Lost Lake Erie: Lighthouses and Their Keepers

Given their isolation, lighthouses are a natural setting for any variety of ghost stories. But are they just tall tales? Or is there something beyond the earthly veil?

In 1897, a new lighthouse opened on South Bass Island in Ohio. The following summer, keeper Harry Riley, an experienced Naval officer, hired Sam Anderson, who worked at the nearby Hotel Victory, as a caretaker.

There was a smallpox outbreak, and the entire island was quarantined. Anderson grew restless, ostensibly fearful of catching the dreaded disease, and tried to leave but was kept on the island by troops assigned to enforce the quarantine. He refused to venture back into the lighthouse and, not long after, Anderson was found dead at the bottom of a cliff. It was officially ruled a suicide.

Not long after that, Riley was found wandering the streets of Sandusky, Ohio, babbling about horses he claimed to own. (He did not, in fact, own any horses.) He was committed to an asylum and died there the following February.

The most mundane theories indicate that Riley had syphilis, which can lead to dementia, and it led to his commitment and death. But there are theories that Anderson saw someone — or something — that terrified him so much that he wanted to leave the island. And people visiting the lighthouse claim to hear strange sounds and see doors and cupboards opening and closing without explanation.

Workers and visitors at Dunkirk Lighthouse in New York, meanwhile, offer similar stories of items ending up in different places, doors opening and closing and overheard conversations in an otherwise empty building. Some believe lighthouses are magnets for spirits, who find them a place of safety. Are these manifestations of those visitors?

At the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse in eastern Ohio, there’s a haunting of a different kind. The wife of one of the lighthouse keepers kept several cats following the death of their young son. Workers today at the lighthouse have reported feeling the presence of a cat in the rooms — or occasionally hearing something that sounds like a cat skittering across the floor.

After the Toledo Lighthouse in Ohio was automated, there were tales of a phantom keeper in an upstairs window, beckoning people to visit. Turns out, as a security measure at the lighthouse to hedge against potential vandalism, a mannequin was installed in a top window to give the appearance of someone watching into the night.

But was he the only one?