Traverse City, Michigan – It’s hard not to get a little spooked at night if you’re walking around the Grand Traverse Commons. Surrounded by thick forest, the turreted buildings of Traverse City’s former mental asylum loom out of the darkness like ruined castles, filled with strange shadows and furtive rustlings.
It should come as no surprise, then, that dozens of legends about ghostly appearances have accumulated around the 19th century asylum, which is being gradually redeveloped into a smart “village” of condos, boutiques, offices and restaurants. There are stories of mournful apparitions in the halls, strange physical sensations – and even an enormous gnarled tree that’s supposed to mark the “gateway to Hell.”
People can be forgiven for letting their imaginations run away with them. In spite of the extensive makeover the former asylum is getting, many buildings on the 500-acre Commons campus are still waiting to be restored – and their gaunt, crumbling hulks seem ready-made for scary stories of demented spirits and restless souls. Every year, fans of the occult come to the Commons searching for thrills and chills, even though the owners of the property don’t exactly encourage the attention.
“There’s a ton of us who live and work here, and I’ve only heard one or two stories about things people couldn’t explain,” says Kristen Messner, who works for the project developers. “These are old buildings, and sound sometimes travels in strange ways. That’s it.”
The attitude toward hauntings is a bit more welcoming a few miles up the coast at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum. For years, the isolated lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula has held a family-oriented “haunted lighthouse” program in honor of its own ghostly inhabitant, and it now has added a series of October “ghost walks.” Small groups of visitors are invited in on Friday and Saturday nights to prowl the living quarters and working spaces of the historic 19th century buildings.
Established in 1850, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse is one of the oldest lights on the Great Lakes. It occupies a lonely point of rocky coast (now the site of a state park) marking the outer edge of Grand Traverse Bay, with sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the distant Manitou and Fox Islands.
One believer in the lighthouse ghost is museum director Stefanie Staley, who has spent more than her share of fall evenings alone at the isolated light station. She says she’s heard lots of inexplicable noises: voices in the hall heading toward the tower stairs, and the sound of someone with hard-soled shoes walking across the hardwood floors.
“I hear it, I walk out, and there’s not a soul anywhere,” she says.
Nor is Staley the only one who’s been dealing with strange happenings. The lighthouse runs a volunteer keeper program where people can stay in the lighthouse for weeks at a time, caring for the buildings and showing visitors around. Over the years, several volunteers have mentioned strange phenomena: the sensation of being brushed past by a moving form, and in one case actually seeing a man at the doorway, kicking off his boots.
Some locals claim the ghost is that of Peter Nelson, a Danish ship captain who settled in Northport and became the lighthouse keeper from 1874 to 1890. But no one knows of any particular scandals or secrets associated with Nelson’s life, and the haunting – if that’s what it is – seems to be a fairly amiable one.
Not so with the goings-on across the bay at Bowers Harbor, a lovely cove on the western shore of the Old Mission Peninsula, where the area’s most celebrated ghost has been carrying on at the former Bowers Harbor Inn for decades. Genevive Stickney, whose husband built the rambling waterfront home in the 1880s, is said to have died in the house under tragic circumstances. Although recent research has cast doubt on much of the backstory told about the Stickneys (that Genevive was a scorned wife who committed suicide by hanging herself in the elevator shaft), the case has been featured in several books and television programs.
Guests, employees and visitors to the inn (now home of the Mission Table restaurant) insist that they have experienced strange rapping noises, doors slamming, lights suddenly turning on, mirrors and paintings falling from walls. One restaurant guest was severely frightened when she looked into a full-length upstairs mirror and saw the reflection of another woman standing behind her – dressed in clothing from the 19th century, her long hair pulled back into a tight bun. When she turned to speak to the stranger, there was no one there.
Having a ghost on the premises isn’t bad for business, so long as things don’t get out of hand. Far from downplaying their ethereal resident, the owners of the Mission Table and the adjoining Jolly Pumpkin Brewery enjoy regaling newcomers with tales of Genevive’s pranks. The restaurant has even devoted a page of its website to the ghostly legend.
Ghost walks at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum are held every Friday and Saturday in October, starting at 7 p.m. Groups are limited to 12 persons, and tickets are $5 per person; to make an advance reservation, call 231-386-7195.
For more information about Traverse City fall festivals and activities, and for help with lodging and dining options and other attractions in the Traverse City area, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit the website.