STRANGE GH: Noah’s ark mystery solved

Apr 16, 2012

At about noon that fateful day, Noah took a rowboat to Grand Haven to shop at a grocery store. After his departure, he attempted to fetch a floating piece of driftwood when he tumbled out of his boat into the river near the Seventh Street bridge.

Noah had been in the water for no more than five minutes when rescuers discovered his body and pulled him ashore. Attempts to resuscitate the hermit proved futile.

“Nearly everyone along the river knew him,” the Tribune reported, “but he never volunteered any information to anyone and never recounted his past history.”

Upon acquiring items from the deceased man's coat pockets and boarding his houseboat, authorities began to discover the identity of this strange man. His name was Remmer Eilers.

It was only fitting Eilers — who was born in Germany in 1850 — lived and died on the water. Records in his personal belongings indicated he had been a sailor for more than 35 years. He resided in Muskegon for nearly 36 years, coming to Ottawa County around 1908, and was listed as a resident of Spring Lake in the 1910 Census.

Eilers, a rather unkempt character, made a meager living fishing and clam digging. His ark provided an accommodating existence. Divided into two rooms — one for sleeping, the other a kitchen and living area — “Eilers was as snug and comfortable as he could have been ashore,” the Tribune reported.

Rifling through a trunk in the houseboat, authorities discovered Eilers had worked aboard many schooners originating from the Muskegon port. Becoming a naturalized citizen in 1896, Eilers gave up the profession by 1908 when he suffered an injury while employed by Capt. John Sather aboard the vessel, Mary Ludwig.

Records indicate he was collecting some disability compensation, but it was not enough to lift him from poverty. Citizens along the Grand River often invited the stranger over for dinner or provided groceries during winter months.

Also found among his belongings were the purchase receipts for quality materials used to build his little ark.

What authorities did not find was any trace of personal correspondence with others, indicating family or friends.

“An old sailor he was who preferred, for some reason, to live alone, and lose his identity in a strange community,” the Tribune reported. “If he ever received letters from kinsmen, he had apparently put them out of his life. He evidently destroyed (such letters) as no trace of any missives could be found.”

After several attempts, it was reported no kin could be found in Ottawa or Muskegon counties. Newspapers covering Noah's demise could offer little more on the identified recluse, or why he had become one.

Research 100 years later of digital records provide an important clue. Listed among Bremen, Germany, sailor desertion records from 1855-74 is Remmer Eilers, who fled the country in 1872 at the young age of 18. Sailors working out of the port of Bremerhaven at Bremen deserted for many reasons — including to immigrate, to dodge law or debts, or to escape an undesirable situation aboard a ship. There was also a fear of war outbreak during the period of Eiler's desertion.

The precise reason Eiler vanished from his homeland likely died with him. What is known is that, if deserters were caught, they faced stiff punishments, up to execution.

What is also known is Ottawa County at the time had a sizable population of German immigrants who had used appropriate channels for their arrival to America. It was likely Eilers' secret would have been met with disapproval among his fellow homeland natives.

Remmer Eilers was buried in the Potter's Field section of Lake Forest Cemetery the afternoon of May 7, 1912.

“The remains of poor old Noah were placed in a plain box,” the Tribune reported. “He is at rest, unknown and peaceful, until the end of time.”

 

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