'Da Yooper Looney Bin and the Shipwreck Coast

July, 2006.

I had the 4th of July off, so I decided on a whim to take a trip up to ‘da Yoopee (Upper Peninsula) and check out something that’d been bugging me lately. I had known for awhile that the old Newberry State Hospital was up there and closed down, but I had also read that half of it had been reused as a medium-security prison. So, that means I could theoretically check out half of an asylum if I were willing to make the trip, right? In the case that I got snubbed there, I could choose from a couple other interesting destinations in northern Michigan, one being Crisp Point, a lighthouse that had been abandoned for decades.

I left at the butt-crack of dawn because I am all too familiar with Michigan’s holiday traffic heading north on days like today, usually packing the perpetually-under-construction I-75 bumper to bumper from the Zilwaukee Bridge to the Mackinac Bridge. I was surprised to find myself the only person in sight on the entire length of this freeway for much of my journey. I am accustomed to staying away from I-75 and instead using the much more interesting and scenic state roads, but this time it was necessary to make haste—it is at least a six hour drive from Detroit to Newberry.

Now you must understand, the U.P. is a very different place; it is a complete wilderness almost as sparsely populated as Alaska, and (until recently) there were entire counties that didn’t even have one stoplight. Perhaps 70% of its roads are unpaved. In fact, here in Luce County there were only 7.7 people per square mile, according to Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Upon arriving in the tiny town of Newberry I immediately saw the high razor-wire fences of the prison and my optimism shrank a bit more. But I had known from the outset that this could very well be one big bust, so I went ahead and began a preliminary circle of the complex anyway.

Just past the prison yard I found the old campus, and it looked like all the historic buildings were still standing. However, the edges of it were thoroughly marked with “NO TRESPASSING PRISON PROPERTY” signs that said in big bold letters that I would be committing a felony by merely pulling into one of its small drives. I realized this was the case all the way around the damn place. There was no forest cover either; the place was basically out in the open like Ypsilanti State Hospital, and I could see a guard parked by the front.

But it was absolutely beautiful. The buildings were still all in good shape and the grounds were full of gorgeous old hardwoods…I was enticed beyond belief. I had only seen pictures of this place before, and only a few at that. It seems things in the U.P. rarely are noticed in the rest of the world, they just go on about their business by themselves without a care for anyone or anything outside their quiet, remote forest realm. I had never heard of anyone who had ever explored this hospital before, and that enticed me all the more. I could tell from here that it was pristine and untouched—virgin territory ripe for the snooping. The asylum had only been closed down for about four years before it was converted into the prison, which would explain why it was so unmolested.

I later found out that someone else explored this place two years later, but he somehow wrangled permission to enter and photograph the joint. However, he was wrong about the prison guards, bears, and rabid moose who vigilantly protect the place as being impossible to avoid. Read on....

Originally the “Upper Peninsula Asylum for the Insane,” its older Georgian-style buildings date to 1895. When it closed in 1992, it was the "low-point" of the town of Newberry, according to Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At that time, according to one resident, "you could stand on our main street, throw a rock, and not have a chance of hitting a soul." Many of the town's residents found their employment there, so when the west part of its campus reopened in 1995 as the Newberry Correctional Facility, it brought some jobs back to the city, softening the economic blow to the town.

At its peak the asylum sat on 1,532 acres and housed 1,800 patients (which is close to the whole population of Newberry—about 2,300 people). Its older cottages are connected in a series by a continuous hallway/arcade that stretches for several hundred feet. Those long passages with their endless arched windows would put Manteno's and Byberry’s and everybody else's to shame! The website asylumprojects.org has some good historic photos of the place, and recently a scholarly book about it was published, by William A. Decker.

I was both excited and discouraged because even as I noticed that the place had a strong perimeter, it seemed that all these older buildings (except maybe those closest to the prison) were abandoned, and as we all know, there is always a backdoor. I parked a bit down the road to collect my thoughts while hungrily eyeing the austere hospital from afar. The frontage on the main road was obviously a no-go, so I resolved to find a way around back. I mean, it looked like I could just walk right up to it, but that appearance has always put me on guard…if someone did care about trespassers, I could be seen and caught very easily.

Hell, even if I could approach from the front unseen, it looked as if these structures were uniformly well sealed. Someone still cared about the vacant half of this place, and keeping it secure from the encroachments of the unscrupulous (such as myself).

There was a road going behind the complex providing access to the powerhouse, but it was lined with houses and those little brown warning signs still peppered the property line even though this was mostly where the asylum’s farm sat. I could see a couple barns, silos, and livestock buildings that looked dilapidated and accessible, but it meant crossing an open field in full view of the neighbors and whoever might be working at the powerhouse.

