November 30, 2021

The Haunting of Big Bay Point

Light of the souls
By Brighid Driscoll | Oct. 23, 2021

November 1901: A Marquette man named Frederick Babcock loaded up supplies for a day of hunting near Big Bay, Michigan. Back then, hunting big and small game was as routine for the average Yooper as going to the local grocery store is today. What wasn't routine on this particular trip 120 years ago was the remains of a dead body Babcock discovered hanging from a tree. 

Time and weather had clearly ravaged the dangling figure. Tattered bits of fabric clung in patches to the decomposing flesh; on its head, a few telltale wisps of red hair. Babcock rushed to the nearest place he could think of for help: Big Bay Point Lighthouse. 

The entry logged by the lightkeeper read:

“Mr. Fred Babcock came to the station 12:30 pm. While hunting in the woods one and a half-miles 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.”

The keeper’s hunch was soon confirmed; the remains were those of Harry William Prior, the first keeper of the light at Big Bay Point. 

LET THERE BE LIGHT
The unincorporated community of Big Bay sits on the craggy coast of Lake Superior, a heavily wooded place that, as of the 2020 census, counts only 189 residents. No doubt, in 1880, despite an estimate 4,700 residents living in Marquette, the bustling ore port just 25 miles southeast, Big Bay had even fewer.   

Back then, its rocky point overlooking Lake Superior posed a major problem for passing ships. It occupied a sort of blind spot in the shipping channels. In 1892, the United States Lighthouse Board recommended the building of a lighthouse at the point to illuminate the way: "The 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. Quite a number of vessels have in past years been wrecked on Big Bay Point."

Construction of the light station began in May 1896. Three months later, Harry Prior and his wife, Mary, moved in with their three children. The keepers’ quarters were a two-story brick duplex, with one side housing the lightkeeper and his family, and the other side housing his assistant and family. Attached to both and facing the water stood the lighthouse tower, which rose 105 feet above Lake Superior.

Prior would come to find that the door on the assistant's quarters would be a revolving one. Prior was a meticulous head keeper, one who expected much of his assistants. Time after time, it seems they disappointed him. In his keeper's log, he complained of each assistant's work ethic — or lack thereof. He noted that one couldn't be relied upon to do any work if the keeper was away. Another assistant, Prior wrote, claimed to suffer from a lame back that prevented him from performing physical labor.

Exasperation led to Prior sending his final assistant, George Beamer, packing on Nov. 1, 1898. Although Prior noted that Beamer was “ … without exception, the most ungrateful and the meanest man I have ever met,” the decision could not have been an easy one. The gales of November were roiling upon the big water, and Prior could not risk working alone at a light whose mechanisms had to be wound every five hours to continue shining. He turned to a young man he felt sure he could depend on, his 18-year-old son George Edward.

HIS FATHER'S KEEPER
According to the logbook, nearly a year and a half passed without major incident, and it seemed Prior had finally found a worthwhile assistant. That is, until one cold April day in 1901, when George suffered a tragic fall on the crib, cutting one leg so deeply to the bone that he had to be taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Marquette, a 50-room hospital — one of two in the quickly growing city.

Whether it was the long lifeboat paddle across the icy April waves from the family’s outpost at Big Bay or simply bad luck, care of George’s wound at the Marquette hospital wasn’t a matter of sewing him up and sending him home. The gash resulted in gangrene, which kept the young man hospitalized for weeks as the infection spread up his leg. Finally, on June 13, 1901, medicine could do no more; the 19-year-old died in St. Mary’s.

That same day, the elder Prior recorded in his logbook: "Keeper summoned to Marquette to bury his son who died this morning."

Despite his brief and seemingly stoic notation the facts of that grim day, Prior was no doubt distraught over the death of his eldest son, whose injury he likely felt some responsibility for. The logbook entries in the ensuing weeks give little clue as to Prior’s state of mind, but many historians have noted they become few and farther between until the last entry Prior recorded on June 27, 1901: "General work."

