A true story of lighthouse ghost hunters.
One evening a few years back, I was looking at some photographs for sale in Grays Reef in Mackinac City, MI. A shot of Waugoshance Lighthouse caught my attention. On the back was a note, "Supposedly abandoned because it was haunted by deceased lightkeeper". It was signed by a Jim Tamlyn. I asked the clerk if she knew where I could contact Jim. Luck was on my side: he was a local photographer and I arranged to meet him at his studio, J. Tamlyn Photography, in Mackinaw City, Michigan.
"Waugoshance," he told me, "is different. When you're out there all alone, there is something eerie about the place." Jim explained that over the years he has taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos of lighthouses, under all types of lighting and weather conditions. I could tell I was talking to a unique individual. His particular expertise might be described as "lighthouse mood photography." I could see from his facial expressions and body language that Waugoshance must have a distinct mood that can't adequately be expressed by words, or captured in photographs. I suppose it is this sense of mood that separates the great photographers from the rest of us point-and-shoot amateurs.
I asked Jim about the supposed haunting. He explained that he had found it in the book, Northern Lights, by Charles Hyde. I located a copy and read how John Herman, keeper from about 1885 to 1894, drowned at the light station. John was known for two things, his assistant found himself locked in the lantern room one evening, the victim of one of Herman's practical jokes. He called down to Herman to let him out. But Herman, who was staggering along the pier, apparently went over the edge and drowned. According to legend, from that time on strange things began to happen at Waugoshance. After the nearby White Shoal Lighthouse was put into operation in 1910, Waugoshance was closed. Official records of the U.S. Lighthouse Service indicate it was obsolete. Bet there are some who insist the real reason was that nobody wanted to contend with the ghost that inhabited the place. The man who loved "spirits" most of his life, had become one after death.
Now my interest was really aroused. I called author Charles Hyde, who told me he obtained the ghost story from an article published almost 30 years ago in the Petoskey News Review. The story of the Waugoshance ghost was unfolding like many other ghost tales. Someone read about or talked to someone who learned about it from someone else, who in turn heard about it from someone else. Eventually the path disappears with a story as old as the Waugoshance Ghost.
Before I go any further, I think it only fair to warn the reader that ghost-story tellers and used car salesman have much in common. In other words, beware lest you get all tangled up in tall tales about spirits that flirt around in sheets, and little old ladies who only drive to church on Sundays.
Many people are skeptical of ghosts. They immediately think of the "ghost" they encountered when they were a child and some joker, covered with a sheet jumped out of the darkness to scare them. Old images of ghosts covered with sheets date back to a time when people were superstitious about the dead returning to haunt the living. Bodies were wrapped in sheets and sometimes even immobilized with a ball and chain before burial.
About 13 years ago, I attended a seminar on ghosts and hauntings. Participants, from all over the world, came to share experiences and sightings that weren't obvious practical jokes and left one with a feeling they couldn't entirely dismiss. During our sessions that often lasted late into the night, we evolved an approach that might even be described as scientific, though not the sense of the pseudo-high-tech "Ghostbusters" running around with fire extinguishers and radio antennas strapped to their backs. Rather, we developed a genre to classify ghosts, much as scientists develop taxonomic classifications of animal and plant species.
At one extreme on this Ghostonomic Classification Scale are the "menacing" ghosts of persons, who, for example, were murdered and reappear to haunt the murderer. I suppose these would be truly scary, particularly if one had something to fear. Intermediate on the scale, is the 'restless' ghost of a departed person who, perhaps, didn't get a proper burial and appears to anyone in the vicinity where its remains lay. These are probably a bit scary, since they seem to be a violation of the physical laws we are accustomed to. At the other extreme are "poltergeists." These ghostly spirits serve no discernible purpose, other than to create a great deal of disruption with little or no harm, and are certainly nothing to be feared.
As ghosts go, what I had learned about the behavior of the alleged Waugoshance ghost - opening and closing doors -suggested it was of poltergeist variety. Perhaps it had scared subsequent keepers, but they didn't have the benefit of our classification scheme. I was certain the Waugoshance ghost, if it even existed, was of the harmless poltergeist variety.
Later in the month I arranged to have dinner with a friend, Mark Siegman at the Dockside Restaurant in St. Ignance Michigan. (We both recommend the planked whitefish). Mark is an adventurous sort, and I thought he might be willing to ferry me out to Waugoshance to do a little firsthand ghost hunting. His response was more than I could have hoped for. Not only would he take me out, but he was interested in exploring Waugoshance too. As dinner progressed, accompanied by a few courses of wine, our plans became more daring. By the time dessert arrived, we had committed ourselves to spending the night at Waugoshance. Worse yet, the dinner party was a foursome, so we had two witnesses who agreed to see us off. There was no backing down now.
When the appointed day came, we assembled on the beach at Mark's cottage. We had agreed not to take flashlights, candles, matches, or cameras. After all, we were going in search of a ghost, not to scare it away. We brought a tarp in case it rained, and our sleeping bags. It wasn't that we intended to sleep, but it might get rather cool at night. We had carefully pondered what might entice the ghost of John Herman to make an appearance. According to the story, he enjoyed strong drink. What drink? Scotch sounded great. How would he like his scotch served? That was obvious, given that he frequented Waugoshance, it would have to be "on the rocks!" We added a small cooler containing ice cubes and a fifth of scotch and three glass tumblers.
