Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, and nearly one-fifth of them have a ghostly story to be told. Why are so many of our lighthouses rumored to be haunted? And who are these spirits? Why don’t you come up to Big Bay Point Lighthouse near Marquette and stay awhile…
Plan your trip during fall color season.
Northern Michigan Fall Color Map: Where to See Peak Colors
Only a handful of lighthouses in Michigan operate as bed-and-breakfasts. Big Bay Point Lighthouse is one of them. Visitors spend the night with the ghosts that are rumored to haunt this sprawling brick structure. One word of advice, however, don’t read the ghost stories before going to bed—unless you plan on sleeping with one eye open.
The lighthouse in Big Bay, about 25 miles northwest of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opened in August 1896. It operated with an active keeper until 1941, when it was automated. It has been offering overnight stays high above the waters of Lake Superior since the mid-1980s. Even on nights when there is room at the inn, there is a full house, with as many as five resident spirits on site, including one belonging to the first keeper.
H. (Harry) William Prior (often spelled Pryor) was this light’s inaugural keeper, serving just five years. He and his younger brothers, James and George, had all tended the nearby Stannard Rock Light in the middle of Lake Superior—James began his service there in 1883, followed by George in 1888 and William in 1890.
The oldest brother was known to manage his light with an iron fist, was often regarded as cantankerous and recorded in his own words that he had trouble keeping qualified assistants. He was also meticulous in the keeping of his logs, which shed light on many of the trials and tribulations involved in tending a remote lighthouse.
On November 11, 1897, Prior noted that he left the light at 11 p.m. to walk to Marquette following the death of his only sister, Esther Grace Prior. He was away from the light for about a week, leaving it in what appeared to be the incapable hands of his first assistant, Ralph Heater. Upon his return on November 18, Prior entered his dissatisfaction in his logbook, which was reprinted on TerryPepper.com:
“I can not [sic] see that the assistant has done any work around the station since I left. He has not the energy to carry him down the hill and if I speak to him about it he makes no answer but goes on just as if he did not hear me; he is so much under the control of his wife he has not the hart [sic] to do anything. She has annoyed me during the season by hanging around him and hindering him from working, and she is altogether a person totally unfit to be in a place like this as she is discontented and jealous and has succeeded in making life miserable for everyone at this station.
“As my assistant objects to working during the closed season, I have written to the inspector to get his opinion on the matter,” Prior entered on December 27 of that year, followed by “My assistant claims now that he is unable to work as he has a lame back” on January 1, 1898.
Frustration turned to dark humor in mid-February when Prior noted, “Mr. Heater arrived from Marquette at 6 p.m. and walked the entire distance of 33 miles in 12 hours, including two rest stops over an hour each … pretty good gait for a lame man.” Then again February 27, when he wrote, “Mr. Heater came across the ice to the other side of Big Bay with his wife. It is Sunday and his back is not lame today.”
Relief, however, was in sight as Prior reported two days later that he “received a letter from the Office informing me that my Asst. would be transferred to Granite Island, for which I have every reason to be thankful.”
Stepping into the assistant role was George Beamer. Yet, just one month in he was called into duty during the Spanish American War, at which time his wife, Jennie, was appointed in his place—becoming the only woman to ever serve at Big Bay Point Lighthouse (from May 12 to August 26, 1898). When George returned from service, he proved to be about as useless as his predecessor and Prior noted that this keeper also often complained he could not work because of a bad back.
“Asst. Beamer does not take hold of his work as he should. He evidently expects me to work with him whenever he is at work, and if I do not, he leaves work and does nothing until I get back to him,” Prior noted on September 19. The next month, he continued his dissatisfaction and made a record of it should documentation be necessary for the lighthouse service. “As Mr. Beamer always objects to my questions and resents my interference, and I have passed over his dereliction before and not caring to be constantly making reports unfavorable to him, I have written this for future reference when the inspector arrives.”
Toward the end of October, Prior documented his ongoing concern about his assistant: “Asst. Beamer complains of being sick and talks of leaving the station to go home to Detroit. He is too high strung for a light keeper’s asst, between himself and his wife this season I imagine that I am keeping a Home for the Helpless Poor instead of a U.S. Lighthouse. I and my family having to do the greater part of the work while they receive the pay.”
Finally fed up with the lack of qualified assistants, Prior put Beamer on a steamer and sent him home on November 1, 1898. Among his final notes on this assistant, he said “this Beamer…is without exception the most ungrateful and the meanest man I have ever met.”
