Located on the land protruding from the eastern shore of Lake Huron in Michigan, you’ll find the Presque Isle Lighthouse. The name Presque Isle comes from the French term that means “almost an island.” Congress appropriated $7,000 to fund the construction of the lighthouse in 1838 and construction started shortly thereafter. The lighthouse was completed in 1840.
The original Presque Isle Lighthouse tower stood 30 feet high with four foot thick walls at the base. Inside was a hand-cut stone stairway that spiraled around the interior wall of the tower up to the lantern. About 30 feet from the lighthouse a small detached single story lightkeeper’s residence was built. The light was lit for the first time in September of 1840 when the first keeper moved in.
By 1866, the keeper’s dwelling was in such poor condition that nothing short of a complete rebuild would make the structure liveable again. The owner requested that money be made available for the rennovation of the building and Congress approved the requested appropriation on March 2, 1867.
As the construction was about to begin, the Lighthouse Board changed its direction. Due to the height of the standing lighthouse tower, it was only functional to light the harbor. It was decided that instead of refurbishing the standing buildings they would construct a larger light at the tip of the peninsula about a mile north of the original, along with two range lights to help light the harbor. These new lights would render the current light virtually obsolete and the planned rennovation was cancelled.
The new lighthouse was completed in 1871 and the lightkeeper moved with his family to the new location. The new light was lit on June 1, 1871 and the lens and lantern from the original light were removed and shipped off to be used elsewhere. After the lantern was removed, the old tower was left uncapped and the windows and doors were boarded-up. The buildings stood empty and in disrepair for 26 years.
Finally, in 1897 the lighthouse and surrounding property were sold at public auction. Once again, the buildings sat in disrepair for years, being used mainly as a picnic area for guests of a nearby hotel.
When the property was purchased again in the 1930’s, the new owners rebuilt the light keeper’s dwelling in the style of an old English cottage and used it for a summer home. In the 1940’s, vacationers started asking for tours of the old light station and the owner realized that converting the property into a museum might make him some money. The old tower was refurbished, washed-out cement was replaced between the stones, and a fresh coat of white paint was applied.
The old cottage was furnished with mid-nineteenth century period items and maritime artifacts were displayed in the cottage as well as on the grounds. The station finally got electricity in 1965, and the light was reactivated in the tower. The Coast Guard wouldn’t allow it to be used as an official lighthouse, however, so the old light was again deactivated.
In 1977, a retired couple, George and Lorraine Parris took over the property as live-in tour guides and custodians. George was a personable man who enjoyed his job at the lighthouse and loved greeting the visitors to the lighthouse, especially the children. He enjoyed taking the visitors to the lighthouse on a tour of the buildings and grounds and shared stories of the lives of the lightkeepers and their families. He also liked to play harmless pranks on visitors by blowing the foghorn just to make sure everyone was paying attention. The loud, unexpected sound gave everyone a start. Sadly, George died of a massive heart attack on January 2, 1992.
Lorraine stayed on and continued their work at the tower. One night on her way back to the light station, she saw a light shining in the old lighthouse. Knowing full well that this was impossible since George had disconnected the electricity to the tower years before, she was a bit frazzled.
The Coast Guard had said it was illegal to display a light in the old tower because mariners might confuse it with the New Presque Lighthouse. To ensure that no accidental lighting would occur, the Coast Guard had actually removed the gears so the lens could no longer rotate. It was impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation for why the light was there.
Soon other people began reporting the light in the old tower. National Guard pilots have reported seeing it when they flew night missions over the peninsula. There have also been reports that George’s light guiding people to safety on dark, stormy, foggy nights. To this day, the light still comes on at dusk and goes off at daylight. The U.S. Coast Guard has classified it as n “unidentified” light.
In July 1992, a little girl reported seeing a man at the top of the stairs leading to the lantern room. The little girl said he was a tall man with white hair, a beard, and was wearing glasses. When she was shown a picture of George, she said that was the man she saw in the tower but he was “brighter white” when she saw him. Another story, possibly a different version of the same story, reports that a little girl touring the lighthouse with her family climbed to the top of the tower and came back down giggling. She said she had been talking to the man in the tower.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Sites in 1973. The area was incorporated into the State Park by the State of Michigan and donated to the Township in 1995. The Township Historical Society continues to operate the lighthouse as a museum open seven days a week from May through October.