Dwelling in the past
Around Lake Superior, overnight guests can try out life at a lighthouse.
When Lake Superior lighthouses had keepers, there was nothing romantic about life there.
The posts were cold, lonely and meagerly furnished on the government dime. The work was physically taxing and repetitive. Through the long nights, keepers had to get up every two hours to wind the mechanism that rotated the lens.
It's no wonder many of the early lighthouse keepers were hermits or grouches.
Lighthouses are happier places these days. That's because the work is automated, and at some, people can be guests, enjoying all the glamor without any of the grunt work.
Around Lake Superior, some lighthouses welcome guests year-round. Upholstered comfort has replaced civil-service austerity, and when a guest is curled up in an easy chair drinking a glass of brandy, those howling winds do seem kind of romantic.
The pea-soup fogs that made long-ago keepers worry about shipwrecks send us on reveries about the old days, when Lake Superior often exacted a harsh toll on those who lived with it.
I was reading scrapbooks in the cozy living room of Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B in Michigan when I came upon the story of William Prior, one of Lake Superior's most notable grouches.
In the three years after the lighthouse was finished in 1896, Prior went through four assistants, claiming each one was lazy.
Finally, the lighthouse service appointed his son George to the post, but in 1901, George fell down steps and died. His bereft father disappeared into the woods with a rifle and strychnine, and hunters found him 17 months later, a skeleton hanging from a tree.
Encounter with a ghost
Apparently, Prior stayed unhappy even in death. For years, Linda Gamble ran the lighthouse as an inn with her husband, Jeff, and she'd heard reports of a ghost when they bought it. Soon, she encountered it herself.
"One night, I heard doors opening in the kitchen, and I thought it was a drunk coming back from the Lumberjack," Gamble said. "I have a temper, and I stormed up, but no one was there.
"So I figured it must be Will, and I said, " 'OK, I know ghosts don't like change, but we're changing things. I have to get up in the morning and make breakfast, so cut it out.' Then I slammed a cupboard and went back to bed.
"The next morning, all the cupboard doors were closed, and we've never had a reputable report of Will since," she said. "I call that an Italian exorcism."
The history of the Big Bay Point Lighthouse, on a dead-end highway 25 miles west of Marquette, is even more checkered than most.
In 1952, when the building and land were leased to the U.S. Army National Guard for anti-aircraft artillery training camps, one of the soldiers committed the murder on which the book and movie "Anatomy of a Murder" were based.
The crime scene was the nearby Lumberjack Tavern, to which the Gambles often send guests for late dinners.
No ghosts, storms or violent passions were swirling around the clifftop lighthouse when my husband and I stayed there in late July, but a hatch of biting lake flies was.
The invisible but vicious flies forced us to tour the pretty grounds on the run, taking quick looks at the wooded shoreline, the Serenity Massage Hut and the quaint outhouse before taking refuge in a screened gazebo.
The flies thrive on humidity, Jeff Gamble said, and when they sense drier weather coming, they get desperate for a blood meal.
"This isn't bad," he said. "Bad is when that white car out there turns black."
Luckily, we discovered the flies couldn't find us on the tower catwalk. Climbing the green spiral stairs, we emerged to a 360-degree view of lake and forest.
Dusk was approaching, and we saw a bat drop into one of the lighthouse chimneys. With Wendi and Louie Gonyer of Princeton, Ind., we watched the sun drop over the Huron Mountains and into the lake with a splash of color.
"I really like lighthouses, and when Louie said, 'You can stay in one,' I said, 'Well, yes! I want to do that,' " Wendi Gonyer said.
My husband and I also have stayed at the Lighthouse B&B in Two Harbors, Minn., and on our Circle Tour, we toured two other lighthouse inns.
Across Keweenaw Bay, near the ship entry to the Portage River, Mike and Cherie Ditty ran the Jacobsville Lighthouse as an inn for many years, then put it up for sale.
