Ghosts in the lights

Michigan author documents ghostly lighthouse encounters

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
~ Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

British immigrant William “Bill” Robinson III served 44 years as keeper of White River Light Station in Fruitland Township until his 1919 death. Over a century later, some believe Robinson and wife Sarah, who died years earlier of a stroke in her 50s, still reside there.

“It was the only home he knew in Michigan — and America — and that, along with his never-ended dedication, is what inspires him to remain on today even 100 years after his passing,” said Dianna Stampfler, author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses, published in 2019. “Visitors and former caretakers have reported hearing his footsteps at night going up the spiral staircase — still tending to his light.

“Sarah is also there keeping house just as she did until her death. I think it is incredibly romantic that this loving couple are together again in their little castle by the lake!”

Bill Robinson, former keeper of White River Light Station
Credit: Courtesy of White River Light Station & Museum

Stampfler, of Walloon Lake (Hemingway country), is a Michigan lighthouses expert. She’s presented on the subject regularly since 1997 and is a member of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the Mackinaw City-based Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, home to its own share of reported paranormal activity (more on that later).

Her book contains historical accounts and testimonials of supernatural encounters related to 13 of the state’s more than 120 lighthouses, the most of any in the country. A handful of her subjects are located along or near The Pike, including White River Light; South Manitou Island Lighthouse in Empire; Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse in Mackinaw City; and the South Haven keeper’s dwelling, now home to a library and research facility operated by the Michigan Maritime Museum.

White River Light Station bedroom, Fruitland Township Credit: Courtesy of Dianna Stampfler

The ghost of noted South Haven historical figure Capt. James Samuel Donahue — a Civil War veteran, left-leg amputee and lighthouse keeper from 1874-1909 — is believed to linger there still. Four months after assuming keeper’s duties, his wife, Sophia, died of lung disease at age 27. Stampfler’s book includes the following entry found in the captain’s logbook, dated the day of her death:

“Rain and cloudy, wind moderate, lake smooth, the night dark, the weather warm — my wife died this afternoon at 4 p.m., of lung disease.”

And from the next day:

“Foggy, wind, the fog thick all day, the lake smooth, the night dark — I berryed my wife today at 4 pm.”

Dianna Stampfler, author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Credit: Dianna Stampfler

While past and current museum staffers have not come forward with supernatural experiences of their own, Stampfler writes that she did hear “stories of footsteps and doors opening on their own, of voices and unexplainable cold spots” from volunteers.

For those who may romanticize lighthouse keepers’ lives, Stampfler offers a reality check.

“These keepers and their families were working 24/7 from about April to December keeping their lights lit,” she said. “They also had to keep the house and grounds up, deal with tourists, keep logs and assist with lifesaving efforts at times.

Donahue family, South Haven
Credit: Courtesy of Michigan Maritime Museum

“Can you imagine having to climb the spiral steps of a 100-foot-tall lighthouse every day, several times a day, as part of your job? Even if you were sick or didn’t feel well? Imagine how strong your calves would be! And, while hauling a pail of hot oil to the top of the tower to fuel the lens. Living in a lighthouse sounds romantic. Working in one is something entirely different.”

For those interested in an autographed copy of Stampfler’s book, visit

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