10 Haunting & Abandoned Lighthouses
St. George Reef Lighthouse, California, United States
When it comes to being on lists, St. George’s Reef Lighthouse is on the top of many of them. It’s one of the most expensive lighthouses ever built, at a cost of more than $700,000 – in the 1890s. Construction took 11 years, and once its lights were lit in 1891, it became known as one of the most difficult and most deadly outposts a lighthouse keeper could be assigned to.
The lighthouse was built on the rocky shores of a volcanic mountains that looms above the wavy, stormy Pacific seas about six miles off the coast. The original name of the island was Dragon Rocks, in acknowledgment of its brutal winds, waves and weather. When the passenger steamer Brother Jonathan crashed on the rocks in 1865, nearly 200 people were killed; the captain of the steamer didn’t see the rocks in the smoke-like fog that frequently settles over the water in an area so dangerous that the wreck of the steamer has only been recovered recently.
The lighthouse was manned by five keepers at any given time – they were needed to keep each other from going mad from the desolate weather, remote location and overwhelming loneliness. The only way to get on or off the island was to hitch a ride on an oil derrick that would raise and lower boats between the island and the water.
It didn’t get any easier as time went on. In 1951, three men of the Coast Guard were killed when their boat was ravaged by waves, and in 1952, one of the lighthouse keepers suffered a mental breakdown. Not for the first time, waves pounded the lighthouse even on its perch high above the water – 70-foot waves aren’t unheard of, and they have enough power that once, in 1923, the engine house was swept off its foundation. By the time it was decommissioned in 1975, five keepers had died on the island, along with countless others who were coming and going from the remote, savage outpost.
Today, there have been attempts at raising the funds to preserve the abandoned lighthouse, mostly coming from helicopter rides to and from the island. As it’s still the only way to get there, work on the conservation project has been all but non-existent.
Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, Oregon, United States
The tragedy of the precariously located lighthouse given the nickname of Terrible Tilly really began after it was decommissioned as a working lighthouse in 1957.
Never a good idea from the start, the lighthouse is located off the coast of Oregon, in a part of the Pacific Ocean that’s particularly nasty. It was so nasty, in fact, that the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, built in 1880, was fairly quickly deemed too dangerous and too costly to operate. Today, its only residents are the sea birds – and the dead.
The lighthouse was sold to a company called Eternity by the Sea. The idea was a decent one – for a fee, the company would guarantee a final resting place for the ashes of loved ones, by the sea that so many people love. Only, they didn’t quite hold up their end of the bargain.
The license of the company was ultimately revoked when it was found that they hadn’t kept anything near adequate records. The 30-odd urns that they did take out to the lighthouse sit on the floor, meaning that it’s not even an official columbarium. The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse isn’t just subject to the brutal weather and the pounding waves, either; vandals have broken into the lighthouse, going so far as to steal several of the urns. It took some time for the building to be even slightly repaired, but by then, a colony of sea birds had already decided that the inside of the lighthouse was at least a little more pleasant than the outside.
Those that choose to honor the wishes of a loved one by buying into the pitch given by Eternity by the Sea are also signing up for not being able to ever visit their loved one’s final resting place. The only way to get to the island is by helicopter, and since the island itself is owned by the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, that also means that you can’t even get there by helicopter during the months the sea birds are nesting on the island.
That’s left a lot of people wondering whether or not the ashes of their family member are even still there, fears that aren’t alleviated by comments from the company’s owner, indicating that she hoped the second choice for their clients was a burial at sea.
Flannan Island Lighthouse, Scotland
Located off the coast of Scotland, the Flannan Island lighthouse warned passing ships of the presence of seven rocky, uninhabited islands called the Seven Hunters. Near the lighthouse stands a handful of ruins, thought to be the remains of an ancient chapel and house. First manned in 1899, it wasn’t long before tragedy struck the small, remote island.
Roderick MacKenzie, a gamekeeper on the mainland, was hired to keep watch for the light in the lighthouse, making sure that all was well. There was no radio communication between the lighthouse and the mainland, after all, and even MacKenzie’s warning would need to be sent to Edinburgh by telegram. On December 15, 1900, the Flannan Island lighthouse remained dark.
The lighthouse was manned by three people – James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donal Macarthur. A passing ship also reported that there was no light visible, and when it was investigated, the scene was an eerie one.
The table was set for dinner, a meal of meat and potatoes laid out for the men. The beds had clearly been slept in, and the only real clue of something that might have happened was a reference to a severe storm, made in the log for the day before. Another entry stated that the storm was passing, though, and there was no sign of damage to the Flannan Isles lighthouse. There was no sign of a struggle, no blood, and only a single chair had been knocked over. Everything else was eerily, strangely intact.
There were a number of theories about what happened, including the sudden arrival of pirates or the presence of vengeful ghosts from the nearby ruins. The theory given the most credibility is that the men were all killed when they were swept out to sea by fierce waves, but no trace of them has ever been found.
The Flannan Isles lighthouse was manned until September 28, 1971, when an automatic light was installed. On the day of the 100th anniversary of the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, a moment of silence was held by the neighbouring community.
