Old Presque Isle Lighthouse
from "A Ghost
in my Suitcase"
by Mitchel Whitington
one of my trips to Michigan, a friend who lived in Mount Pleasant
was giving me directions.
"We're basically in the middle of the glove," he said. I'd never thought
about it, but I guess that makes a lot of sense, because the larger
part of the state is indeed shaped like a right hand - or, I guess,
a glove. Using that same analogy, our next stop is located more or
less where the tip of the glove's index finger would be. Glancing
at a map, Presque Isle looks like a small island off the coast of
Michigan on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. It's actually not, though
- instead it's something like a peninsula. Still, Presque Isle harbor
became an important location for captains sailing their vessels on
Old Presque Isle Lighthouse in Michigan
Photo courtesy Ken Rudine, 2005
| As early as
1800, French trappers used the natural harbor for shelter from the
potentially dangerous waters of the lake. They're the ones who named
the place Presque Isle, meaning "almost an island."
A few decades later, as ships powered by steam began to sail Lake
Huron, captains pulled into the harbor to add to their supply of wood
from the land around the lake or seek refuge from the harsh storms
that could arise with little warning. It is said that if a storm was
brewing on the lake and a captain saw that he couldn't make Presque
Isle, he would simply turn around and head back to his homeport.
The harbor became such an important maritime interest that a state
representative named Isaac Crary asked Congress for funds to build
a lighthouse there. Congress recognized the need and appropriated
five thousand dollars for the lighthouse to be built.
Construction was begun in 1839; when finished, the tower stood thirty
feet high and had an eighteen-foot base with four-foot thick walls.
A spiral stairway wound to the top that housed the lantern and lenses.
A lighthouse keeper named Henry L. Woolsey was the first person to
man the lighthouse, which was first fired up on September 23, 1840.
The light had served the sailors of Lake Huron for over twenty years
when it was determined that the keeper's house was in such disrepair
that it would have to be torn down and rebuilt. The money was allocated
but was never spent-at least not to improve the residence. In 1868
it was determined that the lighthouse's placement could be better,
so a much larger light was proposed by the Lighthouse Board. Construction
started about a mile to the north, and the Presque Isle Lighthouse
- or Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, as it came to be known - was abandoned.
The lens and lantern were removed, and the beacon sat empty for almost
The lighthouse was finally put up for auction, and the first in a
long chain of owners took it over. Some were entrepreneurs, hoping
to make a buck on the place; others just wanted use of the land; and
still others had an eye for preserving the history of the Old Presque
Isle Lighthouse for future generations. The Stebbins family would
hold the property for some time, starting with Bliss Stebbins who
bought it for seventy dollars at the turn of the twentieth century
in a tax sale. He never developed the land as he'd hoped, so he sold
it to his brother Francis in 1930.
Francis B. Stebbins was the first person to see the historical potential
of the lighthouse, and he began to give tours to anyone interested
in seeing the place. He also repaired the light so that it would shine
once again, which it did until the Coast Guard made him extinguish
it so as to not confuse ships coming into the harbor. Just to make
sure that he didn't get the urge to crank it up again, they removed
the machinery that rotated the light and lens.
From Francis, the property passed to his son Jim Stebbins, who took
his father's vision for the lighthouse even further - he began to
assemble a full-blown maritime museum in the keeper's house, and officially
opened it up for tours. He even had an idea for a "step back in time"
tour, and hired college girls from the area to be the docents. They
dressed in costumes from the 1800s, and were so beautiful that the
main customer demographic time with them, so in 1977 Jim abandoned
that idea and hired a retired couple to take over the place: George
and Loraine Parris.
George and Loraine became the official keepers of the property, even
though they didn't actually own it. While Loraine worked in the museum,
George gave tours of the lighthouse. He enjoyed playing pranks on
the visitors and showing them a good time - his favorite trick for
quite some time was the "Foghorn Test of Strength." He would ask for
volunteers who thought that they could stand in front of the mighty
horn as he set it off. No matter how rigid a stance the person took,
George would blow the horn and the vibration would knock them clean
off their feet. George loved the people who visited the Old Presque
Isle Lighthouse, and the people loved him. Many came back season after
season just to see what tricks and tales George had cooked up lately.
On January 2, 1992, a single day after celebrating the New Year, the
most beloved man in Presque Isle, Michigan, died of a heart attack.
A chapter in the lighthouse's history had been closed - but perhaps
a new one had begun.
As Loraine was driving to the property on Grand Lake Road, which had
a clear view of the lighthouse, she saw that it was illuminated.
She knew that the Coast Guard had rendered this impossible, but there
it was before her. By the time that she arrived at the keeper's house,
though, everything was dark. The next day she climbed the steps of
the lighthouse to make sure that everything was in order, and she
saw that there was no way that someone could have turned the light
on. Yet, this same pattern repeated itself again and again. Loraine
never said anything about it because she thought that people might
think her crazy.
Soon other folks began to see the light, however - a yellowish glow
was reported from the lighthouse by several people. Some thought that
the light had been put back into operation, but others drove out for
a closer look, only to find that it was dark once again.
It was even spotted by members of the Air National Guard, who flew
a few missions over the area, and by the Coast Guard, who investigated
to make sure that no one could fire the light back up. It had been
permanently disabled years before, so there was no way that the light
could be shining. Yet it was. Many people believe that the spirit
of playful old George is occasionally paying a visit to the lighthouse
that he loved so much, just to let folks know that he's doing just
fine and to keep alive the stories of the lighthouse that he loved
Old Presque Isle
5295 Grand Lake Road
Presque Isle, MI 49777
© Mitchel Whitington
Atriad Press, 2005
Published with permission
October 4, 2005