The next day, Prior went missing. A rumor that he had disappeared into the woods with his gun and strychnine quickly spread, and with it, a search party of locals. They walked the woods and coast but were unsuccessful in finding the bereaved father. His wife, now with a two-year-old and their three remaining children, waited all summer for Prior to return. That autumn, she gave up, moving her broken family to Marquette, not knowing what had become of her husband until Fred Babcock would make his gruesome discovery more than a year later.

DON’T BLINK
A host of keepers and assistants came on to keep Bay Point Lighthouse functioning until 1940, when, like many Great Lakes lighthouses up and down Michigan’s coast, the light was electrified and automated. The last keeper left in 1941, and the lighthouse served briefly in the early ’50s as a host to the U.S. Army for periods of anti-aircraft artillery training, then was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

According to the website of Lighthouse Friends, a group of lighthouse enthusiasts who document the history and state of lighthouses around the nation, a plastic surgeon from Chicago purchased by sealed bid the decommissioned lighthouse and 33 acres of land for $40,000 in 1961. He spent the next 18 years repairing and updating the crumbling structure to become his dream home, but in 1979, in his ’80s and in poor health, he sold it to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City, who further expanded and updated the place, adding bathrooms to most bedrooms and a sauna in the tower, for use as a corporate retreat center.

When Norman “Buck” Gotschall took over the lighthouse and keepers’ quarters in 1986, he transformed it into a B&B — though it’s said that it wasn’t until 61-year-old Buck married a 26-year-old former model in 1989 that the lighthouse received “that much-needed woman’s touch.”

It also received some significant attention. According to an Associated Press wire story published Oct 30, 1989, Gotschall “insists he and his wife did not invent Pryor’s [sic] ghost to drum up business,” though he did claim it wasn’t long after they took over the inn that some guests reported seeing a ghostly man in a U.S. Life Saving service uniform roaming the grounds.

However, through the years, even as other owners took over, the reports continued — with guests reporting various disturbances like someone or something banging on the water pipes, faucets being left on, doors slamming, and other phenomena no one seemed able to explain. 

Current owner and innkeeper Nick Korstad, who purchased the lighthouse in 2018, doesn’t offer an explanation, but he does admit to his own experience with a ghostly presence.

"It was haunted when I acquired it,” he tells Northern Express. “There was an apartment in the basement where the previous owners had left a lot of stuff behind. I heard a lot of commotion downstairs and thought someone was in the basement.

“When I heard them coming up the stairs — I was in the dining room — I heard them walk into the kitchen. I looked over, and no one was there. I felt it walk up behind me, and then it went out through the front door all at once,” he says. “Whatever it was, I don't know … .”

Korstad says he doesn’t know who or what “it” was, and adds that in the past three years he’s been running the B&B, he hasn’t seen, heard, or felt anything like it again.

Is it the ghost Harry Prior, the dedicated and exacting lighthouse keeper who succeeded in protecting the lives of countless Lake Superior sailors but failed to protect that of his firstborn son? Is it George Prior, the only assistant his father trusted, keeping watch for his sleeping father forevermore? Or could it be the ghosts of all those sailors lost in the dark between islands who wrecked at Big Bay Point long before Harry and George and the lighthouse came to be?

The cynical among us might well assume the haunting is just a marketing ploy that began in the ’80s and snowballed with the imaginations of guests, gusts of wind, and strange noises common to century-old structures.

But so what if it is? Local legend aside, the historic Big Bay Point Lighthouse is still a breathtaking sight to behold. Five of seven well-appointed guest rooms offer sweeping views of Lake Superior — sunrise and sunset included, some have gas fireplaces, and not a one is interrupted with a television or telephone. There is high-speed internet, a filling daily breakfast, easy access to Van Riper State Park, and great trails like Thomas Rock and the Big Bay Pathway, plus the close-knit Big Bay community, complete with general store and an Italian pizzeria/cocktail lounge, waits just up the road.

Dare to head up and stay a night inside the Prior family's former home? Perhaps telling, Halloween night 2021 is fully booked, but next year, on the nights of June 13 and June 28 — 120 years to the days George and his grieving father Harry Prior left this world behind (if, in fact, they fully did) — a few rooms remain available.

Good luck, Sailor.

Find Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast at 4674 County Rd., in Big Bay. Rates $239+. Reservations (906) 345-9957, bigbaylighthouse.com.

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