150-year-old lighthouse full of lore

Oct 27, 2017

Gayle Turnwald has been volunteering at Big Sable Point Lighthouse for about 20 years. One morning in November of 2003, she went downstairs and noticed the smell of freshly baked bread coming from the kitchen.

“And there had been no one here for several days staying in these quarters at all,” Gayle recalls.

The smell was so strong that she touched the oven to see if it was still hot, but it wasn’t.

“I thought of ghosts,” she says. “It made me wonder.”

Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington turns 150 years old on November 1st.

One of the keepers who tended the light was Henry Vavrina, a cigar smoker, who stayed at the light for 10 years. Henry retired in 1965 and later passed away. But some current lighthouse volunteers say he’s never left. And they report more than just the smell of fresh baked bread to back it up.

Henry Vavrina was keeper at Big Sable Point Lighthouse from 1955 to 1965. Some lighthouse volunteers say his ghost haunts the lighthouse today.
Credit Dan Wanschura

“On June and July of 2003, keepers reported smelling cigar smoke during the night several times,” reads Peter Manting. “None of them smoked, and there was no smoking allowed in the lighthouse.”

Peter, the executive director of the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, is reading from a collection of haunting experiences reported by volunteers at Big Sable Point Lighthouse. 

Volunteers from all over the country usually stay at the lighthouse for two-week stints, five to six people at a time. They look after the lighthouse grounds and help run the lighthouse gift shop and museum. In that museum, there’s a lighted display of Henry Vavrina. The display features a mannequin dressed in Henry’s old lightkeeper uniform and a picture of Henry and his wife.

“The all 2003 season, the new mannequin Henry exhibit would be on in the morning, and the keepers were sure they had turned it off when closing up the day before,” Peter reads. “This occurred on and off all season. Other lights would be on that keepers insisted they had turned off as well. And this happened mostly in the basement and the gift shop.”

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Henry Vavrina would climb 130 steps to the top of the watchtower to light the kerosene lamp. These days, the U.S. Coast Guard operates an automated L.E.D. light from the tower.

The view of Lake Michigan from atop the Big Sable Point Lighthouse watchtower deck.
Credit Dan Wanschura

Big Sable Point is one of the windiest points in Michigan. Today, winds are blowing at over 29 miles per hour. Strong winds like that would often push ships into shallow waters near the shore where they’d wreck. Between 1855 and 1860, there were 10 wrecks near Big Sable Point. That’s when it was decided a lighthouse was needed at the point.

“Sailors say if they’re coming from the north going south, once they hit Big Sable Point it just gets really, really rough,” Peter explains. “That’s why you see a lot of the ships. They won’t go towards the coastline. You’ll see them off in the distance because they want to stay away from the coastline here.”

Big Sable Point Lighthouse doesn’t normally highlight the ghost stories and other lighthouse legends, but this Saturday, you can hear more about them during a haunted lighthouse experience. You can also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the light with a free tour on Wednesday, November 1st. 
Click here for the Big Sable Point Lighthouse schedule of events.