In November 1898, Prior appointed his 19-year-old son, George Edward, (also noted as Edward George) to the position and father and son worked side-by-side for about 15 months. In mid-April 1901, tragedy struck when George fell on the steps of the crib cutting the flesh down to the shin bone. The keeper noted in his log on April 18 that “he will have to remain in hospital for treatment.” Throughout the late spring and early summer, the younger Prior battled gangrene, which had eventually eaten way at the tissue of his leg and ultimately took his life. On June 13, Prior wrote, “1:30 p.m. Keeper summoned to Marquette to bury his son who died this morning.”
Following the death of his son, Prior slipped into a state of severe depression. He was noted as despondent and his log entries dwindled over the subsequent days. On June 28, he was rumored to have disappeared into the woods near the lighthouse with his gun and some strychnine. Locals feared the worst and a long search to find him, alive or dead, proved fruitless. One day that autumn, Mary and the four younger Prior children (ranging in age from two to 15) left on an afternoon boat to live in Marquette.
The following November, The Mining Journal reported that “the remains of Harry W. Prior, the light keeper of the lighthouse at Big Bay, who disappeared last June were found by a ‘land looker’ Monday in the woods. The find was a gruesome one.”
The Sault Ste. Marie Evening News also published an article mentioning that a deer hunter discovered a human skeleton dangling by a rope from a tree limb in the woods about a half-mile south of Big Bay Point Lighthouse.
Police speculated that it was the remains of the former keeper who had disappeared and was thought to have committed suicide 18 months before. Apparently, there were remnants of the keeper’s uniform, as well as a few tufts of his red hair, helping to further identify the body. The story ran under the headline “May Be Light Keeper Pryor’s Body”:
“A man arrived in Marquette from Big Bay with a report that a skeleton had been found there, at a point about a half a mile from the light. There was a rope around the fleshless neck, it is stated, and the evidence pointed to a suicidal death of the unfortunate. It is surmised that the skeleton is the remains of Lightkeeper Pryor, who disappeared at Big Bay. It will be remembered a few months over a year ago, Mr. Pryor wandered off in a fit of temporary insanity, and was never seen again, although a diligent search was made in the vicinity by the people at Big Bay, assisted by Marquette friends of the missing man.”
The death of George Prior followed by the suicide of William Prior isn’t the only dramatic story to come out of the small unincorporated community of Big Bay (2000 population: 285).
The Big Bay Point Lighthouse was automated in 1941, and like so many other Great Lakes lights, it was rented out to the U.S. Army and National Guard for training purposes. During the 1950s, soldiers camped out in the meadow and woods to the west of the lighthouse while undergoing anti-aircraft artillery training. On the cliff, east of the lighthouse, they installed large guns used for target shooting over Lake Superior.
It was during this time, in the summer of 1952, that 38-year-old Lieutenant Coleman Peterson, a veteran of the Korean War and an active member of the 768th anti-aircraft battalion at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, was temporarily stationed at Big Bay. While in town at the still-operating Lumberjack Tavern, he shot and killed the owner and bartender, Maurice “Mike” Chenoweth because he believed the bar keep had raped his wife, Charlotte Ann, earlier that evening.
Peterson was charged with murder in a well-publicized trial, which today has become part of a self-guided tourist trail around the Marquette area. He was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity after being represented by defense attorney John D. Voelker—who was later appointed as Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from 1956 until 1960.
In addition to practicing law, Voelker was also an avid fisherman and author— writing under the name Robert Travers. It was under this pseudonym that he penned Anatomy of a Murder in 1958, based on the famous Marquette County case. That in turn became an award-winning movie in 1959, starring Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott and Eve Arden, with music by Duke Ellington.
Featured in the October 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Closest Town: Big Bay
Year First Lit: 1896
Your visit will be right out of a storybook—a ghost storybook. Bright red, perched on rocky cliffs above mighty Lake Superior, this bed-and-breakfast is one of the few surviving resident lighthouses in the country and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Enjoy a beautiful breakfast before a day of play, and cap it with the sunset view from the light tower. For details, visit its website.
Big Bay Point Lighthouse Becomes a B&B
The Big Bay Point Lighthouse was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1961, at which time Dr. John Pick, a plastic surgeon from Chicago, purchased the structure and 33 acres of land for $40,000.
He spent the better part of 17 years restoring the dilapidated building into his dream summer home, until poor health in his 80s forced him to sell to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City, who continued to modify the lighthouse into a corporate retreat center before the economy forced him to sell just five years later.