Amelia Earhart’s Lighthouse, Howland Island
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean sits a now uninhabited coral island called Howland. At one point, it was to be a part of a record-breaking moment in history – Amelia Earhart’s long-distance flight. The flight plan included a stop at Howland for refueling, and for a switch in navigators. Fred Noonan was to switch with Captain Harry Manning, but, of course, Earhart’s plane never made it to Howland.
The lighthouse was built as a memorial, but it, too, was ill-fated. Called Earhart Light, it was never actually lit; at the time the lighthouse was built, there was a group of settlers on the island who had landed there with the goal of building a small community.
World War Two meant that there were a series of Japanese bombing runs on the island, and there were only a handful of survivors that were evacuated. The lighthouse was also damaged, and not repaired until the 1960s. Repairs were brief, though, and there was no more talk of making the abandoned building into a manned, functional outpost.
Today, the island is a wildlife refuge, and the Earhart Lighthouse continues to crumble. Nearby, meanwhile, reminders of World War Two are never far away, like the wreckage of the Martin Mariner flying boat (above), which crashed on Howland Island on June 10, 1944.
Wood Island Lighthouse, Maine, United States
Wood Island is a 32-acre island off the coast of Maine. For several hundred years, the island was the home of lighthouse keepers and their families; today, though, it operates as a part of the Audubon Society and 30 of those acres are a dedicated bird sanctuary.
The lighthouse is still open for tours, and although it’s structurally sound, there are efforts in place to raise the money needed to restore the lighthouse to its previous grandeur. Visitors to the lighthouse aren’t just treated to a look at a centuries-old sentinel, but a colorful – and tragic – story.
In 1896, the lighthouse was the site of a tragic murder-suicide. At the time, the island was home to not only the lighthouse keeper, a man named Thomas Orcutt, but there were a few other houses on the island. One belonged to game warden Frederick Milliken and his wife, and there were also a few fishermen living on the island in buildings that were originally designed as chicken coops.
There was no real reason given for Howard Hobbs’ shooting spree, save the despair of not being able to pay his rent and a desperation that was most likely fueled by rum. Milliken’s request to speak to the fishermen was met with an answer to the summons and the appearance of a rifle – when Milliken asked if it was loaded, Hobbs replied by shooting him, once, point-blank in the chest. Milliken died about 45 minutes later, and by the time the second fisherman returned from the mainland with a doctor, Hobbs had shot and killed himself as well.
There was no history of bad blood between the men before the incident, and the entire thing took the community by shock.
Capelinhos Lighthouse, Portugal
The tragedy that destroyed the Capelinhos lighthouse is one that also changed the face of Portugal – quite literally.
The lighthouse stood on the island of Faial in the Azores archipelago. Originally built in 1903, it was only active for a few decades before falling to ruin, a victim of the devastating volcanic eruption that occurred on September 27, 1957.
It was the lighthouse keepers that were among the first to notice that there was something wrong. A patch of ocean to the west was strangely, unsettlingly rough, with strange waves appearing about a half of a mile off the coast. At first, they didn’t think much of it, assuming that it was one of the whales that weren’t an entirely uncommon sight. But the disturbance continued, and it was soon accompanied by a toxic smell. They weren’t aware of it at the time, but they were witnessing the birth of a volcano – the only one in the world that would be completely documented from its birth to its dormant period.
The volcano was devastating. In addition to reducing the lighthouse to a ruined shell, it scattered ash and debris over a massive range. It became an international event, and at the end, it led to the emigration of 15,000 people and created the youngest section of land in the Azores.
The abandoned lighthouse was officially decommissioned on November 29, 1957 – long before the volcano finally fell dormant. No longer under the control of the Portuguese Maritime Authority, it’s now overseen by the Azorean Regional Secretariat for the Environment and the Sea. The ruins still stand, a reminder of the tragedy that changed not only the shape of the land, but the lives of thousands of people.
Great Isaac Cay Lighthouse, the Bahamas
The Great Issac Cay Lighthouse had something of an odd start to its storied life. It was built as part of an exhibition for the Great London Exposition of 1862, and after the event closed, it was shipped, piece by piece, to the Bahamas. The whole area is incredibly dangerous for ships; in many areas, there’s coral reefs that lay only a few feet below the surface. A tangled nightmare of inlets, islets, shoals and reefs, the lighthouse was amazingly useful – especially when it was first installed. Ship traffic was pretty regular going between the islands and Florida, and, like many high-traffic areas of shipping, this one isn’t without its heartbreak.
Most recently is the story of the lighthouse’s final two keepers. The Great Isaac Cay Lighthouse was a manned post until 1969, when it was found, on August 4, that the two lighthouse keepers had vanished. There were no signs as to what had happened to them, but it’s suspected that they had become victims of a recent hurricane that had swept through the area.
There’s plenty of other stories about the island, too, and although they’re pretty undocumented, they still make for some great tales. According to one legend, there was a shipwreck on Great Issac Cay, and everyone on board was killed – save one baby. The stories say that if you listen closely on nights when there’s a full moon, you can hear the baby’s mother crying as she searches for her child.
