Big Bay Point Lighthouse – Michigan7 min read
Big Bay Point Lighthouse stands on a rocky point halfway between Marquette and Keweenaw Portage Entry, Michigan. The Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a lighthouse here in 1892, as Big Bay Point occupies a position midway between Granite Island and Huron Islands, these two lights are invisible from each other and the intervening stretch is unlighted. In fact, quite a number of vessels have in past years been wrecked around the area.
The Big Bay Point Lighthouse and its adjoining caretaker’s lodge were inaugurated in 1896.
The first keeper assigned to Big Bay Point was William H. Prior. On November 11, 1897, he walked to the near Marquette to visit his sister on her deathbed and then stayed for the funeral.
When he returned a week later, he reported some problems with his assistant. He 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 the lighthouse.
Upon his return on November 18, he entered his dissatisfaction in his logbook, which:
“I can not 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 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,” and later he added “My assistant claims now that he is unable to work as he has a lame back”.
Frustration turned to dark humor when he 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: “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.”
In any case, twelve days later, a letter arrived transferring Assistant Ralph Heater to Granite Island.
Stepping into the assistant role was George Beamer who, after he was called into duty during the Spanish American War, he proved to be about as useless as his predecessor. “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. Fed up with the lack of qualified assistants, Prior put him on a steamer and sent him home in Detroit 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.”
After problems with a different assistant and the resignation of another, Prior’s 19-year-old son, George, became his official assistant in January 1900. Just over a year later, in mid-April 1901, tragedy struck when George fell on the steps of the crib cutting the flesh down to the shin bone. Keeper Prior took him to the hospital in Marquette and throughout the late spring and early summer, the boy battled gangrene. However, he passed away roughly two months later on June 13.
Keeper Prior was despondent after his son’s unexpected death, and on June 28 he disappeared into the woods. It was feared that he had gone off to kill himself, locals feared the worst and a long search to find him, alive or dead, proved fruitless. His wife, Mary Prior left Big Bay on October 22, 1901 with her four younger children to live in the nearby Marquette.
Over a year later, the following entry was made in the station log:
“Mr. Fred Babcock came to the station 12:30 pm. While hunting in the woods one and a half mile south of the station this noon he found a skeleton of a man hanging to a tree. We went to the place with him and found that the clothing and everything tally with the former keeper of this station who has been missing for seventeen months.”
Big Bay Point Lighthouse was automated and the last keeper left the station in 1941.
However, 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. During 1951-1952, like so many other Great Lakes lights, the building and land were leased to the U.S. Army. National Guard and Army regulars were stationed at the lighthouse for two-week periods of anti-aircraft artillery training. The soldiers camped out in the meadow and woods to the west of the lighthouse, including 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. 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.
The now abandoned Lighthouse was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1961, when 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.
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.
It was during these years that the first ghost tales were reported in the media. One, published on October 30, 1989 in the Green Bay Press Gazette said:
“Gottschall insists he and his wife did not invent Pryor’s 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.”
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 lighthouse, purchasing it from the Gotschalls upon their retirement.
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. In addition, countless stories tie the ghosts to crewmembers lost at sea during nearby shipwrecks or a woman who was presumably murdered at the light when it was abandoned in the 1950s (although there are no historical record).
Nick Korstad assumed ownership of the Big Bay Point Lighthouse on May 11, 2018 and it is still today a wonderful Bed & Breakfast. This is its website.
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Images from web – Google Research