STURGEON BAY, Wisconsin – A carpenter was working alone at the old Seul Choix Point Lighthouse in 1988 when he heard footsteps overhead. As he stopped hammering, the footsteps stopped. Returning to his work, the footsteps also returned – only this time they were closer.
“It was almost like someone was sneaking up on me,” Tom Hoholek described in a video taped interview. “Whatever it was going to be, I didn’t want to wait around to find out.”
With that, Hoholek left the lighthouse renovation project and never went back. His story is among many unusual tales told at the Door County Maritime Museum.
“Lighthouse hauntings have been reported for more than 100 years,” said Bob Desh, museum executive director. “People see things, hear things and smell things that have no logical explanation.”
To help shed light on some of the lighthouse legends, the museum has created an unusual exhibit called “Ghosts! Haunted Lighthouses of the Great Lakes.” The exhibit will continue through January 2012.
“It’s not intended to be a haunted house like you see around Halloween,” Desh said. “As a marine museum we wanted to show the history of lighthouses but we are also addressing some of the long-standing legends about lighthouses that have fascinated people for so long.”
The Seul Choix Point Lighthouse, for example, is rumored to be haunted by ship Captain James Townshend who often visited his lighthouse keeper brother Joseph Townshend at the lighthouse located along the north shore of Lake Michigan. The 1895 lighthouse got its name because the small harbor was considered the only refuge or “seul choix” by French voyagers of the 1600s.
“Captain Townshend was a heavy cigar smoker. He liked a very distinct Cuban cigar,” Desh said. “People have said that they can still smell his cigar smoke even though no one is smoking there.”
On what would be his last visit, the captain became ill and died in August 1910. Some say his image has appeared in a dresser mirror in the bedroom where he died. A woman visiting the grounds saw a man in uniform walking along a path. She later recognized the captain from his photograph.
A research team investigating the haunting purposefully put cigars in the captain’s bedroom, on the stairs banister, in a second bedroom and on the dining room table. The next morning, two of the cigars were missing. They were found in the uniform breast pocket of a mannequin dressed in period clothing. Lore says that the captain, who loved the lighthouse, has never left.
To help add another sense to the ghostly exhibit, the museum has five boxes where visitors can lift the lid and identify the smell that has been reported at lighthouse hauntings. Smells include beer, bacon, cigar, lamp oil and an acrid scent said to signal the presence of a ghost at Fairport Harbor Lighthouse.
“Believing or not believing (in ghosts) is not the point,” said museum curator John Moga. “We’re not saying one way or the other that there are ghosts. We’re just hoping it might creates some discussion.”
TEST YOUR PSYCHIC SKILLS
For the exhibit, visitors pass though a lighthouse filled with purported paranormal experiences as well as the Horton Gallery where sensory and psychic skills can be tested, reality challenged and perception explained. History blends with legend as it relates to nine of the most significant lighthouse hauntings on the Great Lakes.
At the 1853 Tawas Point Lighthouse on the western shore of Lake Huron, sightings have been reported of a little girl in period clothing, said to be the keeper’s daughter who died of pneumonia in an upstairs bedroom. A child has been seen peering out the bedroom window of the empty and locked house. One time a Coast Guardsman’s wife was taking her morning coffee at a picnic table on the grounds when she saw a little girl dressed in pink sitting on the back stoop crying. When the woman walked up to the girl to help, the child turned around and ran into the lighthouse – through a closed and locked door.
The Coast Guardsman and his wife searched the house but found no one. In 1998, other Coast Guard personnel were in the lighthouse when they heard a child laughing outside. Going outside, they saw no one. They went back to the house only to hear the child again.
Another part of the exhibit deals with the superstitions of seafarers. “From the beginning of humans going down to the sea in ships, you will find that sailors have always been superstitious,” says Desh, a retired Coast Guard officer. “There are all kinds of things you don’t do because they could bring bad luck.”
For instance, it was believed that cats – especially black cats – had magical powers to protect ships from dangerous weather. If a cat fell or was thrown overboard, a terrible storm could arise and sink the ship. Sometimes fishermen’s wives kept a black cat at home in the hope that it would provide safety for husbands at sea.
“Even to this day, ships don’t like to start a voyage on Friday,” Desh said. “There is no logical reason for it. It is superstition. Maybe a ship that sailed on Friday sank so one old salt would tell another and it would spread like wildfire that ships that started a voyage on Friday were likely to sink. It all goes back to trying to explain the unexplainable.”
Opened in 1975, the Sturgeon Bay museum moved into its current state-of-the-art 20,000-square-foot facility in 1997. In addition to the Ghosts exhibit, the museum has many permanent displays, including ones that trace the area’s maritime history, plus the tugboat John Purves docked outside the museum.
“One of our most popular exhibits is the one on World War II,” Moga said. “Sturgeon Bay was one of the centers for the manufacture of mine sweepers and submarine chasers. There was a lot of construction going on here, and women worked in the shipyards when the men went to war. We have clips and interviews of those people talking about what it was like.”
Located on Sturgeon Bay’s working waterfront at the foot of the downtown bridge, the museum grounds are an excellent spot to watch ships. Sooner or later, if you are there long enough, you’ll get to see the huge bridge raise its center structure to allow a ship to pass.
If you go
WHERE: Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
WHEN: Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
PRICE: $12.50 for adults, $9 children 5-17, free for 4 and younger.
MORE INFO: Call the Door County Maritime Museum at (920) 743-5958, www.dcmm.org, or the Door County Visitor Bureau at (800) 527-3529, www.DoorCounty.com
The nine lighthouses in the exhibit are:
Sherwood Point, Wisconsin
Chambers Island, Wisconsin
Gibraltar Point, Ontario
Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Old Presque Isle, Michigan
Seul Choix, Michigan
Eagle Harbor, Michigan
Tawas Point, Michigan