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 Big Bay Point, MI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Overnight lodging available.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.
Description: Big Bay Point Lighthouse stands on a rocky point halfway between Marquette and Keweenaw Portage Entry. The establishment of a lighthouse at Big Bay Point was recommended by the Lighthouse Board in 1892, as coasting steamers had to change course at the point and there was protected anchorage on either side of the point.
Big Bay Point occupies a position midway between Granite Island and Huron Islands, the distance in each case being 15 to 18 miles. These two lights are invisible from each other and the intervening stretch is unlighted. A light and fog signal would be a protection to steamers passing between these points. They include all the Lake Superior passenger steamers running between Duluth, Buffalo, and Chicago which carry freight and stop between all the important points on the south side of Lake Superior, including Marquette and the copper ports on Portage Lake. Quite a number of vessels have in past years been wrecked on Big Bay Point.

A light and fog signal station at Big Bay Point was authorized by an act of Congress on February 15, 1893, and $25,000 for its construction was appropriated on August 18, 1894. After a roughly five acre parcel was acquired in 1895, construction of the station began in May 1896 and was completed the following October.

Aerial view of Big Bay Point Lighthouse. Note tramway leading down to fog signal.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The first structures built at the site were a landing crib and a barn. The crew and supplies were housed in the barn, which had an inside privy in one corner with an outside clean out. The lighthouse was built as a two-story, eighteen-room, redbrick duplex dwelling, with a sixteen-foot-square tower centered on its lakeward side. The tower and lantern room stood nearly sixty-four feet tall, but thanks to the lofty bluffs at the point, the light had a focal plane of eighty-nine feet. In addition to the lighthouse, the station featured two small brick privies, a brick oil house with a metal roof, and a twenty-by-five- foot redbrick fog signal building, which was built a few hundred feet north of the lighthouse.

On October 20, 1896, the third-order fixed Fresnel lens, manufactured in France by Henry-Lepaute, went into service. The lens was “fitted with a 3 wick burner same as a 2nd order light and consuming the same quantity of oil.” Four flash panels, fitted in a cost-iron frame, revolved around the lens to produce a brilliant flash every twenty seconds. The weights for revolving the flash panels were housed in a drop tube that ran from the service room down into the basement and had to be wound up every five hours.

The duplex dwelling housed the head keeper and family on one side and the assistant keeper and family on the other. There was an office on the lower level of the tower; accessible only from the head keeper's side of the building. Each dwelling had six rooms consisting of a kitchen, parlor, and dining room on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second floor. A cistern in the basement collected water from the roof eaves, and a pump in the kitchen could be used to deliver water into the sink for cooking and washing dishes. After it was discovered that the water in the cistern was tainted with paint, water was hauled up from the lake in five-gallon buckets.

The station’s fog signal, which also commenced operation on October 20, 1896, was a ten-inch steam whistle, whose water came from a twenty-foot-square crib sunk in Lake Superior. In 1928, a type “F” diaphone, powered by oil-engine-driven air compressors, replaced the obsolete steam whistles.

As the country moved towards the eight-hour workday, a second assistant was added to the station in 1903, and a frame dwelling and privy were built near the fog signal at the bottom of the hill.

The first keeper assigned to Big Bay Point was William H. Prior, who was transferred from Stannard Rock Lighthouse, located twenty-five miles out in Lake Superior. The assistants assigned to work with Prior gave him fits. On November 11, 1897, Keeper Prior walked to Marquette, a distance of thirty miles, to visit his sister on her deathbed and then stayed for the funeral. When Prior returned a week later, he reported:

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.
Twelve days letter a letter arrived transferring Assistant Ralph Heater to Granite Island.

After problems with a different assistant and the resignation of another, Prior's son George acted as assistant and then became an official assistant in January 1900. Just over a year later, George was injured when he fell on the steps of the landing crib. Keeper Prior took him to the hospital in Marquette on April 18, 1901, and his son passed away roughly two months later on June 13.

Keeper Prior was despondent after his son’s death, and on June 28 he disappeared into the woods with his gun and some strychnine. It was feared that he had gone off to kill himself, and a subsequent long search failed to find him. Mary Prior left Big Bay on October 22, 1901 with her four children, who ranged in age from three to fifteen, to live in 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.

In 1911, additional land surrounding the lighthouse was purchased and cleared to increase the light’s arc of visibility and to provide a more suitable site for a landing and tramway.

The lighthouse was manned by a number of keepers over the next forty-three years. In the mid-forties, under the authority of the Coast Guard, the last keeper was reassigned, and the light automated. The assistant keeper's side of the lighthouse was rented out first to a Big Bay schoolteacher and her veteran husband as a year-round home and later as a summer home to two different families from the Marquette area.

During 1951-1952, 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. Large guns were placed on the cliff east of the lighthouse, and planes towed big targets over the lake. The soldiers camped out in the meadow and woods to the west of the lighthouse. It was one of the soldiers stationed at the lighthouse who committed the murder upon which the book and movie Anatomy of a Murder are based. The actual murder happened at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay in 1952.