Finally I found a drive that let me get somewhat close to the interior of the complex (without committing a felony), and snapped a few quick shots through my windshield, but found no hope of infiltration. While I could see the old asylum campus was pretty much empty of people, the prison yard was bustling. After several more drive-arounds I decided to find a spot down the road to sit and think again. I found an industrial complex—or rather, the U.P.’s version of an industrial complex—and concocted a plan.

I noticed that if I parked behind a certain carpenter’s shop my car would be relatively hidden, and I could have a fairly easy time approaching the farmland from the side by crossing a large grassy field. I would be probably far enough away from the neighbors to be out of their sight range, and better yet I would be screened from the hospital itself by a line of trees. I closed the distance as quickly as I dared, and hopped over the rundown cattle fence. I remained in the cover of these few trees for some time, observing the situation before advancing to the side of the livestock buildings and slipping inside.

They were pretty empty and typical inside. One of them gave access to the inside of the silos and I climbed up one to try and get a better view of the campus, but to no avail. I poked my head outside again and listened.

Apparently I had not been hallucinating when I thought I heard music earlier—it was a windy day and every now and then I’d catch scraps of some Mexican music being played on a loudspeaker—it sounded like a concert or something.

Then I realized I had seen all the inmates standing out in the yard; this must have been a special holiday treat for the Fourth of July (but it sounded more like Cinco de Mayo from what I was hearing). While I was putzing around amongst the trees in the vicinity of the farm buildings, trying to figure out how I was going to pull off my next stunt, I noticed something peculiar….

As is often typical of institutions such as this, one may find little piles of junk that they have dumped over the years in the “back forty” on the edges of where people commonly go. Stuff like old buckets, fence posts, extra pipe, etc. I was seeing that usual junk, plus some old broken lightpoles like the kind that were still standing at the gates of the asylum, and large slabs of what I think was carved Lake Superior Sandstone. Pieces that looked like they had once been part of a building, but were removed and dumped here in a pile at some point where the grass had begun to conceal them.

Then I began seeing ornamental pieces; actual scrollwork. First one, and another, then I realized I was surrounded by like 10 of them hidden in the undergrowth. I am not sure if they were once part of an original building here that was demolished, or if they were off a decorative fa├žade that had been removed from one that’s still standing.

Whichever the case, I would like to have seen what they used to look like before they became tossed-aside places for moss to grow. It looked like they were being saved for something, but how long ago that was is anybody’s guess. They were extremely heavy; I could not lift any of them.

After quite awhile of waiting and watching, I got up the gonads to move forward some more and cross the dirt road to the next line of trees, putting me closer to the main buildings. I figured there were enough clusters of evergreen trees around here to get me pretty close in—if I hopscotched from one to another, utilizing their shade and thick foliage to hide me from view, I might be able to get close enough to see a way into a building. I was able to approach tiny steps closer by stealthily hopping from one small, shadowy copse of trees to the next.

This took a long time; about an hour or more. The noise of the brisk winds that had been blowing all day masked the sound of my feet crunching on dry brush. Every time I’d get to a new clump of trees, I’d sit at the shady edge of it nervously peering through the gently waving grasses for any info I could glean at all, in order of importance—telltale signs of guard activity, employees moving within the building, whether they had electricity, and finally, for any potential entrance. Then, I’d make a thorough scan of the area before visualizing the route I would take to the next clump of trees closer to the buildings.

This went on for some time until I had pretty much given up and lay down to rest and think. Suddenly I heard a voice boom over the music of the concert...it was one of the guards on the loudspeaker saying something I couldn’t make out due to the noise of the wind. I’ll admit it made me a bit nervous, but I tried not to let it get to me. After all, if it pertained to me, why would they announce something about my presence over the yard loudspeaker? If they knew I was here they would just send a guard vehicle or squad car around to bust my ass.

But then I heard a dog barking...inmates aren’t allowed to have friggin pets, and the barking was getting closer to my position rapidly. I quickly decided that I had seen all I was going to be able to see today and hastily got up and moved.

I damn near power-walked directly back toward the fence behind the farm buildings and could still hear the barking dog getting closer. At least, I thought, if it had caught my scent he would be busy going in circles in the six or so copses of trees that I had been in and out of today. I hopped the wire cattle fence and kept moving across the field to my car. Once I was away, I decided to check out the 1930s-era building across the street from the main campus.

It was definitely part of the asylum, but was perhaps for administrative staff or state offices or something. It looked well sealed from the front, bore the same warning signs and was in full view of anyone who cared to look. In my favor however, was the fact that it was couched in a buffer of trees to its rear, and surrounded by a (civilian) farm field behind that.

I found a place to park down from it at a recycling center on a dirt road and hiked through the farm field, which happened to be split with potatoes and wheat—pretty much the only two things you can successfully farm in the U.P.’s nordic climate. It was a 600-yard hike to the back of this building which rested at a higher elevation than the potato patch, and when I slunk up to the back of it I could see that it was well sealed all the way around. I didn’t feel like pressing my luck any further today, so I decided to cut my losses and head up to Crisp Point and spend some time chilling on the beach.

