The Captain is quiet tonight.
In the archives at the lighthouse I find correspondence from Nelson relatives in Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Kingsley, Grosse Ile. One in Clinton Township catches my eye. Her name is Verna Nelson Burns, and her father lived in the lighthouse from 4 years old. I talk to her in her assisted living home in Clinton Township. She tells me her grandfather was Captain Peter Nelson. He died 22 years before she was born, but Burns grew up in his house, on his farm, which her parents inherited. My great-grandfather Wilbur was her first cousin. She remembers growing up with all of Wilbur’s sisters. I called them my flower aunts: Violet, Daisy, Myrtle and Jeanne Rose.
Burns’s father, William, being a quiet and gentle man, didn’t tell her much about Captain Peter Nelson or even his own boyhood growing up in the lighthouse. What she did learn of our family’s maritime history she learned over Sunday dinner with company. Her mother Grace made a roast, mashed potatoes, relishes and pickles, and Verna would listen to her dad talk to the other men. “He’d talk about meeting bears when he went to school,” she says. “And when the lighthouse tenders came by boat to Cathead Bay with supplies, my dad would get to hop a ride to Chicago and back.” Her father, William, a farmer, grew potatoes, peas and later cherries. His brother, Walter, my great-great-grandfather, first was a lighthouse keeper on Beaver and Squaw Islands, then became a carpenter. I tell her that my great-grandfather Wilbur used to tell about coming back to Northport from Beaver Island after the Great Lakes were deemed unsafe for shipping traffic. Walter would sail them home in the rough November waters, demanding his children stay down in the bottom of the boat, as the sails almost skimmed the water.
None of these details explains why Captain Peter Nelson’s soul might be restless. Why I felt his presence when I dusted his grave rubbings. Why he’s clapping around the lighthouse in his hard-soled boots. Then my first-cousin-thrice-removed tells me something that gives me a glimmer of an answer. Captain Peter Nelson is buried on land. This man, she says, a sailor in his soul, was the only one of seven brothers who didn’t die at sea.
Here’s your chance to stay at the light.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is open from noon to 4 p.m. through October 31. In November it is open from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends only. Admission is $4 for adults; $2 children 6 to 18. Children under 5 are free. For more information: 231-386-7195; grandtraverselighthouse.com.
Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum accepts applications for volunteer lighthouse keepers for the season, April through December. You’ll work hard during the day greeting visitors, spouting historical information and helping with maintenance of the buildings and grounds, but, hey, it can’t be as grueling as the work of the 1880’s keepers, who spent their days filling lights with sperm oil, trimming wicks, polishing lenses. You can watch panoramic sunsets in the lighthouse tower at day’s end, and tuck up in your own bed in the northern apartment of the lighthouse. Volunteer keepers live at the light for one or two weeks. There is a fee for the program, and you must be comfortable speaking with the public and climbing lots of stairs. For more information and to download an application and handbook visit www.grandtraverselighthouse.com
Emily Betz Tyra is associate editor of Traverse. [email protected]
Verna Nelson Burns passed away as this story went to press.