In 1961, the decommissioned lighthouse and thirty-three acres of land were sold by sealed bid to Dr. Jon Pick, a plastic surgeon from Chicago, for the sum of $40,000. Having been abandoned for close to six years, the lighthouse was in bad shape. Most of the roof was missing, windows were broken and most of the plaster was off the walls. Much of the wood in the house had many layers of paint on it; even the floors had been painted. Dr. Pick set out to fix and remodel it into the summer home of his dreams. It took most of the seventeen years he owned it to accomplish his dream. He installed inside plumbing, electricity, and a modern heating system; replastered many of the walls, repaired windows, opened the duplex into one large building and added a fireplace to the living room. Then he set out to furnish the lighthouse with the antiques he had collected in his world travels, including the ships wheel from the Normandy. In his 80s and in poor health, Dr. Pick sold his dream house in 1979 to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City.

Mr. Hitchens added bathrooms to most of the seven bedrooms, a sauna in the tower, and opened the lighthouse as a conference and retreat area for corporate executives. Five years later, with business in a slump and in need of cash, Hitchens sold the lighthouse to a corporation formed by three men. One of those men was Norman "Buck" Gotschall, and he opened the lighthouse as a bed-and-breakfast in 1986. Buck restored the fog signal building, retrieved the third-order lens from the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City, and had it reassembled for display in the fog building. As land around the lighthouse became available, Buck and his partners bought it, so by 1991 they owned close to 100 acres around the lighthouse. Buck cleared a landing strip for his 1957 tri-pacer to the south of the lighthouse. Hiking trails were cleared and some local art work added to the meadow near the fog building. In 1989, the sixty-one-year-old Buck married a twenty-six-year-old former model, and his new bride added that much needed woman's touch to the B&B.

Nearing retirement, Buck and his partners decided to sell, and in March of 1992 the lighthouse was purchased by the fourth and present owners, three avid preservationists from the Chicago area. John Gale, and Linda and Jeff Gamble had been guests at the B&B and fell in love with the lighthouse and the tiny hamlet of Big Bay on their first visit. On a return visit in 1991, they learned that the lighthouse was for sale and that one very interested party wanted to build condos on the property. Not wanting to see that happen, they decided to make an offer on part of the acreage and the lighthouse. Much to their surprise, the offer of $500,000 was accepted. When final papers were signed, Linda moved to Big Bay to run the B&B, while Jeff and John remained at their jobs in Chicago. In July 1994, Jeff joined Linda, and together they continue to run the bed-and-breakfast.

In May 2011, Big Bay Lighthouse was placed on the market for $1,275,000. In 2004, the owners of the lighthouse divided up the land surrounding the lighthouse into twelve parcels and offered them for sale as part of a “site condominium.” The National Register Coordinator for the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office weighed in on the controversy surrounding the proposed development, writing: “I think it most unfortunate that the light station’s current owners…seem to be more interested in making a profit than in providing appropriate stewardship for a unique historic property.”

Head Keepers: William H. Prior (1896 – 1901), James H. Bergan (1901 – 1915), John A. McDonald (1915 – 1927), John L. Dufrain (1927 – 1933), Louis I. Wilks (1933 – 1936), Charles R. Jones (1936 – 1940). Vern J. Matson (1940 – 1945).

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. “Big Bay Point Lighthouse History,” courtesy Jeff and Linda Gamble.

Location: Located roughly thirty miles north of Marquette and four miles east of Big Bay.
Latitude: 46.84143
Longitude: -87.6806

For a larger map of Big Bay Point Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette just south of Presque Isle Park, turn east on Hawley Street. Hawley Street will shortly become Highway 550, which will lead you the 25 miles to Big Bay. Once in Big Bay, follow the lighthouse signs for four more miles to the Big Bay Point Lighthouse.

The grounds of the Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast are open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parking is available just outside the gates to the property. For information on dates and times of guided tours, call the lighthouse at (906) 345-9957.

The third-order Fresnel lens used in the Big Bay Point Lighthouse is on display at the Marquette Maritime Museum. The museum is open daily from mid-May to mid-October from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The lighthouse is owned by the proprietors of Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast. Grounds open, dwelling/tower opened to guests and guided tours.

Find the closest hotels to Big Bay Point Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
We spent New Years Eve of 2001 in the lighthouse. After enjoying a great buffet dinner at the Thunder Bay Inn, we donned party hats and joined other guests in the frigid cold outside the lantern room where we brought in the new year with noise makers, while fireworks exploded over Lake Independence. If you stay at the B&B in the winter, we recommend borrowing the snowshoes for a trek around the grounds, watching Anatomy of a Murder in the common room, and then, if you are brave enough, sporting the white robs supplied in each room for a trip through the common room up to the sauna in the tower. Perhaps it's a bit twisted, but after the movie you can go to Big Bay to have lunch in the Lumberjack Tavern where the murder occurred and spot other sites which were used in the filming.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Anna Karpinski, used by permission.