Big Bay Point Light Seeing The Light

Big Bay, Michigan Home Back

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Historical information

The Big Bay Point Lighthouse stands on a rocky point halfway between Marquette and the Keweenaw Portage Entry. 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. 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"

Congress authorized the establishment of a Light Station on Big Bay Point on February 15, 1893 and funds of $25,000 were appropriated on August 18, 1884. Work finally began in May 1896 with the construction of a landing crib and a barn to house the construction crew and their supplies. The barn was outfitted with an inside privy in one corner with an outside clean out.

The lighthouse was built as a two-story brick duplex dwelling, 52 feet by 52 feet with 18 rooms. The light tower rose from the center of the house 105 feet above Lake Superior. There were also two small brick outhouses, a brick oil storage building, and a 20 foot by 15 foot brick fog signal building. The first fog signal consisted of two steam operated ten-inch train whistles that protruded from the roof of the building. In 1928, these whistles were replaced by duplicate diaphone signal systems.

On October 20, 1896 the fixed Third Order Fresnel lens was placed into service. According the Keeper's log entry of June 8, 1887, the lens was "fitted with a 3 wick burner same as a 2nd order light and consuming the same quantity of oil." With a focal plane of 105 feet, the steady white light was increased to a brilliant white flash every 20 seconds by rotating bulls eye panels in the lens system.

Click to view enlarged imageThe duplex dwelling housed the Head Keeper and his family on one side, and the Assistant Keeper and family on the other. There was an office on the lower level of the tower; accessible only from the head keeper's side of the building. Each dwelling had six rooms consisting of kitchen, parlor and dining room on the first floor, and three bedrooms on the second. Each side had a cistern in the basement for collecting water from the roof eaves and a pump in the kitchen to get water from the cistern to the sink for washing dishes. When it was discovered in 1896 that the water in the cistern was tainted with paint, water was hauled up from the lake in 5-gallon buckets.

As the country moved towards the eight-hour workday, a third assistant was added to the station. A frame dwelling and outhouse were built for his use near the fog signal building at the bottom of the hill.

H. William Prior was appointed first Head Keeper at Big Bay, and assumed his duties at Big Bay on August 15 1896 after transferring-in from Stannard's Rock Light. Prior served in this position until his untimely demise on June 27, 1901. Click here to read Prior's fascinating and tragic story, as told largely in his own words from the Big Bay Keeper's Logbook.

In 1941, under the authority of the US Coast Guard, the last keeper was reassigned and the light at Big Bay was automated. The assistant keepers' side of the lighthouse was rented-out. First to a Big Bay schoolteacher and her veteran husband as a year round home, and later as a summer home to two different families from the Marquette area.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1951 & 1952, the buildings and land were leased to the US Army, and National Guard and Army regulars were stationed at the lighthouse for two week periods of anti-aircraft artillery training. Large guns were installed on the cliff to the east of the lighthouse, and aircraft towed as targets over the lake.

The soldiers camped-out in the meadow and woods to the West of the lighthouse. In 1952, a soldier stationed at the lighthouse committed a murder at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay. The movie "Anatomy of a Murder," which was filmed in Big Bay, Marquette and Ishpeming, was based on this unfortunate incident.

In 1961, the Lighthouse and 33 acres of land were sold by sealed bid to Dr. John Pick, a plastic surgeon from Chicago, for the sum of $40,000. Having been abandoned for close to six years, the lighthouse had fallen into terrible disrepair. With most of the roof missing, numerous broken windows, and plaster falling from the walls, Dr. Pick set out to rehabilitate the proud structure into the summer home of his dreams. It took most of Dr. Pick's seventeen years of ownership to achieve his dream. He installed inside plumbing, electricity and a modern heating system; re-plastered many of the walls, repaired windows, opened the duplex into one large building and added a fireplace to the living room. He then set out to furnish the lighthouse with the antiques he had collected in his world travels, including the ships' wheel from the Normandy. In his 80's and in poor health, Dr. Pick sold his beloved dream house in to Dan Hitchens of Traverse City in 1979.