Norman “Buck” Gotschall and his wife, Marilyn, became the next owners of the historic lighthouse, turning it into a B&B. They brought back the Third Order Fresnel Lens from the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City and displayed it in the recently-restored fog signal building. Over time, the couple acquired more property around the light, amassing close to 100 acres that were outfitted with trails, sculptures and a landing strip to the south of the lighthouse for Buck’s 1957 tri-pacer.
It was during the Gotschall years that the first ghost tales were reported in the media. An Associated Press wire story published on October 30, 1989 in the Green Bay Press Gazette said:
“Gottschall insists he and his wife did not invent Pryor’s [sic] ghost to drum up business. Instead, he said, the first sighting was reported shortly after the inn opened by two guests who saw the spirit walking around the lighthouse in his U.S. Life Saving service uniform.”
The article also references quick and unexplained banging, running water in the basement shower and other phenomena all attributed to the former keeper.
“Every morning in the spring he wakes me up, taps me lightly and bids me to go fishing,” Gotschall continued. “I know that fishing was important to a lighthouse keeper. So I have to fish every morning. I’ve always tried to comply. I don’t want a mad ghost around.”
Anne and Dennis Kirby from Plainwell spent their honeymoon in the summer of 1990 at the Big Bay Point Lighthouse while the Gotschalls were keepers. That first night, Anne remembers, they settled into their guest room and were later awakened by the sound of something ping, ping, pinging down the stairs, as if someone had dropped a marble down the steps. The next morning, she said there on the bedside table, in a small ashtray, a single marble lay resting—a marble that hadn’t been there the day before.
In March 1992, three avid preservationists and one-time guests from Chicago—John Gale, Linda and Jeff Gamble—became the next owners of the historic light, purchasing it from the Gotschalls upon their retirement.
In a February 11, 1996 article in the Star Tribune out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Linda admitted she “heard him once…I think he’s gone now, though. I had a conversation with him in the kitchen.” In the November 24, 2007 Twin Cities Pioneer Press out of St. Paul, Linda Gamble told travel writer Beth Gauper that one night, she was startled awake by the sound of slamming cupboards in the kitchen. “I thought it was a drunk coming back from the [Tavern],” Gamble said in the article.
“I have a temper, and I stormed up, but no one was there. So I figured it must be Will, and I said, ‘OK, I know ghosts don’t like change, but we’re changing things. I have to get up in the morning and make breakfast, so cut it out.’ Then I slammed a cupboard and went back to bed. The next morning, all the cupboard doors were closed, and we’ve never had a reputable report of Will since,” she said. “I call that an Italian exorcism.”
More than one story accounts for a tall red-headed man wearing a late 1800s uniform walking the grounds around the lighthouse, doors and windows opening and closing on their own, lights turning off and on by themselves and disembodied footsteps making their way across wooden floors.
One overnight guest reported seeing the reflection of a man wearing a keeper’s hat standing behind her in the mirror. Other guests have awakened from deep sleep to find a man gazing at them from the end of their beds. Countless stories tie the ghosts to crewmembers lost at sea during nearby shipwrecks or a woman who was reportedly murdered at the light when it was abandoned in the 1950s (although no record of such a crime was found in an online search of local newspapers).
Nick Korstad stepped into the keeper role when he assumed ownership of the Big Bay Point Lighthouse on May 11, 2018. He is also the current keeper of the Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in Lake Huron. Before coming to Michigan, he bought and restored the 1875 Borden Flats Lighthouse on the Taunton River in Fall River, Massachusetts, which was featured on HGTV’s You Live in What?
When asked via email about any ghostly encounters, Nick said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to gain access to the ghostly past.” Yet, if history is any indication, it won’t be long before the spirits make their presence known.
Reprinted from Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses by Dianna Higgs Stampfler (The History Press, 2019). Dedicated to all the passionate keepers of Michigan’s lighthouses and those who refuse to let their histories be extinguished. For more tales from our state’s haunted lights, buy an autographed book at MiHauntedLighthouses.com ($19.99 plus shipping/handling).
In 2004, Dianna Stampfler launched Promote Michigan, a public relations consulting company specializing in the hospitality, tourism, agriculture, culinary, natural resources, recreation, history and culture industries of her home state. It is her passion to share the stories of the people, places and products of Michigan. Dianna currently resides in northwest Michigan. This is her first book. If you have a ghost story to share, email Travel@PromoteMichigan.com.