History: A tragedy on Pentwater Lake. 

April 30, 2021

History: A tragedy on Pentwater Lake. 

Around the County is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

I find cemeteries to be fascinating places. There is a certain calm of walking through a cemetery. As a historian, I also find cemeteries to be a place of inspiration. Every single person’s life has value and each deserves to be remembered. A grave will often catch my eye that will make me ask questions. It’s often the age of the deceased or the year they died. I’ll typically take a picture of the grave on my phone, for reference, and head back to the computer and my local history books, to do some research. I have found ancestry.com and newspapers.com to be two of my top online resources. Naturally, the archives at the Mason County Historical Society, as well as records at the Mason County Courthouse, are helpful as well. 

Sometimes I am able to find out an entire lifetime worth of information about a person. Other times, sadly, I can only find out about their death. Either way, their stories are worth sharing. 

While walking around Lakeview Cemetery earlier this week, three gravestones next to each other caught my eye. Three people with the same last name, all died in 1941. I had to investigate further and here is what I found.

Sunday, July 27, 1941. 

Tensions are building across the world as Germany continues to advance on Europe and Japan increases its aggression in the Pacific. The headline of the Saturday, July 26, 1941 Ludington Daily News: “Japan, U.S. parry economic blows as tension in Pacific increases.” Most of the other headlines on the front page that day also address the worldwide tensions: “Philippine army called to colors”; “Will permit retention of army troops”; “Jap funds frozen by order of U.S. gov’t”; “Tokyo gov’t freezes U.S. funds today”; The local headlines: “Pentwater plans three days of water festival”; “Mason County men given transfers”; “Annual canoe race to be staged on river Aug. 23”. 

The weather forecast calls for generally fair to partly cloudy and humid weather continuing into the evening, except for local showers. Increasing cloudiness on Sunday with scattered showers in the south portion of the state; continued warm and humid in the central portion of the state. 

Consistent with the newspaper’s weather forecast, Sunday, July 27, 1941 was a pretty nice mid-summer day. It was a great day for Riverton Township resident Jesse Petersen to take his nearly acquired boat onto Pentwater Lake. 

Four weeks earlier Jesse had acquired a steel hulled lifeboat from the Pere Marquette Carferry No. 17. He had equipped the lifeboat with a cabin and fitted it out with sails and a motor. 

Pere Marquette No. 17

The 17 was built in 1901 by American Ship Building Co. in Cleveland. The ship arrived in Ludington on Aug. 23, 1901 with Capt. Peter Kilty in command. It served the PM fleet continuously for 30 years until the Great Depression, when it was laid up for much of that time. In 1940, it was sold to the State of Michigan and renamed the City of Petoskey.  It was towed out of Ludington harbor by the PM 21, en-route to the shipyards in Manitowoc, Wis., on Oct. 17, 1940. As the City of Petoskey the ship was placed in service on May 25, 1941 and served passengers and vehicles crossing the Straits of Mackinac. The Petoskey and the Vacationland, were the last carferries to serve the straits when the Mackinac Bridge was built. They made their last runs on the bridge’s opening day, Nov. 1, 1957.  In 1961, it was scrapped at Ashtabula, Ohio. 

On that sunny, warm Sunday July afternoon, in Pentwater Lake, Jesse Petersen had been giving rides to friends throughout the day. 

“We were spending the day on Pentwater Lake and had been cruising around most of the day with various persons aboard,” Jesse told the Ludington Daily News in a newspaper article that was published Monday, July 28, 1941. At one time, it was explained there were about 16 on the craft. 

Toward the end of the day, Jesse was getting tired of driving. He turned over the skipper duties to his 25-year-old friend, Anchor Sorensen, also of Riverton Township. 

About this time, the boaters met up with some more former neighbors from Riverton who had come to Pentwater for a picnic, Harold Munson, 31, Raymond Munson, 27, and his wife, Ann (Deren) Munson, 23. 

At this point, there were seven people on board: Jesse and his wife (unfortunately, newspapers prior to the 1980s rarely mentioned a married woman’s first name), Sorensen, the Munsons, and Bertha Steenhill, 25, of Chicago, who was a summer resident of Pentwater. 

Shortly after 4 p.m., when the boat was in the east end of the lake, a short distance from US 31 (now Business US 31), a sudden gust of wind caught the sails and capsized the craft in a flash, plunging the seven into deep water. 

The boat was equipped with life preservers, it being explained that the passengers had been sitting on the them during the trip, the newspaper article stated. 

“Mr. Peterson (mis-spelled, should have read Petersen), able to swim was successful in assisting his wife, unable to swim, to reach shore. Also successful in reaching shore were Miss Steenhill and Mr. Sorensen.

“Harold Munson, Miss Steenhill reported, lost his life endeavoring to save her.”

The bodies of Raymond and Ann Munson were found inside the cabin when the sunken boat was finally located and pulled to shore. 

“It was said they had been sitting together on the cabin when the craft turned over and how they ended up in the cabin was not known.

“Hearing cries of the seven as they plunged into the water, persons on shore spread an alarm and organized rescue attempts. First to reach the scene was Dr. Clinton Withey of Lansing, a summer resident on the south shore of Pentwater Lake. Being in his boat at the time, he said he heard screams and went to the scene at once. 

“Coast guards from Pentwater station and other boats arrived in short order and rescue attempts and dragging operations begun. 

“As soon as the boat was located on the bottom, lines were attached to it and run to the nearby shore, the boat in turn being dragged ashore. Because of depth of water at the drop-off, it was about an hour and a half before the ship could be recovered.”

The body of Harold Munson was recovered by dragging operations about two hours later, the article stated. 

The Munsons grew up in Riverton Township, the sons of Edward and Agnes (Johnson) Munson. Harold lived in Muskegon where he worked at the Norge plant of the Continental Motors Co. in Muskegon. Their brother, Edward, Jr., also worked in Muskegon. 

Raymond and Ann lived in Grand Rapids. Raymond worked at Jarvis Manufacturing Co. His twin brother, Reynard, also lived in Grand Rapids. The brothers, along with Ann, would often come home to Mason County on weekends. 

According to the newspaper article, the Munsons had lived in Ludington until 1918 when the moved to a farm in Riverton Township. Agnes died in 1944 and Edward, Sr. died in 1945. 

Ann Munson was the daughter of Antonio and Katrina Deren, Polish immigrants who settled in Summit Township. She and Raymond had gotten married just nine months earlier on Oct. 5, 1940. She had one brother, Walter Francis “Frank” Deren, who lived in Muskegon at the time, but later moved back to Ludington. 

Editor’s note: If you are a relative of any of the people mentioned in this story, or are familiar with the story and have more information, I would be pleased to learn more. You may email me if you have more information: editor@masoncountypress.com. 

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