Ghost at the Northport Lighthouse

Perry Hannah, partner Albert Tracy Lay and James Morgan purchased Boardman Mill and 200 acres of land. Perry Hannah and Albert Lay built a large, new mill, and began to map out Traverse City.

Captain Peter Nelson liked what he saw here and decided not to go back to Chicago; instead he bought 160 acres near Northport in 1855. Only then did the old sailor put down roots. He married my great-great-great-grandmother, Alice Clough Bigelow, when he was 55 years old. She was the widow of a Civil War deserter who never made it home. She already had two children. And then three more, which great-great-great-grandpa Nelson fathered when he was 59, 61 and 62 years old. The youngest, my great-great-grandfather Walter, arrived in 1873. The following October Nelson was appointed lighthouse keeper at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and he moved his young family to live at the light.

I’m in my pajamas, in bed in the lighthouse. The gales of November are at it—the wind is an intense whistle, and the lake is at a roar. The modern lighthouse light, now automated and a few yards down the shore, creates a strobe light effect in my room—every few seconds its glaring brightness illuminates the lace curtains, the sink, the large painting of a ship at sea and the rosary on the doorknob. The heat radiators are clinking. Staley said Captain Nelson’s bedroom was most likely above where I’m sleeping, a thought that sends a panicked wave of heat up from my stomach into the tips of my ears. My skin tingles, and my eyes start to water. I cannot sleep.

At 10 o’clock the phone rings. I get out of bed to answer it, and no one is there. This has to be a joke—the lighthouse apartment has a private, unlisted number. It rings again—this time it’s fuzzy on the line, and I rationalize that it’s probably my husband, with bad cell phone reception, calling to say goodnight. My heart is pounding, and something is compelling me to walk up the stairs.

The mannequin from the museum, dressed in a lighthouse keeper’s uniform, stares stonily out from a small room, his head cocked. I don’t like how you’re looking at me, Bub, I tell him. I enter the bathroom, which was the hallway in Nelson’s day and the place where Staley hears the most ghostly activity. I put my ear to the wall. All I hear is a hollow dullness.

Now I’m climbing the metal spiral stairs up to the tower. The handles are icy cold. This is what my great-great-great-grandfather did, carrying a lantern. I think of the circa 1880 lighthouse keepers handbook I read earlier in the day: During stormy and thick weather those keepers who have no assistants must attend in the lanterns during the entire night and omit no proper efforts to keep the lights burning at their greatest effective power.

The same book warned that women were not allowed in the tower. What would my great-great-great-grandfather think of me now, in his tower, in my pajamas?

Outside is pitch black. All I can hear is the shriek of the wind, and see the whitecaps as the modern lighthouse light sweeps over Lake Michigan.

I’m keeping my light on. I scrounge for something to read. In the kitchen I find the Northport Michigan Heritage Edition Cookbook the villagers made for their sesquicentennial. I read by flashlight recipes for Corn Casserole, Northern Fluff, Medicine Meatballs, Swedish Pickled Beets, Applekuchen—recipes from women whose names I know. I start to nod off, with the wind and spray against my window. I feel peaceful and safe.

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