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.

5 Ways to Enjoy Cocktail Week Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids launched Cocktail Week GR last year – and the response was so great, the city is gearing up for a second go-round, November 9-20, 2016.

Sip local! Bebidas Estilo GR!

Logo for Grand Rapids Cocktail Week

Cocktail Week Grand Rapids was created to celebrate Michigan-made spirits and the art of the craft cocktail. New distilleries are popping up all over Grand Rapids and throughout the state, and Cocktail Week GR is a great opportunity to taste their handiwork in delicious drinks created by West Michigan’s best mixologists.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of this spirited event.

1. Pair and Share. Participating bars and restaurants are offering a special food-drink pairing deal – get two Michigan cocktails and a shared-plate appetizer for $25 or less. Chefs and mixologists have collaborated to create pairings that perfectly complement each other, adding balance and depth to your gustatory experience. Last year, a crowd pleaser was, The Drapple – made with Beer Barrel Bourbon from New Holland Brewing – which was paired with Duck Confit Leg at Reserve Wine & Food.

Photo Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Photo Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

2. Go the Extra Glass. Enjoy enticing extras to enhance Cocktail Week GR including local events. Check cocktailweekgr.com for this year’s schedule.

3. Get in the Mix. Learn how to create your own delicious drinks at a Downtown Market cooking class. “Thanksgiving Cocktails and Desserts: Beyond the Pie” takes over the Teaching Kitchen on Wednesday, November 16.

Photo Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Photo Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

4. Take a Tour. Long Road Distillers, established in 2015 and already the winner of multiple international awards, offers tours of its facility on November 11, 12, 18 and 19. You’ll learn how Long Road uses local grains and fruits to craft vodka, whisky, rum and more.

5. Think Global. Attend the International Wine, Beer & Food Festival (November 17-19) to sample spirits – plus wines, beers and ciders – from around the world. More than 1,500 beverages will be featured, along with gourmet foods, workshops, seminars and more. It’s billed as “Michigan’s premier tasting event,” so bring your appetite!

“Flowers in the Window” is a cocktail made especially for Cocktail Week GR by Zac Williams from Six.One.Six.

What is your favorite place to enjoy a cocktail in Grand Rapids? Let us know in the comments below!

An Inside Look at Terror on Tillson: A Pure Michigan Halloween Experience

Year after year, visitors flock to a small neighborhood in Romeo, MI to experience Terror on Tillson, one of Michigan’s largest neighborhood funded Halloween attractions!  Today, guest blogger Vicki Lee, a 35-year resident of Tillson Street shares a behind the scenes look at what goes into creating this undeniably unique All Hallow’s Eve experience. 

It’s that time of the year again. A quaint street in the middle of the Historic Village of Romeo, Michigan, transforms from a street lined with majestic maple trees and Historic homes, dating back to the late 1800’s, into a haunted habitat. Once a typical Halloween, with a few scarecrows and some pumpkins and 350 trick-or-treaters, has now evolved into a Halloween Extravaganza!

Photo Courtesy of KDMac Photography

Photo Courtesy of KDMac Photography

Trick-or-treat numbers have risen to about 2,000. Tens of thousands of visitors wander down the street during the last two weeks of October just to get a sight of all the hard work these neighbors put in to make this a memorable experience. Terror on Tillson Street provides a safe, family oriented Halloween experience at zero cost to visitors. The elaborate displays will be mostly completed the weekend of October 24th, although everyone decorates right up until Halloween. Trick or treating is only on October 31st from 6-8pm, but visitors are welcome to stop by and take a gander at the devilish displays beforehand.

Tillson Street is a little more than two blocks long. Most people decorate in some form or another, but it is not a requirement when you move on the street (although many visitors think it is). Most of the time there are about 32 house that do some type of display. This is a neighborhood that plays together, works together and watches out for each other…that’s how it all works. Some of my favorite memories from Halloween on Tillson Street are the times that the neighbors spend time together like one big family. We wind down at the end of the evening and chat about the friendly visitors who strolled through and highlights from the night’s events.

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

Throughout each weekend in October, you will see many neighbors walking from house to house, as help is always needed for some props that are too hard to put up yourself. It is an ongoing preparation for the big finale on Halloween. The neighbors work at their own speed. As most Michiganders know, unpredictable weather always has a way of interfering with our set ups! Most of us have “real” jobs, so you hope you have good weather on the weekends to accomplish everything that needs to happen.  Some tweaking is always going on right up to the time Trick-or-treaters start to arrive.

We always include family and friends in the festivities, which they all look forward to each year. Their help is always much appreciated! At my house, we now have the 4th generation of helpers. My mom, who is 81, pretty much does the supervision role these days, but in a way she started this with me, I was born on Halloween and she always puts a little more effort in the decorations for my sake.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

I continued this with my own children and it has just grown from there. As younger families moved on the street, the bigger our Halloween has become. The creativity of this neighborhood is amazing with the majority of decorations being handmade. Many residents work on their decorations throughout the year, hoping to finish before the next Halloween.

Everything is done by the residents of the street, their timeless hours and their enjoyment to do something very special for a free night out for the families is how this event has become what it is. We all hope everyone enjoys their visit to this one-of-a-kind neighborhood.

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

As my sons grew older and still wanted to be involved with the festivities, they created what is known as the “Bulldog Security” after Romeo High School’s mascot. Bulldog Security is a group of athletes from the high school that patrols the streets on Halloween night keeping an eye for trouble makers (not many to speak of) and lost children (maybe I should say lost parents). At one point these were just young teens wanting to be involved, now we have a few generations of athletes that help us out. Some of these young people come home from college just to be involved! The Village of Romeo has allowed Tillson Street to be blocked off on Halloween night for safety purposes during the 2 hour trick-or-treating time.

This year, Tillson Street has 3 special events that are included in our Halloween. One is the “Buzz Lee Memorial Scholarship Fund.” This was a fund that was started by my late husband with a golf outing to provide a vocational scholarship. When Buzz passed away from a brain tumor, my family and I decided to honor him in this wonderful scholarship that now provides not only a vocational scholarship, but also a pay-to-play scholarship and donations to the Wounded Warrior Project (Buzz was a Vietnam Veteran). We sell a limited edition “TILLSON STREET” Halloween shirt, hot cocoa and cider, can koozies and our very own Tillson Street Cookbook, put together by all the neighbors and friends. ALL proceeds go directly to the Scholarship Fund.

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Povinelli

We also provide a special event for KKC, “Kids Kicking Cancer.” This will be our 5th year giving kids an afternoon of no worries and a huge amount of fun. We close the street for a couple of hours and the kids and their families come down the street to trick-or-treat. I’m really not sure who has more fun, my neighbors or the kids! This is an event that makes it all worth the hard we put in to the decorations! It has at times been a very emotional day for the neighborhood, but so, so rewarding!

Photo by Heather Monaghan

Photo Courtesy of Heather Monaghan

If you’re planning to visit Tillson Street on Halloween this year, use these tips and information to make the most of your experience: 

-It’s best to walk and see everything, there will be bumper to bumper traffic, so it is very hard to see the displays in your vehicle.

-You never  have to wait in any line, although a line does seem to form during the evening, but that is not planned by anyone!

-Expect the walk to take you at least an hour to get through. There is parking on the street, but this usually hard to find.

-There are parking lots all around Tillson Street for a small donation, but are by no means associated with Tillson Street.

-Tillson Street is free of charge. The only things you might want to purchase are in the tent at 171 Tillson Street with all proceeds going to the scholarship fund.

Have you ever been to Halloween on Tillson Street? What did you think?