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Old Presque Isle Lighthouse

from "A Ghost in my Suitcase"
by Mitchel Whitington

Atriad Press, 2005
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On 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 Huron.

Old Presque Island Lighthouse, Lake Michigan
The 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 twenty-six years.

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 so much.

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse
5295 Grand Lake Road
Presque Isle, MI 49777
(989) 595-2787

Mitchel Whitington
Atriad Press, 2005
Published with permission

October 4, 2005

Related Story:

  • Lighthouses of Lake Michigan's Shores by Ken Rudine

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