The Ghost of Snail Lake

The Ghost of Snail Lake      Lloyd Mattson

I don’t believe in ghosts; never did. But for a few minutes one dark night in 1944, I wasn’t sure. The setting: Snail Lake Camp (now Gospel Hill Camp), an outreach of the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission where I worked on and off during college and seminary years.

The camp’s 17 acres included expansive lawns, a large garden plot, wooded pastureland, and a handsome, three-level brick lodge overlooking the lake. The ground floor housed the kitchen and dining hall, with the chapel on level two. The third level was one room with three rows of cots. On the night of the ghost, 58 boys grades four through seven slept in the dorm.

The annals of Christian camping have never recorded a more precarious scene: a staff of two staff looking after 58 kids. Bill Jansen was the cook. I was everything else, and I had never directed a camp. I was 21 and hurting with an ear infection and fever. Later on I’ll tell you how that dangerous week came about. As you can imagine, I lived in a constant state of exhaustion. My only time alone came when the campers finally slept. Then I would slip down to the kitchen for a snack Bill prepared for me.

The dormitory was dark save for red-glowing exit lights. Outdoors, faint skylight showed through the mist. My sleep-inducing strategy was a long, spooky story, made up as I went along. I was working on the Ghost of Skull Island, sparing no gore. The story droned on until boy sounds finally ceased.

Eschewing a flashlight, I groped down the dark wooden stairs, stepping carefully. Reaching ground level, I felt my way through the dark to the screen door leading to the totally dark dining hall. Then I froze. Heavy boots shuffled on the far end of the flagstone floor.

My first impulse was to run for Bill a city block away, but that would leave the campers unprotected. I eased the screen open and slipped into the dining hall. Unfortunately, a design error had placed all the light switches at the other end and the room near the kitchen.

A clutter of benches, chairs, tables, and mop buckets rendered a dash through the dark far too risky. Easing along with my back to the wall, I called out, “Who’s there?” The shuffling stopped. As I inched toward the switches, the shuffling resumed. Again I called, “Who’s there?” Silence.

The skylight was barely sizable through the upper part of the row of windows that lined the opposite wall. I strained to catch a glimpse of the irregular shuffling but nothing showed. Centered between the windows were two concrete steps leading up to an exit landing. Double screen doors opened onto the outside flagstone patio. It seemed the shuffling was moving toward the landing.

I thought I heard the boots climb the steps. Something brushed the screen doors. Still nothing showed. Risking the clutter, I broke for the light switches, flooding the dining hall with light, temporarily blinding me. When my vision cleared, the screens had not opened, but the dining hall was empty.

Again I almost ran for Bill but I forced myself to the screen doors and peered into the darkness. There, looking up at me, were three Black Angus calves, escapees from the camp pasture. They were too small to show against the skylight; their hooves shuffling on flagstones echoed through the screen doors.  I made my way to the kitchen and collapsed at the table where pineapple coffee cake and canned peaches awaited, fully aware how close I came to believing in ghosts.


Looking back, it seems incredible that such a dangerous camp week could happen—I shudder to think of it. Blame it on my youth and ignorance. Here is the story:

During college and seminary years, I worked off and on for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission. I directed the downtown boys club during the school year and filled various roles through the summer, including Snail Lake Camp.

Traditionally, the Mission conducted three six-day camps each summer: one for the downtown boys club; one for the Ober Boys Club, which served a primarily black community; and one for the girls club. Camp cost fifty cents—if you could afford it.

In 1944, as the integration movement gathered steam, legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane (Mac) decided to merge boys’ weeks. Attendance plummeted. Mac assumed the cause wad racial tension and called me to his office. I felt the problem was community tension, not racial. Our downtown club served a broad ethnic mix, kids who attended school together. Ober Club kids attended a rival school.

In a reckless moment, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He of course would not hear of a bet, but gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. Hustling campers was no problem, but with World War 2 creating good jobs and sweeping young men into the military, finding a volunteer staff proved impossible.

I turned to our club basketball team—teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to help. On camp day, 83 kids lined up at the Mission for a quick physical and bus ride to Snail Lake. The staff: Bill Jensen the cook, four inexperienced teens, and me. And I had never directed a camp. Red flags flew all over the place, but my ignorance and youthful zeal could not see them.

The long line of kids pleased Mac. He asked me if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He placed more confidence in me than I deserved. Following brief checkups by a nurse, the Mission bus hauled the kids to camp. They settled into the dormitory then roamed the camp.

To manage that number of campers, I whistled them together and formed four squads, each with a counselor. I told squad members to look after one another. Wishful thinking! Supper turned into near chaos; dish washing, total chaos. The first evening chapel signaled trouble: the counselors were absent. Bill took over the meeting and I went to look for them.

I found the four teens at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere—they were sure I wouldn’t send them home, but I arranged for Bill drove them home first thing the next morning.

More trouble brewed at bedtime. Influenced by the unhappy counselors, several older campers showed signs of rebellion, with the next age tier joining them at morning lineup. These were mostly street kids, not given to accepting authority.

To head off mutiny, I invited any camper unhappy with the way I ran the camp to step forward. A bunch did. I sent them to pick up their stuff and Bill bused them to town. That left me with 58 younger campers. Among them was a curly-headed first-time camper who was new to the boys club. His name was George Verely.

With the kitchen consuming all Bill’s time and energy, I became the counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor and everything else. Add a painful ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost. But the Lord looks after fools and innocent kids and we survived the week with no major mishap.

I returned home wiped out, convinced it had been a wasted week. I could not identify one spiritual gain.

Fast forward 20-plus years. I’m at my desk in Chicago fulfilling my duties as director of camping and boys work for our denomination. A staff colleague just back from a trip to Minnesota trip stopped by. “Lloyd,” he said, “your name came up in a meeting. The new superintendent of the St. Paul Mission was speaking. He told us he came to the Lord at Snail Lake Camp when he was nine, the summer Bill Jensen and Lloyd Mattson were there. His name is George Verely.”


Leave a Reply