I got back on the lonely narrow highway heading north to Lake Superior’s edge and rolled through endless miles of undeveloped, unoccupied forest land. There was not another significant human settlement between here and the shoreline, one hour away. The nearest town of comparable size to Newberry was Manistique—80 miles to the southwest. That meant no gas stations or rest stops, either, so I had to make sure I filled up with what I would need before making the trek. This area is mostly cedar bogs, and unlike the rest of the U.P., somewhat flat. There’s no such thing as an expressway in the U.P. (unless you count that tiny little stretch of I-75 that skips to Canada), so I was on winding, three-digit county roads the whole time, and there’s no junction signs until you actually get to them; you have to be on the ball or you’ll miss your turn.

After long stretches of time without passing any other cars, I found my turn onto Route 500, a seasonal dirt road. “Seasonal” means that if you dare to go back there in winter without a suitable vehicle or snowmobile you are on your own, and if you’re lucky some hunters might come across your frozen corpse and send word to your family after the spring thaw. These woods are wild enough to contain wolves and bears and many other species not seen in populated states. Back here I decided to open it up a little bit and roar through the twists and turns at Dukes-of-Hazzard-speed. I expected to come up on the lighthouse pretty soon after getting on the dirt road, but to my surprise I was speeding down this forlorn trail for what seemed like forever (and ended up being about 30 miles).

Miraculously, I found the junction with Route 412, an even narrower, twistier road that was so insignificant that it looked like it was about to vaporize any second; it had definitely not tamed nature—nature had tamed it. The sign was hand-painted on a piece of driftwood. For kicks I tore through there as fast as I could, through hairpins dodging around thick trees while simultaneously dipping up or down at a sharp angle. I just hoped my car didn’t break down leaving me stranded in the middle of 40 square miles of wilderness. That’s when I realized I should probly take it easy, because if I broke my car I would be faced with a two-day hike back to the nearest paved highway where I would have to wait for someone to drive by, and I only had enough food and water on me for one meal.

Suddenly the dark shadowy forest spit me out into a dazzling sunlit world and the intimidating massiveness of Lake Superior exploded into view before me swallowing up everything all the way to the horizon and on into infinity with its deep blue, almost purple waters. Its surface was rough and broken up with violent chop from the stout wind blowing in from its endless reaches. I went through one more grove of trees before the top of Crisp Point Light’s blazing white tower suddenly poked into view. It was so stark in its contrast to the deep blue sky that it almost hurt the eyes to look at, and made the surrounding sky look darker than blue, almost black. I could smell that intoxicating scent of lakewater and wet sand that always fills me with a strange wistfulness….

I slammed my car into park on a patch of sand and cut the motor off—and there was that gigantic, oppressive silence again for a minute before my ears adjusted and the constant roar of crashing surf could be heard. I’m not sure which is more unnerving, the weight of the northwood’s silence, or that of Lake Superior’s deep and thunderous voice. I got out and stretched, and took my time walking down to the pure sand beach.

The water was beautifully clear and standing on a dune, I could see the bottom for a ways out. I had read quite awhile ago that Crisp Point was one of the many abandoned lights in Michigan, and in fact had become quite dilapidated in the meantime. The keeper’s house had been destroyed by waves, though its foundation remained, the tower itself was falling apart, and I vaguely remembered seeing a picture of it that showed it leaning severely, ready to topple, due to sand erosion. But what I saw before me today was not what I expected at all—it was in beautiful shape, obviously recently restored.

The door to the tower stairs was open and a couple people were about. I soon learned that they were part of the preservation group who had restored it (with generous donations from the local tribes), saving it from Lighthouse Digest's "Most Endangered" list, and showed up to open it for visitors on weekends. They had a camper set up nearby; this was a holiday for them too, I imagine. These people had obviously put a massive amount of effort into saving this washed-up landmark…a large wall of boulders now protected the base of the tower, and it sported a fresh coat of whitewash. The windows in the lantern room were new and no longer boarded up. An American flag proudly waved from the tower.

I slowly wandered along the strand, soaking in the stark, perfect beauty and complete solitude of this far-flung place that is known to the locals as the Shipwreck Coast. A plaque gave some information about the light. It was lit in 1904 and by the 1960s was automated, negating the need for a human to tend it. By 1993 it was decommissioned entirely and left to the mercy of the lake until 1998 when the boulders were put in place. It is 58 feet tall and had a red, fourth-order Fresnel lens.