The abandoned lighthouse was automated after the disappearance of the last two lighthouse keepers. Getting there is a challenge but the area around the lighthouse is open – although some of the stairs into the tower are long gone, and outbuildings are securely locked.
Execution Rocks Lighthouse, New York, United States
There are few places with a more sinister name than Execution Rocks but in this case, the folklore is slightly more graphic and gory than the truth. According to the legend, the tiny island – home only to a lighthouse – was given its name during the American Revolution. British soldiers, not wanting to have to perform public (and highly unpopular) executions, took their condemned to the rocks. Tying the rebels to the pier, all that was left was to wait for the tide to come in and finish the job. The dead were left where they were tied, and new prisoners were occasionally driven to madness when they saw what their fate would be.
The truth, though, is less graphic but still tragic. The seas were so rough and rocky that it’s not known how many ships were smashed – and lost – on their attempts at entering the bay.
Another nearby lighthouse, Sands Point Light, was built in 1809 but not close enough to the rocky and dangerous waters to be effective. Congress attempted at creating a solution for the problem that was cheaper than building a second lighthouse, but their approval of a light boat just wasn’t going to cut it. The lighthouse on Execution Rocks was finally built and activated in 1850, and at the turn of the century there were several fires that spread through the storage and engine areas.
The mystery and aura of dread continued to surround the lighthouse, and it was long said that the lighthouse keepers that found themselves on the island weren’t subject to a particular amount of time – too many had gone mad to risk any more lives, and any keeper that requested a transfer off the island was given it immediately.
Other lighthouse keepers, though, assure the public that there’s no such thing as ghostly spirits that visit the island, although tales persist. Fully automated in 1979, the Coast Guard still does some occasional maintenance to the island. It’s more noted for its recent tourism, though, and for a fee you can spent the night at the island – devoid of creature comforts.
Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, Canada
Originally built in 1808 and fueled with whale oil, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is one of the oldest buildings in the city of Toronto. Abandoned in 1958, today it stands at something of an odd location. When first built, the lighthouse was on the coast; over the decades, though, so much dirt and sand was deposited on the coast that now, it looks strangely landlocked.
The lighthouse is always locked and off-limits today, and it’s also rumored to be the home of a rather unearthly resident – the ghost of its first keeper. His name was J.P. Rademuller, and his disappearance is about as mysterious as they get.
According to the media coverage of Rademuller’s disappearance, what little evidence was left behind pointed very clearly at murder. Well-known and well-liked, Rademuller was known as a gracious host (and perhaps as a bootlegger) who was always happy to open the doors of the lighthouse for friends looking for a drink and some conversation. But on January 2, 1815, the only traces that were left of the keeper were a few bloodstains on the steps of the lighthouse.
No trace of his body was ever found, leading to the rumor that his remains had been flung into the water and washed away. In 1893, part of a coffin and, oddly, a jawbone were uncovered by the fourth lighthouse keeper, but there was no way of knowing if the remains were of Rademuller. The grounds surrounding the lighthouse and the nearby islands were well known as ancient burial grounds, so just where the bones came from is still up for debate. The story most often told is that when Rademuller was approached by a group of men looking for a drink, he knew that they had already had too much and tried to turn them away. Angered, they killed him and disposed of his body.
Point Lookout Lighthouse, Maryland, United States
Point Lookout Lighthouse has the dubious honour of being one of the most haunted lighthouses in America. According to paranormal researchers, it’s the site of disembodied voices, flying objects, ghostly apparitions and mysteriously moving furniture; regardless of what you think about the existence of ghosts and the paranormal, there’s no stories that are more eerie than the history of the lands around the abandoned lighthouse.
The lighthouse itself was opened in 1830; today, the area is a peaceful, picturesque state park and the lighthouse itself saw its last keeper leave in 1981. It absolutely wasn’t always that way, though, and only a few decades after the lighthouse opened it became the center of a massive prisoner of war camp. During the American Civil War, the area was the forced home of nearly 53,000 Confederate soldiers captured by the Union Army.
Before the war, the area had been something of a destination spot – a resort town with beautiful beaches, it began to suffer during the war years. In 1862, the first Union soldiers were taken to the once idyllic resort, now transformed into a hospital. Slowly, more and more buildings began to pop up on the land around the lighthouse; it was convenient enough to the worst of the fighting to serve as a hospital, but its location was remote enough that prisoners weren’t going to even think about making a run for it.
By June of 1863, there were more than 20,000 prisoners being held at the camp. Forced to live in filth, surrounded by illness and dirty water, things only got worse when winter came. Men froze in their tents and died, disease took its toll, and by the time the war was over and prisoners began to be sent from the camps, anywhere from between 3,000 and 8,000 men had died beneath the watchful light of the lighthouse.
Today, there are two memorials in the state park that remember those that died there. The lighthouse is often the subject of ghost hunters and paranormal researchers, who claim to have found evidence not only of Confederate soldiers that have never left, but also of the families responsible for keeping the light on and the bells ringing.