Mark launched the boat in style with his vintage 1968 Cadillac Eldorado boat launcher - a truly memorable contraption equipped with the latest ether starter, and straight exhaust pipes to announce each launch. (One year it had doubled as a float in the annual St. Ignace auto show parade - transporting a boat load of very happy revellers before the unbelieving eyes of all who assembled on Maine Street.)
As we prepared to embark on our momentous journey, one of our dinner friends, who had come to see us off announced that she had been researching haunted lighthouses. She posed a deep philosophical question.
"Who haunts lighthouses?"
"Beats me," I turned to Mark, "Do you know?"
"Nope. Haven't got a clue. Who?"
"The Ghost Guard!"
Give us a break! Here we are about to embark on the adventure of our lives to confirm or refute a 100-year-old legend about the ghost of Waugoshance and all she could do was poke fun at our effort with lame jokes.
The trip to Waugoshance was uneventful. We set anchor away from the crib and rigged a line to keep the boat from being slammed into the rocks by the waves from passing freighters. The ladder is gone, but one does not have to be much of a mountain climber to work his way up to the crib deck by using hand and footholds in the crumbling rocks. What was once the dwelling is now littered with debris left over from the fire. The iron staircase that provided access to the bird-cage lantern room is missing. All that remains are some internal supports. We considered using our rusty repelling skills to rig a line and make our way to the lantern room, but this seemed rather risky under the circumstances.
We fashioned a table from the debris and ate our supper of smoked whitefish which we had previously purchased at Bell's Fishery in Mackinaw City. As dusk approached, a thick black cloud encircled the tower. No, it had nothing to do with ghosts. IT was just plain old gnats - billions of them. They reminded us of what smoke from the Chicago fire of 1871 might have looked like. We watched freighters in the distance passing between us and the colorful sunset on Lake Michigan. Thus far, we had neither seen nor heard anything that even remotely reminded us of a ghost.
As darkness approached, we set the tumblers out, added ice and poured three stiff scotches on the rocks. Mark proposed a toast.
"To the ghost of John Herman."
"Hear, hear,: I added. "To the distinguished ghost of John Herman. After all, how many ghosts have a pad that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places?'
We finished the round. Still there was no ghost. Herman's glass sat untouched. It was time to make preparations for a night of serious ghost watching. We strategically positioned ourselves against an interior wall in the burned out dwelling so that we'd see any movements in or out of the portals that had once been windows and doors.
We sat down and waited patiently. As we sat there in the darkness, I thought I could hear whispers.
"Mark, can you hear that?"
"They're sort of like whispers that can't be heard, but I can feel them."
"Maybe your imagination is beginning to play tricks on you."
"Maybe," but I thought back to what Jim Tamlyn had said, "When you're all alone out there, you get an eerie feeling." I wasn't all alone, Mark was there too. The real question was, who - or what else - might be there too? I have to admit that I definitely was overcome by an eerie feeling.
My eerie feeling wasn't helped by the moonlight that filtered in through the door and the window portals. The passing of clouds and the flight of an occasional bird made the light literally dance on the crumbling surfaces. Every shimmering movement of the light kept us on edge.
I could hear faint thunder in the background. As it grew louder, we adjusted the tarp to protect us from any rain that might fall. Across the room were the three tumblers , two empty and one full. Our attempt to entice the ghost of John Herman to put in an appearance, thus far, had been unsuccessful.
As we sat there we talked about what an adventure - or fright - it must have been to be on the water during one of those legendary Lake Michigan storms. Imagine being a seaman below deck on the schooner Lillie Amiot when it capsized, dumped deck load of lumber on the bottom, and then righted itself. Worse yet, imagine being on the deck with the lumber!
When the rain finally arrived, it came in torrents. The cold wind, that literally whistled through the burned out tower and dwelling, drove us into our sleeping bags. When we awoke the next morning, sunlight was streaming into the structure. Across the room were the three tumblers on our makeshift table. Two were nearly empty and the other was full. The tightly capped bottle of scotch sat nearby, the level precisely where we had left it the night before. The ghost of John Herman had not put in an appearance, even as we slept. We collected our things and headed back to the mainland, not really sure whether we should be relieved or disappointed.
So far, so good. But the plot thickens. One evening I got a telephone call from Mark. After our in-search-of ghosts adventure, we had left the cooler on the back porch and the partially empty bottle of scotch on the table inside his cottage. When Mark returned a week later , the first thing his nose told him was that something was very fishy. The cooler proved to be the culprit. Inside was a partly decomposed whitefish that had been baking for a week in the July sun. The bottle of Scotch was still inside where we had left it. The level was still the same. However, it contained water instead of Scotch whiskey!
Who was responsible? Whiskey transformed into water sounds like an old teenage trick, but there weren't any teenagers around, My first suspicion was that our lame-joking, well-wishing friends dropped by and set us up. If so, neither of them has been willing to take credit. Could it be - and I realize this is a far stretch for those who are skeptical of ghosts - that the ghost of John Herman had visited us that dark stormy night at Waugoshance? Could a ghost drink almost a fifth of Scotch and replace it with Lake Michigan water? Could a ghost leave a fish in our cooler? We had been convinced that our little excursion was a failure. We hadn't bothered to uncap the bottle and smell the scotch. We had no reason to be suspicious. I don't recall that we even opened the cooler. Could it be that Mark and I had become the latest target of the practical jokes of lightkeeper John Herman's ghost?
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Great Lakes Cruiser Magazine in 1994 and was used by permission. It was slightly modified because of the time change and different photographs have been used.
This story appeared in the
October 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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