The Keepers Behind Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses

What is it about lighthouses that keeps spirits lingering, long after the lights have been extinguished? Perhaps it is an undying passion for these beloved beacons or maybe it is a tragic loss of loved ones that ties these ghosts to these hallowed grounds. With more lighthouses than any other state, many of Michigan’s nearly 120 lights remain home to the restless souls of their former keepers. Guest blogger Dianna Stampfler gives the story behind a few keepers of Michigan’s haunted lighthouses.

Photo of James Donahue

James Donahue, Photo Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

Captain James S. Donahue was a wounded Civil War soldier when he was appointed the keeper of the South Haven Lighthouse in 1874. Having lost a leg in battle, the physical demands of tending were even more taxing for him. Yet, during his 35 years of service, he is credit with saving more than a dozen lives. Today, the keeper’s residence sits perched atop a bluff overlooking the Black River and out to Lake Michigan and the 35-foot red tower. The Michigan Maritime Museum uses the building as an archive and research facility, and many have reported sounds they attribute to Donahue. Footsteps, self-opening doors and eerie sounds are among the unexplainable occurrences.

Some may argue that the White River Light Station in Whitehall might never have been built had it not been for Captain William Robinson, who moved to the area in 1860s with his wife, Sarah, and seven of their eventually 13 children. A thriving lumbering industry brought them there from England, and Robinson had hoped he would be able to find work to support his growing family. With the amount of traffic traveling in and out of the White River, Robinson was surprised there was no light to guide their safe passage.

He began petitioning the lighthouse service to have a beacon built, and in the interim would hang a lantern on a pole at the end of the channel every night to aid the passing ships. When the light was constructed and lit in 1875, the Robinsons were appointed the first keepers. For nearly 50 years, the Robinson faithfully kept his light shining—passing away there in 1919 at the age of 87. Yet, he and Sarah are still said to be the permanent residents of the home. While Bill prefers to walk up the spiral staircase to lantern room, Sarah finds peace in an upstairs bedroom where her youngest children slept.

Photo of Captain Townsend

Captain Townsend, Photo Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

Visitors to Seul Choix Point Lighthouse in Gulliver, south of US2 in the Upper Peninsula, have been documenting strange activities there for decades. From the pungent odor of cigar smoke, to hazy faces in bedroom mirrors and moving furniture, the antics of Captain Joseph Willie Townsend are never-ending. Appointed in 1902, his tenure was cut short after he passed away in 1910.

Given the remote locale and the time period, the Captain’s body was embalmed in the basement of the light and his body lay in state in the parlor for nearly three weeks to allow family the time they needed to trek to the U.P. to pay their respects. Perhaps that is why Townsend lingers on. Members of the historical society who maintain the lighthouse complex have collected countless reports, photographs, videos and other “evidence” of the keeper’s presence. There’s even a book, “Spirits at Seul Choix Pointe” by Marilyn S. Fischer, which features many of the more noteworthy ghost stories.

Seul Choix Lighthouse

Seul Choix, Photo Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

Spending the night in a haunted lighthouse may be more than you bargained for, but it’s what you get at the Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B located northwest of Marquette. Set along the shores of Lake Superior, the first keeper at this 1896 light was H. William Prior. About five years into his service, he enlisted the official help of his son, George, as an assistant keeper. However, that arrangement was short lived for both of them.

George had an accident, which eventually lead to his death. The grief-stricken father was last seen headed into the woods. It was a year later, in 1902, when a hunter found Prior’s skeleton hanging in a nearby tree. Innkeepers attribute the slamming of cupboard doors in the kitchen to an angry Prior, yet according to reports from paranormal teams who have visited the light, as many as five spirits are present.

Big Bay

Big Bay, Photo Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

When Saginaw River Range Lighthouse keeper Peter Brawn became disabled and bedridden shortly after his appointment in 1864, his wife Julia was quick to step in and fill his shoes as the acting keeper. Following his death in 1873, she remained in the head position in an official capacity and her son, DeWitt, became her assistant. Within a short period of time, Julia married a man named George Way and she was subsequently demoted while her new husband took the helm. He ended up dying at the lighthouse in 1883, after which Julia and her son left lighthouse service. Today, the property is private and under restoration but those who have had access report hearing footsteps, voices and other interesting sounds that may be attributed to the two keepers (and husbands of Julia) who died there.

Photo of Julia Tobey Brawn Way

Julia Tobey Brawn Way, Photo Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

Have you visited one of these? Share your experience in the comments, spooky or not!

Dianna Stampfler lives in Petoskey and is the president of Promote Michigan. She has been researching Michigan’s lighthouses for nearly 20 years, presenting “Michigan’s Ghostly Beacons” and “Ladies of the Lights” to groups around the state.