Big Bay Point Lighthouse

The Big Bay Point Light is a lighthouse which stands on a tall bluff over a rocky point near Big Bay, Michigan, approximately 24 miles (39 km) miles northwest of Marquette on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Today it is the only operational lighthouse with a bed and breakfast. It is reputed to be haunted, and the novel and movie Anatomy of a Murder were inspired by a murder rooted at the lighthouse.

History of the light

The establishment of a station at Big Bay Point was recommended to the Lighthouse board in 1882 as follows: "The point occupies a position midway between Granite Island and Huron Islands, the distance in each case being 15 to 18 miles (29 km). 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".

Light station infrastructure

A 20-foot (6.1 m) x 15-foot (4.6 m) brick fog signal building was constructed. It contained two ten-inch (254 mm) steam train whistles that stuck out of the roof of the building and were operated by steam boilers. In 1928, the steam whistles were replaced in 1928 by a modern air diaphone.

There were also two small brick privies, a brick building with a metal roof and a door for storing oil for the lens.

On October 20, 1896, the 3rd-order fixed Fresnel lens went into service. It was "fitted with a 3 wick burner same as a 2nd order light and consuming the same quantity of oil". To increase the steady white light, partially screened rotating panels were installed, creating "a brilliant white flash every twenty seconds.' This lens is considered to be sufficiently significant that models have been made and marketed as technological "diamonds" -- "a superior example of mathematical dimension and extraordinary beauty. . . . With its magnificent series of concentric glass prisms, the light would reflect back through the central lens -- a perfect example of a 'catadioptric system."

An office was on the tower's lower level, and it was accessible only from the head keeper's side. Each dwelling had six rooms, including on the first floor a kitchen, parlor and dining room. and on the second floor three bedrooms. Each side had a basement cistern to collect water from the roof eaves and a pump in the kitchen to get water from the cistern to the sink for washing dishes. When paint contamination of the cisterns was discovered, water was fetched frorm the lake in 5 gallon buckets.

The aid to navigation was deactivated and sold to private owners. In 1990 the original Fresnel lens was recovered and reinstalled, and is on exhibit.

Private home

In 1961, the lighthouse, and 33 acres (130,000 m2) were sold by sealed bid to Dr. Jon Pick, a plastic surgeon from Chicago. The purchase price was $40,000. Six years of abandonment meant that most of the roof was missing, windows broken and the walls were denuded of most of the plaster. Layers of paint needed to be scraped. Dr. Pick's attempt to turn it into a summer home encompassed 17 years of construction and renovation, including upgrading or installing inside plumbing, electricity and a modern heating system. Many rooms were replastered. The duplex was integrated into one large building. Period antiques and travel mementos were placed.

Bed and breakfast

In 1979, in his 80s and in poor health, the doctor sold the dream keeper's house to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City. Mr. Hitchens added bathrooms and executive meeting rooms, intending to convert the place to a bed and breakfast.

Five years later, Hitchens sold the lighthouse to an investment group of whom the managing owners were Norman "Buck" Gotschall, and his wife Mrs. Gotschall. Bed-and-breakfast amenities were added, the fog signal building was reopened, additional acreage acquired, and hiking trails opened. The new bed-and-breakfast opened in 1986.

Nearing retirement, the Gotschalls and their partners decided to sell, and in March 1992 the lighthouse was purchased by the fourth and present (as of 2009) owners, three avid preservationists from the Chicago area. John Gale, Linda Gamble, 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.

The light was built in 1896 at a cost of $25,000. It was automated in 1944. In 1961 the lighthouse was sold to John Pick for $40,000. Dr. Pick had it restored and furnished with antiques. It was set up originally as a duplex, so it would have quarters for two keepers and their families. It has been a bed and breakfast since 1986.

Access to the grounds and tours of the light (and fog horn building) are available.

Because of its picturesque location, form and color it is often the subject of photographs, and many drawings.

Big Bay Point Light is one of more than 150 past and present lighthouses in Michigan. Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state. See Lighthouses in the United States.

Life at the light

The keeper's house consists of 18 rooms in a 52' x 52' two story brick building. The attached tower is tall enough to make the light 105' above Lake Superior. Originally, this housed the keeper (and his family) and an assistant keeper with family as well. As the country moved to 8 hour shifts, a frame building with outhouse was built at the bottom of the hill for a second assistant keeper.

At the time the light was built the only way to get to and from the aid to navigation was by water. Those who worked at Big Bay Point were truly isolated. The keepers' wives not only had to do the usual housekeeping and food preparation, but also schooling of any children in residence.

Other structures on the site include two cisterns, an oil house, a garage, 2 brick outhouses, a dock. a well house and a brick fog signal building, which housed the original Fresnel lens for display. However, another source opines that: "The original 3° Fresnel lens, formerly displayed in the fog signal building, is now on loan to the Marquette Maritime Museum in Marquette."

The light tower has intricate fortress style brick work near its apex (like Old Mackinac Point Light, which is its contemporary), supporting an octagonal lantern and iron watch room. The light was automated in 1941. The station was sold in 1961 after a new light was erected on a steel tower on the grounds.

Notable deaths at the light

There have been at least two notable deaths associated with the lighthouse, which have given rise to the belief that the light is haunted, and have inspired the book and movie Anatomy of a Murder.

Red-haired William Prior, who was the first lighthouse keeper at Big Bay point, was devastated when his son, Edward, died of a leg injury. He vanished in 1901 and his body was found almost a year and a half later hanging from a tree about a mile from the lighthouse. He may have committed suicide, or have been murdered. His red-haired ghost has been seen in mirrors, and doors have a tendency to bang in the middle of the night.

The second incident took place in 1952, when the assistant's house was used to train an anti-aircraft battalion. An army officer stationed at the house murdered the owner of a local tavern, inspiring Anatomy of a Murder.

Current status

Effective November 12, 1988, the site is listed on the National Inventory of Historic Places, Reference #88001837 Name of Listing: BIG BAY POINT LIGHT STATION. It is also listed on the state list.

The Light Station is part of the National Park Service's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The Au Sable Light Station is on the National Register of Historic Places, #88001837. It is also on the state list.

It is considered to iconic, and has been the subject of memorabilia including a Needle Point rendition.

Specialized further reading
  • Hermanson, Don, True Lighthouse Hauntings, Revisited including Big Bay Point Light.
  • Stonehouse, Frederick. Marquette Shipwrecks. Marquette, MI: Harboridge Press, 1974.
  • Wagner, John L., Michigan Lighthouses: An Aerial Photographic Perspective -- Big Bay Point Lighthouse (East Lansing, Michigan: John L. Wagner, 1998) ISBN 1-880311-01-1 ISBN 978-1-880311-01-1.


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