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A Haunted and Cursed Island in the Great Lakes

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Lying out over the great expanse of water that is Lake Superior, is a windswept archipelago of 21 storm beaten islands called the Apostle Islands. They are a place of breathtaking natural vistas and rugged scenery, hosting much natural splendor and a magnet for hikers, campers, boaters, kayakers, and other adventure seekers. It is also a place of historical significance, with old lighthouses set upon craggy perches, meant to keep ships from dashing upon the treacherous rocks, a job in which they were only sporadically successful considering the area’s track record of sunken ships. The area is also populated by numerous legends from both Natives and sailors alike, and the Apostle Islands have accrued a reputation as being some of the spookiest and most haunted places in the Great Lakes region.

Probably the most famous ghostly story from the Apostle Islands comes from one of the smallest of the bunch, a desolate, 2-mile-long slash of rock called Hermit Island, once known as Round Island and Ashuwaguindag Miniss, Ojibwe for “The Further Island” by the Native tribe. This place gets its Hermit namesake from an ex-fur trader and recluse known as William Wilson, who back in the 1840s took it upon himself to build a modest, ramshackle cabin there out in the middle of nowhere. He went there to escape his miserable life, having lost his wife to illness and seeking to live apart from civilization. Eking out an existence in that lonely, forsaken place, this weird old man had only one friend, an explorer and translator for the local Ojibwe tribe by the name of Benjamin Armstrong, who lived on the nearby Oak Island. Armstrong would often stop by to check up on the old man and make sure he was still alive, as well as making sure he had supplies and a steady supply of booze, which he sold to passing fishermen and partook of himself. There was a rumor that Wilson was actually quite wealthy, and had a small fortune tucked away hidden somewhere on the island. Indeed, Armstrong had on several occasions seen Wilson haul out bulging sacks of coins worth a king’s ransom in the day, but he never asked about it and this is the way it was for many years.

Hermit Island

One day in 1861, Armstrong noticed that the steady plume of smoke from Wilson’s cabin on the island had ceased. After weeks went by and no smoke, along with reports that no one had heard from Wilson in some time, Armstrong made his way out to that isolated island cabin with a search party, only to find Wilson crumpled up dead on his cabin floor, the apparent victim of a vicious murder. Armstrong told authorities that he thought it might have been someone looking for the hermit’s treasure, and after scouring the island no secret hoard of money could be found. Over the years, treasure hunters would flock to the island hoping to find some of the buried loot, and it was during this scramble to hunt for lost treasure that weird stories of the supernatural began to surface. Treasure hunters began to report seeing a spectral figure walking about the wilderness, as well as feeling intense feelings of being watched and the unshakeable feeling that they were not supposed to be there. There were also whispered rumors that the dead hermit had cursed the island, and that treasure hunters were meeting with inexplicable and grisly early demises. To those who saw the apparition, it looked a lot like the very dead Wilson, and it was enough to scare many into never returning.

In later years, a wealthy magnate by the name of Frederick Prentice took charge of the island and established the Excelsior quarry to mine for brown sandstone. By all accounts the quarry was a success at first, and brought Prentice loads of money, but the activity also seems to have seriously pissed off Wilson’s ghost. Miners increasingly began to tell tales of seeing the old man’s apparition, seeing strange orbs of light, and hearing loud bangs and booms from the gloom, as well as equipment breaking down for no reason, missing objects, and a much higher incidence of freak mining accidents than usual. At the same time, the large, opulent house that Prentice had just built on the island, called Cedar Bark Cottage, became ground zero for all manner of strange tales. One was that Wilson’s ghost actually chased away Prentice’s wife, who felt an inexplicable revulsion upon seeing the new home, and after that the supposed curse was in full effect as the mines began to have financial issues and were forced to close down, leaving Prentice with no other choice but to sell the island and move back to New York, leaving the house abandoned.

The curse seems to have remained. Hermit Island would later be bought by the Lake Superior Land & Development Company to be made into a Great Lakes resort, renovating the old Cedar Bark Cottage to be a hotel, but it all soon turned belly up when there was a lack of visitors. After that it went through a string of owners, all of whom fell on hard financial times and were unable to tame the island, with it going through cycles of activity and inevitable abandonment, despite the fact that it seemed like a prime location for a resort area. Efforts to build housing on Hermit Island similarly failed, and to this day it remains mostly uninhabited, now falling under the jurisdiction of The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore protected area, operated by the National Park Service. Whether this was the doing of Wilson’s curse or not, there are apparently sightings of his ghost roaming the wilderness there to this day. And so this little speck of land still lies out there, with all of its mysteries, alone and detached from reality as it always has been, perhaps haunted, perhaps not, but nevertheless with its own stories to tell.

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