Lighting The Lake:

Big Bay Point Light Station - Big Bay, Michigan



It seems as if every lighthouse has a ghost. Seul Choix Point Lighthouse is said to be haunted by the keeper who died there in the early 1900’s. His presence is marked by the distinct smell of cigar smoke, perhaps a ghostly thumbing of his nose at his wife who forbade him to smoke in the building. According to the Coast Guard, Old Presque Isle Lighthouse has “an unknown light” source which goes on at dusk and off again at dawn. And Big Bay Lighthouse is fifth on the list of American haunted lighthouses on Coastal Living’s website, due to the tragic life of its first keeper, H. William Prior.

High above Lake Superior's crashing surf, Big Bay Lighthouse stands on a grassy bluff and is 24 miles northwest of Marquette, midway between Granite and Huron Islands. Because the stretch between the lights on both islands remained dark, the government instituted plans for a Big Bay Point lighthouse in the early 1890s, especially after numerous shipwrecks.

The duplex two-story brick lighthouse, which measured 52 feet by 52 feet, was built with eighteen rooms. The light tower rose from the house’s center to a height of 105 feet, with an office at the tower’s first floor accessible only from the keeper’s side. A third order Fresnel lens was first lit in October of 1896. The brick outer buildings consisted of two outhouses (one for the keeper’s family and the other for his assistant’s family), a storage building for oil and a 20 by 15 foot fog signal building. While the first signal operated by steam, with two ten-inch train whistles mounted on the roof, they were replaced in the late 1920s by two diaphone signals.

Big Bay’s resident keeper and assistants could only gain access to the Point by water, or by walking the arduous trail to Marquette through the woods. This isolation clearly took its toll. The first keeper, H. William Prior, often remarked on his assistants’ complaints of being unable to work—although they seemed to recover on Sundays to go fishing. The children were schooled by their wives, who were already occupied with housekeeping duties and helping out at the lighthouse. A frame house and another outhouse were added at the hill’s bottom for a second assistant keeper. Prior finally hired his oldest son, George E. Prior, as assistant keeper in 1900 after a string of assistants transferred to other stations.

H. William Prior was devastated when his son George Edward Prior suffered a nasty fall the following spring. Due to the severity of his injuries, he was hospitalized in Marquette and died in June of 1901. Later that month, William Prior’s last entry in his meticulous logbook account was “general work.” Taking a gun and poison, he vanished into the woods. After searching tirelessly, his wife, family and assistants failed to find him. Mrs. Prior and her children left the lighthouse in October and moved to Marquette. James Bergan was appointed keeper, but he fared no better than Prior at keeping assistants for any length of time. No doubt the station’s isolation didn’t help.

Anatomy of a Murder
photo: US Coast Guard

The Mining Journal of November 27th, 1902, 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.” Was it suicide, or murder? Prior’s red-haired ghost has supposedly been seen in the lighthouse’s mirrors. The ghost often banged doors during the night. Other ghosts were reported to join him.

Big Bay Lighthouse has a historical link to Hollywood as well. The U.S. Army had been renting the property surrounding the lighthouse since 1951, along with the National Guard. Soldiers stationed at the lighthouse buildings trained for two weeks in anti-aircraft artillery. East of the lighthouse on the cliff, they installed large guns used for target shooting over the lake.

At 12:30 a.m. on July 31, 1952, Lieutenant Coleman Peterson, a veteran of the Korean war, took his Luger to Big Bay’s Lumberjack Tavern and shot six 9 mm. bullets into the owner, Maurice “Mike” Chenoweth, as revenge for raping his wife Charlotte Ann. Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker of Ishpeming—after losing a re-election bid—turned his hand to writing and used the case, since he’d acted as defense attorney.Using the "temporary insanity" plea, he successfully convinced the jury to acquit Peterson. The book, published in 1957, became a best-seller and was optioned for film.

Anatomy of a Murder

Directed by Otto Preminger, the Oscar-nominated 1959 movie “Anatomy of a Murder" starred James Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara. It was filmed at the courthouse in Marquette, Ishpeming and at Big Bay’s Thunder Bay Hotel, built by Henry Ford, which stood in for the Lumberjack Tavern. The town is about 3 and a half miles from the lighthouse. The movie became a sensation since the words 'rape' 'contraceptive', 'sexual climax' and 'panties' were used in the dialogue. Many of the jurors who served in the real trial stood in for jurors in the movie; the remaining juror roles were filled by locals. Gossip about the real life case still abounds, since Peterson failed to pay Voelker’s attorney fee and his wife had quite a reputation for “partying.”

Despite six years of abandonment, Chicago plastic surgeon Dr. John Pick, bought Big Bay lighthouse and the surrounding acreage in 1961. He was known in the area for his moniker, “You can’t choose your face, but you can 'Pick' your nose.” After 17 years of repairs and renovations, Pick sold the lighthouse to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City in 1979, who turned it into an executive conference and retreat center. He in turn sold to Buck Gotschall, who opened Big Bay Lighthouse as a bed-and-breakfast in 1986. Buck subsequently retrieved the original Fresnel lens and installed it in the renovated fog signal building; he even created a small aircraft landing strip.

Linda and Jeff Gamble now operate Big Bay Lighthouse, after purchasing it in 1991 with a partner. The first keeper, William Prior seems to be happy with the new owners as his nighty visits accompanied by the ghostly banging of doors have ceased. The five other ghosts, perhaps spirits of other assistant keepers or even tavern owner “Mike” Chenoweth, seem to have followed him out.

—Meg Mims

Terry Pepper's Seeing The Light - Big Bay Point Light
Marquette, Michigan remembers "Anatomy of a Murder" - Journal Sentinel - 2008
Memories of a Murder - Chicago Tribune - 1989

Unless otherwise indicated, all Lake Effect Living photographs are the work and property of Sharon Pisacreta.

October - November '11