Built in 1856 to protect ships taking copper ore to Houghton and Hancock, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1869 with a red-sandstone tower that today is covered with white stucco.
The light was extinguished in 1919 when a new light station was built nearby, and the house and tower have been private since 1958.
A room in a museum
East of Marquette, we visited another lighthouse B&B that is as bustling in summer as Jacobsville is quiet. Though Whitefish Point Light is far from towns, the adjoining Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum makes it a popular destination, an almost mandatory stop for people on the Circle Tour.
The museum displays the salvaged bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald and exhibits about notable shipwrecks, from the Invincible in 1816 to the Fitzgerald in 1975. Outside its doors lie hundreds of wrecks on a stretch of Lake Superior known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes.
Here, the lake narrows into funnel through which boats must pass, and gales from the northwest have 200 miles of open water on which to gather strength.
In 1847, Horace Greeley wrote, "Congress has ordered a lighthouse to be erected here . . . every month's delay is virtual manslaughter."
The original lighthouse was built in 1849, the earliest on Lake Superior along with the Copper Harbor Light at the tip of the Keweenaw.
Today, the complex includes the tower, the 1861 keeper's quarters, a 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station crew's quarters and a 1936 fog-signal building.
The white-frame crew's quarters have been restored and turned into an inn by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
In summer, tourists stream past its front yard, sometimes stopping to admire the giant rudder and tiller salvaged from the Drake, which sank in 1901 off Whitefish Point.
Inside, the inn contains five sun-filled bedrooms and a living room with leather sofas and a small library of lighthouse DVDs. In the kitchen, guests help themselves to a breakfast of bagels and cereal.
There's also a guest book, and gift-shop clerk Ashley Ackerman, who gave us a tour of the inn, said she sometimes looks at it.
"They're all fascinated by the Edmund Fitzgerald," she said. "Or it's a dream of theirs to come stay here."
You can't live in the pages of a history book, but you can live in a lighthouse for a few days. It's as close as anyone can get to a fascinating era.
"History is not in the past here," a couple from Ontario had written in the guest book. "It is the present that is alive with the people and stories of the past."
Trip Tips: Lighthouse B&Bs on Lake Superior
When to go : Many people want to stay at lighthouses on summer weekends. But it's also fun to watch November and December storms from a cozy lighthouse room, and shipping continues on Lake Superior until the Soo Locks close in January.
Big Bay Lighthouse B&B, Big Bay, Mich. : This lighthouse, 25 miles west of Marquette, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has seven very attractive rooms. There's a sauna in the lighthouse, and spa services are available.
In the village of Big Bay, guests can dine at the Thunder Bay Inn, a vacation retreat for Henry Ford and his executives that was used in the filming of the 1959 film "Anatomy of a Murder."
Whitefish Point Light Station, Paradise, Mich .: The restored 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station crew's quarters has five modern and attractive rooms. The rate includes admission to the museum, a 10 percent discount in the museum store and a one-year membership to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
Lighthouse B&B, Two Harbors, Minn. : This working lighthouse on Minnesota's North Shore is operated by the Lake County Historical Society. It has three spare but tasteful rooms. They share one bathroom, and there's a half-bath in the basement.
The Skiff House, on the grounds adjoining the visitors center, has its own bathroom and hot tub.
Reserve early for summer and fall weekends, especially Fridays, when guests can arrive via the North Shore Scenic Railroad and return to Duluth on Saturday. 888-832-5606.
For more, see The Lighthouse Express.
Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, Ahmeek, Mich. : On the west side of the Keweenaw Peninsula, this 1917 yellow-brick lighthouse was automated in 1939 and decommissioned in 1954.
Today, it's an inn with eight rooms, two with a whirlpool and one with a fireplace.
Jacobsville Lighthouse Inn B&B, Lake Linden, Mich. : In the original keeper's house, three upstairs rooms have a shared bath, and there's a downstairs room with private bath. In a separate building, there are two suites, one with whirlpool and one disabled-accessible. It's for sale.