When my maternal ancestors left Poland around the turn-of-the-century, they all made their way to the Fourth Ward of Dunkirk, New York. The city has a rich history: it was home to Brooks Locomotive Works during the latter half of the nineteenth century; provided steel for John Augustus Roebling’s civil engineering projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge; and was the site of the first naval skirmish in the War of 1812. But the city is also known as the home of the old Dunkirk Lighthouse; and the best part? It’s haunted.
The original lighthouse was built in 1826 at Point Gratiot in Dunkirk Harbor, and it guided shipping vessels and sailboats through Lake Erie and on to Buffalo. The city installed a ten-thousand dollar Fresnel lens from Paris in the lighthouse tower in 1857–a lens that is now worth over a million dollars today–but the original lighthouse itself was closed soon after due to structural concerns. The current lighthouse–a 61-foot square-shaped tower made of rubblestone and encased in brick–was built in 1875 and lit for the first time on the night of July 1, 1876. The city added a Victorian-style keeper’s house as well, but much of the original brick and stone was used in the construction.
The demolition of the original lighthouse at Point Gratiot, though, was met with concern from Dunkirk residents; one writer in the local newspaper summed it up: “Why the old building was destroyed is one of the mysteries which I could never fathom…But we have reached an age of changes, if not always improvements.” Dunkirk Lighthouse, old and new, is and has always been a fixture of the city, and it’s still in operation today–albeit automated and without a keeper. The keeper’s house has been turned into the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, and it’s home to a large collection of military and navigation artifacts dating back to the Civil War. And the residents? They’ve since fallen in love with the new lighthouse, too.
What interests me most is the part of the museum that is dedicated to the lives of the former lighthouse keepers; it includes the cast-iron stove, record player and furniture that belonged to each of the keepers and their families for decades until the lighthouse was automated in 1960. There were 21 lighthouse keepers in all–including Peter J. Dempsey, John T. McDonough and Francis D. Arnold–and many were married and raised their own children on the grounds. And here’s where the story takes an interesting turn: it’s said that the lighthouse keepers never truly left, choosing to haunt Dunkirk Lighthouse to this day.
According to museum staff, tourists and ghost hunters alike, the lighthouse is marked with paranormal activity: “When you’re in there by yourself, you can hear people talking, you can hear footsteps, things open and close and things are in different spots where they’re not supposed to be. Sometimes they untie your shoes. You just never know.” One tour guide had a similar experience to share: “I’ve heard disembodied voices, laughing, screams of sorts. Things get moved around with no explanation. We had once experience during a tour when a table moved expectedly and even elevated off the ground.” The lightkeeper ghosts are friendly–the lion-head gargoyles at the top of the tower supposedly ward off any evil spirits–but they definitely run the lighthouse still.
I visited the grounds and museum once, years ago, but I never saw or heard anything “paranormal” or “suspicious.” What do you think, though–could the lighthouse really be haunted?