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I stand at this exposed point of land, watching the sunset over the Manitou Islands. Directly in front of me is Fox Island and to the northeast I can make out the smokestacks of Charlevoix. I can see why the lighthouse is here—the wind-whipped water looks like it could toss a ship. I think of the sailors’ mantra: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning. I hope that’s a good omen for me tonight.
Staley leaves for the night. She tells me that my great-great-great-grandfather may have some ghostly company in the light. In 1967 lighthouse keeper John Marken and his wife Bernice died when coming home on Christmas Eve—they hit a tree near the lighthouse as they rounded a bend in the road. A Coast Guardman died here of a heart attack. A woman dropped dead at the kitchen sink, the cause of death of unknown. Staley told me about the night she stayed here with a relative of hers. They slept in the twin beds in the apartment I’ll be staying in. In the middle of the night the relative had a dream about a woman peeling an apple with an old-fashioned apple peeler. The relative had never seen one before, but she could describe it perfectly. Then she felt a presence in the covers, almost as though something was entering her body. “Which bed?” I ask Staley. “Yours,” she replies. It’s going to be a fun night.
Peter Neilson Broder was just 9 years old when he left the maze of cobblestone streets and red-roofed houses of his seafaring hometown of Dragør, Denmark. The town sits eight miles from Copenhagen on the Oresund, the strait that separates Denmark from Sweden and that connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea. The young Peter was sent to be a cabin boy on a ship. He came by boat three times to the United States as he grew up a sailor. Each time, before the ship got to port in New York, the shipmaster locked him up so they could keep him to work on the return voyage. This happened twice. The third time he jumped overboard as the boat approached New York and swam for shore as fast as he could. In his 20’s he shortened his name to Peter Nelson and became the captain on his own whaling boat that plied the waters of Iceland and Greenland. He wore a gold hoop earring, as was tradition for seamen.
Nelson went to Buffalo, New York, by canal at 31 years old and sailed the Great Lakes. Eventually he captained his own vessel, the schooner Venus. Captain Nelson sailed the Venus with Captain Harry Boardman and Perry Hannah to the site of a little sawmill on the banks of West Bay that became what we know today as Traverse City. Captain Boardman had furnished his son Horace Boardman with the money to build the mill and the elder Boardman was ready to sell it to Hannah. Perry Hannah recalled his first voyage to the base of Grand Traverse Bay, which he took with Captain Peter Nelson at the helm.
In the first days of May, 1851, I left Chicago on the little schooner Venus, in company with Captain Harry Boardman, a rich old farmer who lived in DuPage county, about five miles southeast of Naperville. Captain Peter Nelson, one of the finest Dane sailors that ever walked the deck of a ship, was master of the little schooner Venus. We had left Chicago on our journey north but two or three days when we met one of those terrible northeast gales, which were always sure to last three full days. We were well down Lake Michigan, and our brave old seaman decided that we must weather out the storm instead of returning, and never a more terrific time did I see in my life than those three days, pounding backward and forward across Lake Michigan.
As soon as the gale subsided … we rounded into the Old Mission harbor just as the sun was going down behind the tops of the tall maples. And on the banks of the western side sat perhaps forty or fifty old Indian hunters. I could see with my glass that each one had his pipe in his mouth and they were sitting on the bank watching the movement of our ship, chatting and talking. About the middle of the afternoon we reached our moorings alongside of the little slab dock that was built in the western part of the bay. We soon made our way up to the mill. There we met the captain’s son, but all hands were taking a rest. The good natured son had stopped the mill, allowing the hands to go in and have a game of euchre. This made … Captain Boardman more willing than ever to sell.
—The Morning Record, Sunday, December 10, 1899