’d ever seen children buried amidst the soldiers. Their presence testified to the isolation of inhabitants of the island. Their epitaph made me sad: “Short pain, short grief, dear babes were they, now joys, eternal and divine.”
The last military funeral on the island celebrated Private Coon Walters in 1891. Four years later, the US Army abandoned Fort Mackinac, leaving behind the military burial ground. The cemetery fell into disrepair until the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began maintenance in 1905.
The final graveyard on our tour was Saint Ann’s, where I’d begun the evening. The cemetery had originally been called Bonny Brae, or goodly meadows. It contained older graves moved up from the first Catholic cemetery on Hoban and Market Streets, just north of the Village Inn restaurant, where I’d had dinner with my folks. That earlier cemetery, created in 1779, had filled to capacity before being disassembled.
Another ghost evoked by the tour was Matthew Geary, an Irish immigrant who became a government fish inspector and made his fortune. He was remembered by Jim Union, a cooper, who had a “wooden marker because he couldn’t afford a stone like Mr. Geary.” Coopers made barrels to crate up whitefish to ship to Chicago. Their necessary labor didn’t pay as well as the bribery fishing captains could offer the inspectors. Union’s grave, now unmarked, had been the first in Sainte Anne’s Cemetery in 1852.
When the graveyard tour ended, people drifted uncertainly off into the twilight. I’d hoped to meet some nice women with whom I could walk back to town, but the tour had been such a whirlwind that there hadn’t been time to speak to anyone else. The group simply hustled from actor to actor, heard the stories of the people whose graves we clustered around, and rushed on.
I still didn’t have a map of the island. I suspected that I could walk down past the fort and into the village below by following someone, but I wondered if I’d remember which street my hotel was on if I came at it from that direction. Better to go back the way I’d come.
I trailed a French Canadian couple down the road that wound past the back of Fort Mackinac. The fortifications glowed ghostly bluish white in the half-light. Oak branches strained toward the path, trying to close out the darkening sky.
When we reached the row of mansions at the crest of the hill, the French Canadians turned left, leaving me to face the staircase alone. Down is always preferable to up, but I stood at the landing, looking out over the village below. Old-fashioned streetlights twinkled in the darkness. The breeze carried me a breath of laughter. Somewhere, a dog barked. Other than that, the lack of automobiles on the island made for a kind of quiet that I’d forgotten existed.
I felt more peaceful now. I didn’t mind being completely alone in this strange place—and I felt entirely alone in the quiet darkness. I’d been calmed by exploring the graveyards. Nothing bad had ever happened to me in a cemetery, I realized. I’d always felt safe there.
A guttural engine revved up as the last ferry chugged out of the harbor. Once the boat left, we were trapped on the island for the night.
The wind blew colder, raising goosebumps over my humid skin.
Time to climb down.
This essay is excerpted from Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, now back in print in paperback — with the ebook soon to come!
Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She was the editor of the original anthology called Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am starting up the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.