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.
On October 20, 1896, the tower’s 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 cast-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 lead 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 later, 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.
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. On July 15, 1913, the intensity of Big Bay Point Light was increased from 26,000 to 220,000 candlepower by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor.
Big Bay Point Lighthouse was electrified and the fog signal was discontinued in 1940. The last keeper left the station in 1941, and the light was listed as unwatched. 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 for target practice. 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 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.”