By Virginia Ransbottom
Michigan’s lighthouses standing watch over the Great Lakes were once beacons to ships navigating crashing waves and slashing winds.
The light towers are also beacons for ghosts — or at least for a good story—according to Dianna Higgs Stampfler. She shared some of her research over the past 20 years on the subject with about 70 people who attended “Michigan’s Ghostly Beacons” Oct. 9 in Allegan’s Griswold Auditorium.
Lighthouse tending was a tedious profession in grueling weather that could change in an instant, Stampfler said. But for some of keepers of the light it was more than a job — it was a passion — even after their lights and lives were extinguished.
After sharing their tales statewide as a Michigan History lecturer, The History Press asked Stampfler to write her first book “Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses,” to be released March 2019. It will take readers to 13 of Michigan’s 120 lighthouses.
“If you’re going to write about something haunted, you have to start with 13,” she said.
George Sheridan, who at age 9 watched from the tower as his family drowned, went on to be a lighthouse keeper himself as did several succeeding Sheridans.
After other assignments, he served as the only officially-trained lightkeeper at Saugatuck’s Kalamazoo River lighthouse from 1900 to 1914, when it was decommissioned.
Sheridan was then to be transferred to St. Joseph, but struggled with depression and was briefly institutionalized before visiting his uncle, the Grosse Point Lighthouse keeper in Illinois. There he hung himself in the boathouse, which is also said to be haunted.
His depression was related to the death of his parents, which haunted him for life.
South Haven Lighthouse
Capt. James Donahue was a wounded Civil War soldier when he was appointed South Haven’s Black River lighthouse keeper in 1874.
Having lost a leg in the war, he was fitted with a pegleg, but that didn’t keep him from climbing the steps of the 35-foot-tall tower while carrying a cast-iron pail weighing 90 pounds when full of hot whale oil, which fueled the early light.
Donahue did whatever it took to make sure the light stayed lit. In the meantime he saved more than a dozen lives during his 35 years of service, including two of his own sons who fell off the pier.
Donahue would stay at the top of the light tower on stormy nights, battling brutal wind and icy waves to make sure the light didn’t go out. He also walked the 75-foot-long wooden pier up the street and a bluff to the keeper’s residence, which today is still perched overlooking the Black River.
The Michigan Maritime Museum has renovated the residence at 91 Michigan Ave. as a Great Lakes research library with all the keeper’s logbooks housed there — along with Donahue’s ghost.
Workers there say they sometimes hear the footsteps of Donahue hobbling down the halls on his crutches, doors creaking open and closed, and other eerie, unexplained sounds.
The South Manitou Island Lighthouse has connections to Saugatuck. Accessible by ferry at Leland, its most noted keepers were Aaron and Julia Sheridan, who lived on the island with their six sons.
Also a Civil War soldier, all the bones in Aaron’s lower arm and hand were destroyed. He tended the 104-foot tower from 1866 until 1878 when tragedy struck.
Aaron and Julia had boated to the mainland with their one-year-old son Robert. While returning in a 25-foot sailboat from Glen Arbor on a cold April day, a squall capsized the boat as they approached the harbor. Aaron was unable to save himself, Julia or the baby. The navigator managed to survive.
The Sheridan’s two oldest sons were in the lighthouse tower when the boat went down and witnessed it.
“It is said those boys walked the beach for weeks waiting for bodies to wash ashore but they never did,” Stampfler said. “Many years later, Aaron’s pocket watch surfaced on the beach, his hat was recovered as was button from his coat.”
But the lake never gave up the dead.
The story is still told today to visitors who say when they’re in the tower, voices can be heard coming from the lighthouse keeper’s residence, not currently open to the public. Most occurrences happen between the lighthouse and the causewalk to the residence.
Twelve years ago the family was finally recognized for their loss. Aaron and Julia’s great-grandchildren, Stephen Sheridan, a retired Allegan County Judge and his brother Jack Sheridan, a Saugatuck historian, worked with local legislators to place markers on the island. However, in the 1970s the island became part of Sleeping Bear National Dunes lakeshore and many rules were placed on federal land.
It was illegal to place tombstones on the island until Stephen’s son Aaron, who was named after the keeper, found a loophole that allowed veterans’ markers to be placed in the parks. Since the keeper had been a Civil War soldier, memorial markers were finally erected on the island in 2006.
Stampfler said some of the organizations that run these lighthouses do not want to say their space is haunted because some people may not set foot in buildings rumored to have ghosts.
“But you also have three to four times more people who will go there because it is haunted,” she said. “People who travel to haunted places tied to horrific historical events are the fastest growing sectors of tourism in the world.”
Stampfler knows a thing or two about tourism. She was West Michigan Tourist Association media director before launching her own marketing and consulting company promotemichigan.com.
Two organizations have asked that their lighthouses be taken out of her book. “Those were both in state parks, which I think might be part of the bureaucracy of no ghosts allowed,” she said.