Capt. Jack Walker and his Highland Park menagerie

In her book, The Historic Cottages of Highland Park, Karen Lowe explores the history of this unique enclave along the shores of Lake Michigan. Highland Park sits near the Grand Haven State Park with Lake Avenue to the north and Grand Avenue to the south. Our series will offer excerpts from the book. For more information or to buy a copy of the book, visit or any local bookseller.

Captain Jack Walker (1821-1904) was park manager and custodian of Highland Park from its earliest days until his retirement in 1902. Walker built the first bath house and refreshment stand on the beach at the site of the former Bil-Mar. The Captain is also known as the first person to ring the fog bell and operate the foghorn at Grand Haven in 1897.

Born in Hull, England, in May 1821, John Walker came to the United States in 1849 and settled in Grand Haven in 1854. As a boy, he apprenticed aboard his uncle’s ships and had many experiences as he sailed around the globe. Walker became known locally as “Captain Jack,” especially by the people living in and around Highland Park. Long before Highland Park was incorporated, Walker made his home on a large parcel of land near the ravine behind what is now the Khardomah Lodge.

From 1891-1895, he also owned a cottage (Ship’s Lantern) within Highland Park, which he rented out to families from Chicago and Joliet. In the late 1880s, Captain Jack saw a business opportunity and built the first bath house and refreshment stand on the beach, later the site of the Bil-Mar Restaurant, where he rented bathing suits and canoes and sold ice cream, candy and popcorn. An animal lover, Walker brought in a tamed bear for entertainment and kept monkeys in cages, which he occasionally let out to run around the beach. He erected a giant slide for visitors to take a plunge into Lake Michigan as well as a high platform which one climbed up on, hung onto a crossbar and slid down the cable into the lake. Each year, Walker would build a pier out into the lake in front of his pavilion.

Capt. Jack Walker's bath house.

Campfire Stories
"In the earliest days (of Highland Park), our favorite amusement in the long summer evenings was to go down to the beach and, gathered around an enormous bonfire (the beach was covered every inch with logs), listen to the amazing tales told by Captain Walker of his adventures on the high seas and in foreign lands. We knew when we would find him there, for we knew about when he would return from his daily evening pilgrimage to his wife’s grave in the cemetery.”
1934 Letter from Elizabeth Rhines-McCarthy

"Well, Captain Walker, how he came to Grand Haven I don’t know, but he built this little place out there and he had a bear and he had a ‘coon, and he had monkeys in cages. And he developed a bathhouse complex where he had bath houses where people could come and change their clothes. He’d rent bathing suits and gee, you ought to see ‘em.”
Recollections of David Dyer Hunting

Upon retiring in 1901, Walker sold his business to August Boseker, another long-time Highland Park resident. John Walker was one of the best-known residents of Grand Haven and, as custodian of Highland Park, he made many friends among the summer resorters, who would remember him affectionately as “Captain Jack” long after his death. Captain Walker died on May 6, 1904, and is buried at Lake Forest Cemetery alongside his wife, Bridget.

Karen Lowe
Prior to her election to Grand Haven City Council, Karen Lowe served as commissioner on the city’s Historic Conservation District Commission. She holds a Masters in Business Administration degree from Washington University and a Bachelor’s of Science degree in nursing from the University of Illinois. Recently retired, she was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a vice president and general manager at IBM.
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