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Strange but true lake tales

You may think you know all about Lake Michigan, but we dredged up some offbeat lake lore that is sure to float your boat. By TOC staff

HOUSE PARTY, MEET BEACH PARTY This house used to be one of many in the bustling town of Singapore, Michigan; today, the town is totally buried.

Shiver me timbers
They might not have worn eye-patches or kept parrots on their shoulders, but Lake Michigan once had its own pirates. For the first half of the 19th century, the biggest commodity on the lake, and the number one target of pirates, was wood. Lumber was in demand in the relatively tree-poor Great Plains, and it came to Chicago from all around the Great Lakes to be sent by train west. In the 1850s, 50 million board feet passed through Chicago in a year. To get in on this arboreal bonanza, pirates cut down other people’s trees near rivers and floated the logs out to boats called lumber hookers, which they sailed into Chicago with their ill-gotten goods. The problem got so severe that in the 1850s, Secretary of the Interior Isaac Willard sent the iron paddlewheel ship Michigan to patrol the lake. Lumber pirates, knowing trouble when they saw it, tried to sink the Michigan by ramming it. They failed, and ultimately some of the biggest lumber pirates were tried in Michigan state courts (Illinois courts were reputed to be sympathetic to the buccaneers). Even so, the piracy continued on a smaller scale throughout the 19th century. It’s not exactly gold doubloons and Spanish galleons, but we’re still giggling over the term lumber hookers.—Hank Sartin

Buried alive!
Once, there was a town named Singapore on the shore of Lake Michigan. Then, well, the town got swallowed up by sand. In 1836, land speculator Oshea Wilder founded Singapore, Michigan, hoping it would eventually rival Chicago and Milwaukee as a prominent lake port. Situated near Saugatuck and the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, Singapore slowly became a modestly busy lumber town up until its heyday in the mid-1870s, surviving a debilitating 40-day blizzard in 1842 (residents lived off flour that washed ashore from the shipwrecked Milwaukie). But Singapore’s fortune was also its undoing—the town exhausted its timber supply, most of which was used to rebuild Chicago and Holland, Michigan, after the great fires of 1871. The tree-stripped town was no match for the lake’s strong winds and shifting sands, which eventually buried it whole (although about 10 important buildings were moved via mule-power to Saugatuck in 1875). Singapore’s last resident was a fisherman who wasn’t able to move his three-story house; he kept moving to the next floor up as the sands kept rising, and was finally forced out in the early 1890s. Nowadays, Singapore is all but completely buried in sand, save for the occasional surfacing of a blacksmith nail or bricks from old foundations.—Cecilia Wong

A cult classic
Not only are there islands in Lake Michigan, but two of them have served as the homes for groups with, umm, unusual religious beliefs. One is Beaver Island, which Mormon breakaway James Jesse Strang made into his kingdom in the mid-19th century. But our favorite is High Island, which served as the home for a group of baseball-playing, long beard–sporting religious fanatics. Kentucky-born preacher Benjamin Purnell was a strict vegetarian who believed he was the younger brother of Christ and the seventh messenger angel from the Book of Revelation. But he was also a regular guy who loved sports, which is why the sect he founded in 1903 had such a bitchin’ baseball team. His church, the House of David, didn’t allow men to shave or cut their hair, so the barnstorming House of David Baseball Team looked like Old Testament patriarchs in cleats. Established in 1913 as a recreational outlet for the congregation, the team was playing for prize money by 1915, and by 1920 was a famous touring attraction. In 1912 Purnell and 150 followers set up a commune on High Island, about a half-hour ferry ride off the coast of Charlevoix, Michigan. Theoretically, every member of the cult was celibate, but in 1927 Purnell was busted for breaking that rule with minor females in his flock. He died of tuberculosis before he could be tried. His church broke into two splinter groups, which are still around today. High Island, on the other hand, is currently uninhabited.—Cliff Doerksen

Making waves
You know how when you look across the lake, the other side looks really, really far away? It is. But some dude swam across the lake in 41 hours. See, ultramarathoner Jim Dreyer was running out of terrestrial body-punishing feats of endurance, so in 1998 he took to the water. Swimming the 65 miles between Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, in a little less than two days, he smoked the previous Lake Michigan distance record (held by IIT research chemist Ted Erickson, who swam the 44 miles from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana, in 36 and a half hours). Though he was already a marathon-trained athlete, Dreyer had to add “meteorological expert” to his resumé in order to look out for potential hazards on the lake. But his real secret weapon: replaying Aerosmith and Beatles tunes in his head while he swam. (We’re hoping it was the older, pre–“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” Aerosmith.)After a blitz of media attention, Dreyer continued his long-distance swimming in the four remaining Great Lakes and nabbed 13 world records, all to raise funds for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum ( in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Here’s the kicker: He’d only learned to swim in 1996. Traumatized by water after almost drowning as a toddler, he finally decided to venture to his local swimming pool, where a kindly lifeguard gave him beginner’s lessons. “My swimming career had real modest beginnings, for sure,” Dreyer said. He plans to keep undertaking running and swimming challenges for charity; track his progress at—Gretchen Kalwinski

Two ships that crashed in the night
It wasn’t on the scale of the Titanic, but the wreck of the Lady Elgin brought tragedy to Lake Michigan’s shores. A little before midnight on September 7, 1860, the steamer left Chicago headed for Milwaukee with more than 600 people aboard. Around 2am, about seven miles off the coast of Evanston, the Elgin collided with a schooner carrying lumber to Chicago. The Elgin was ripped open and began to take on water, and most of the boat was underwater within 20 minutes. Hundreds of survivors clung to two large floating sections of the hull and drifted toward land. Around 400 reached the shallow waters near the shore, where the breakers crushed their makeshift rafts. News of the disaster spread quickly, and people lined the shore to help with the rescue. The most famous volunteer was Northwestern University student Edward Spencer, who swam into the surf repeatedly to pull people to shore. He is credited with saving 17 people, and when he was finally carried away, delirious with exhaustion, he reportedly asked over and over, “Did I do my best?” The Lady Elgin wreck, which killed 430, was the first big Great Lakes disaster, and it remains the second-deadliest in Great Lakes history. (The deadliest, the capsizing of the Eastland, which killed 844 people in 1915, was not on the lake, but rather at the Clark Street bridge in the Chicago River.)—Ruth Welte

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