Mr. Hitchens added bathrooms to most of the 7 bedrooms, a sauna in the tower and opened the Lighthouse as a conference and retreat area for corporate executives. Five years later, with business in a slump and a need for cash, Dan sold the lighthouse to a three-man corporation. One of those men was Norman "Buck" Gotschall. Buck reopened the lighthouse as a Bed-and-Breakfast in 1986. Buck restored the Fog Signal House, retrieved the 3rd order lens from the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City and had it reassembled for display in the fog building.

As land around the lighthouse became available, Buck and his partners bought as much as possible until in 1991 the lighthouse was surrounded by close to 100 acres. Buck cleared a landing strip for his 1957 tri-pacer to the south of the lighthouse. Hiking trails were cleared and some locally created sculptures installed in the meadow near the Fog House. Buck married in 1989, and his new bride Marilyn added that much-needed woman's touch to the Bed and Breakfast. Nearing retirement, Buck and his partners decided to sell. In March 1992, three avid preservationists from the Chicago area became the fourth and present owners.

John Gale, Linda and Jeff Gamble had been guests at the Bed and Breakfast and fell in love with the lighthouse and the tiny hamlet of Big Bay on their first visit. On a return visit in 1991, they learned that the lighthouse was for sale and that one very interested party wanted to build Condominiums on the property. Not wanting to see that happen, they decided to make an offer on part of the acreage and the lighthouse. Much to their surprise the offer was excepted! When final papers were signed, Linda moved to Big Bay to run the Bed and Breakfast, while her husband Jeff, and their partner, John, remained at their jobs in Chicago.

In July of 1994 Jeff joined Linda and they continue to run the Bed-and-Breakfast. As of today John is still in Chicago.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Big Bay Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We made the 30 mile drive from Marquette to Big Bay on the afternoon of September 9, arriving at 4.15. This lighthouse now serves as a private Bed & Breakfast, and we found out that the grounds are only open from 10.00 a.m. until 4.00 p.m., so we were forced to return to Marquette.

We returned the next day at 10.00 a.m. and walked the grounds in a dismal drizzle. The light was terrible this day, as it painted everything with a dull, even cast. We took the uninspiring photographs seen above, and vowed to return again to photograph in a more inspiring light!

On the way back to Marquette, we took a 12 mile detour down a sand road to photograph on of the areas waterfalls. After climbing up and down the falls, we were returning to the truck, when Sue stopped and started walking slowly toward the left rear tire. She pointed at a huge nail sticking out of the tire, and proclaimed proudly that she could hear it hissing from fifty feet away!

We drove gingerly back to Marquette, checking the tire every couple of miles, and found a tire center that had it plugged in thirty minutes, and we were on our way again! 

The woman has incredible ears!

Finding this Light

From the City of Marquette, take Wright St. to the intersection with Sugarloaf Ave. Take Sugarloaf Ave North. Eventually Sugarloaf Ave. becomes County Road 550. Follow CR 550 approximately 25 miles into the village of Big Bay. Stay on CR550 to the North side of the village, and turn right on Dam Rd. Follow Dam Rd. until it ends at a "T" intersection. Turn left at the "T" onto Lighthouse Rd. and travel approximately a mile to the gate at the entrance of the lighthouse property.

Guided tours of the lighthouse are available May through September at 1:00 pm & 2:00 pm. Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday with a $2.00 admission charged. The grounds are open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Visitors are required to park at the gate and walk 1/10 of a mile up to the lighthouse.

Contact Information

If you would like to stay at the lighthouse, room availability, prices and reservations can be made at their website. Click here to visit the Big Bay Bed & Breakfast web site.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
Email and letter from Jeff Gamble, owner, Big Bay Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast.
Personal visit to Big Bay Point on 09/10/1999
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Michigan Lighthouses, Penrose, 1992.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 08/23/2004

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