Today, the nearest electric device is 25 miles away, at Whitefish Point—the next lighthouse over—where the famous Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located. Crisp Point Light’s duty was to redirect ships that had gone astray on their way to Whitefish Point, which lies off the “Graveyard,” where hundreds of ships have gone down. Crisp Point was also home to one of the original four lifesaving stations on Lake Superior, coming into service in 1876. According to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Encyclopedia, "picket patrols" used to be conducted regularly from the Crisp Point Lifesaving Station to watch for ships in distress and to pick up dead bodies washed ashore "before the wolves got them." Because the post was in such a hopelessly remote place, burial for these lost mariners was hasty and they were buried in crude graves near the light station.

One of those cemeteries sat almost directly in front of the tower, but the same constant erosion that now threatens the tower also washed away those graves long ago in what the keeper then called a "100 years storm"...the Icewater Mansion had reclaimed its dead. The constantly shifting bottom sands are what make Crisp Point so dangerous to navigation, even though it isn't really a true "point," per se. Lake Superior's wrath constantly forms, destroys, and reforms sandbars in this area well offshore, threatening shipping. Even in the modern day, this is the part of the lake that is considered to have the roughest seas when a storm hits, and it was here in this exact area of Crisp Point that the famed Edmund Fitzgerald went down.

When I walked inside I found a missing persons notice posted at the foot of the stairs, for a hunter who was last seen in the area back in winter.

I had read a story about Crisp Point in Frederick Stonehouse’s Haunted Lakes II that tells of a time that some local boys had camped for the night in the abandoned keeper’s house while out rabbit hunting. They awoke to the sound of someone plodding up the stairs in the dark, and when they yelled to whoever it was that they were armed and would shoot, they got no response.

All three of them opened fire with .22 rifles and the mysterious footsteps stopped. It was dead silent for the rest of the night. Then, about dawn, the boy who had stayed up all night shivering with his rifle in hand heard something on the landing suddenly turn around and run back down the stairs….

I happen to like good ghost stories…so what?

I finally began my climb of the plate-steel steps. There was a long, low moaning from the draft of air rising through the open tower. When I popped up into the lantern room I realized that it was very similar to the one I had been in at the Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse—very small.

The thick steel doors leading out onto the catwalk were open and a stout wind howled through them as I climbed outside. The wind was bad enough on the ground--up here it was almost strong enough to blow me off the tower like a dandelion seed!

It was only 50 degrees out and the wind was whipping in off the lake hard enough that I was quickly so cold I had a hard time getting my fingers to work my camera. In July. I had to keep going back inside the lantern room to get out of the wind and warm up before I could go back to taking pictures. For comparison, the weather down in Detroit had been in the mid-80s for quite awhile with high humidity to boot—this was a severely different climate but I came prepared for it. Had it started snowing, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Down below I saw one of the caretakers' kids was in the water swimming about on an inflatable lounge. Friggin' Yoopers...that water couldn’t’ve been warmer than 40 degrees. Lake Superior is so deep that it never really “warms up.” A couple miles offshore I could now barely see the stack and forecastle of an ore freighter downbound for the Soo.

The view up here was incredible…we were close enough to get a glimpse of the Canadian shore to the east above the Soo. South, there was nothing but green—an endless swath of dark, tangled forest, and to the north nothing but dark blue waters stretching out into an indiscernible haze.

Separating the two was a continuous stripe of white beach sand in the middle of which stood this tower, and me on top of it. Above was the clear blue dome of the heavens, and with everything laid out perfectly geometrically like that, it’s times like these that really make me feel like a microscopic passenger on a gigantic round spaceship called Earth.

I couldn’t imagine what it would be like assigned to this post with no contact with another member of your species for six uninterrupted months out of the year, nothing but your own thoughts to occupy your mind. If I was having these vivid fancies after standing up here for just a few minutes, I couldn’t fathom what six straight months might do to a person. 

It’s no wonder at all some of them went mad--possibly to be locked up in Newberry State Hospital. I’d think if you managed to acclimate yourself to the sensory deprivation, you might have a hard time going back to the real world again, or at least with believing that it was real…. To leave the shore and go back inland you might suddenly freak out if you didn’t hear the constant noise of the surf anymore, panicking because there’s something missing or wrong that you can’t quite place.

Your hours would stretch into days, and your days would stretch into weeks…minutes would seem to contain a universe of thought and consume infinities of time. With only routine to mark the passage of days, the concept of time would disappear into an indifferent blur of numb sameness. An endless stream of distant ships constantly passing like a river without noticing you…the ghostly glow of the aurora borealis burning itself into your retinas by night, trailing along the waves with long fingers…the moon rising, huge enough to take up the entire eastern sky, bright enough to blind worse than the sun itself, gently tugging on you with its gravitational pull...caught between the cacophony of coyotes and wolves emanating from the eaves of the black woods on one side, and the constant angry roar of the lake on the other....

These remoter light stations must have been for a special breed of human alone.