New York's Dunkirk Lighthouse:
Haunted or Just Historic?

© December 2015 - Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved

The Original Dunkirk Lighthouse
The first Dunkirk Lighthouse, before it was moved due to beach erosion.

Since 2011, Don Traynor, founder of Village Haunts, has led 35 paranormal investigations at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum in Chautauqua County, New York. 100% of the proceeds from these "para-historical experiences" are donated to the non-profit. To date, Traynor's efforts have raised nearly $8,000 in much-needed financial assistance.

Dunkirk sits along the coast of Lake Erie, about halfway between Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York. During the War of 1812, it was the only town in Chautauqua County to engage in active military hostilities. Captain Martin B. Tubbs' company - posted at Widow Cole's house near the mouth of Canadaway - thwarted an enemy attempt to capture a salt boat. Tubbs' men fired on the would-be thieves while the widow rode to fetch reinforcements. Later it was heard that three of the British crewmen were injured in the failed mission.

On May 18, 1826, an act authorizing construction of lighthouses and light vessels specifically directed the erection of "a lighthouse at or near Dunkirk." Two years later, Dunkirk received an additional $6,000 in federal funding for the construction of piers at the mouth of the harbor.

During the 1830s, the population of Dunkirk grew from 50 to 1,500. In 1837, the U.S. Congress appropriated $2,700 for a beacon light at the entrance to Dunkirk Harbor. It was a much-welcomed addition. The long, narrow, rock-lined main channel was notoriously difficult to find and navigate. And, it ran eastward which provided no protection against western gales.

Much like the ocean in strength, Lake Erie's powerful waves create beach erosion. This gradual grinding away of its footing threatened the structural integrity of Dunkirk's original lighthouse. In 1869, a western pier and breakwater were built, and the harbor was dredged to expand its capacity, but the water proved an invincible foe. The old tower and house were dismantled, its bricks re-utilized in the foundation of a new lighthouse. By 1876 construction of both the tower and Victorian-style keeper's house was complete. The Fresnel lens, first lit in 1857, was reinstalled in the new tower and shines to this day.

Scott's New Coast Pilot for the Lakes, (1904, George Scott) described Dunkirk Light Station as emitting a fixed white light, with a flash every 45 seconds. The light, Scott reported, was visible for 17 miles. The square-bottom tower connected with the keeper's dwelling via a covered walkway. A second house house for the assistant keeper stood nearby, with a barn positioned between the two homes. All of the buildings were partly hidden from view from the lake by a stand of trees.

The Second Dunkirk Lighthouse
The second Dunkirk Lighthouse, built in 1876.

Like all bodies of water, weather dictates navigation on Lake Erie. Typically, the navigation season runs from about mid-April through early January, but that changes year-to-year. There have been seasons that ended before Christmas. For decades it was the job of the Dunkirk Lighthouse keeper to turn the pier and beacon lights on and off in spring and winter.

In 1961, the Coast Guard determined that there was no longer a need for the Dunkirk Light. In July of that year, the beacon went dark. It was a decision that quickly proved regrettable. In early October, the cabin cruiser Escapade ran into unexpected heavy seas. Charts on board the boat showed Dunkirk still operational. While searching for the safety of the harbor, the Escapade ran aground. Shortly thereafter, a Coast Guard ship met the same fate. Small craft owners, commercial fisherman, the town Chamber of Commerce, and newspaper editors all registered adamant disagreement with the lighthouse closure. Less than five months after the light was extinguished, Coast Guard Rear Admiral G. H. Hiller announced that Dunkirk Lighthouse would be automated and re-opened for the start of the 1963 Lake Erie navigation season.

As for Don Traynor, he has no doubt that paranormal activity occurs regularly on the old, historic site. One particularly mysterious item, he reports, is a simple rubber ball.

Current caretaker Dave Briska gave a small team of paranormal investigators permission to examine the residence and light tower. One of the group's specific requests involved access to a dumbwaiter door on the ground floor inside the tower. The square encasement of the round tower resulted in the creation of empty spaces around the perimeter. Over the years, these have been littered with construction debris and other artifacts. A persistent investigator somehow squeezed inside the space behind the dumbwaiter and retrieved a small rubber ball. He handed it out to a team member he'd heard arrive outside the entrance, although he never turned around to see who it was. Upon concluding his search, the finder of the ball set about determining which fellow investigator he'd given it to. His colleagues were confused. None of them had been anywhere near the dumbwaiter - and they certainly hadn't retrieved a ball from his hand. To this day, the experience remains unresolved. Even more puzzling, the ball was re-discovered by a subsequent team of investigators.

Today, the ball sits in a dish on the tray of a high chair in the keeper's house dining room. There are constant reports of it disappearing, then returning to the dish. One day Traynor was in the keeper's house while two visitors toured it. He asked if they'd noticed the ball on the high chair. They said they had not - which bewildered Traynor who had just checked on it. As if on cue, a distinctive "thump... thump... thump..." sound increased in volume as the rubber ball bounced toward them and came to rest against Traynor's shoe. Unsurprisingly, Traynor rates this in his "top three" lighthouse experiences.

The Mysterious Rubber Ball
The mysterious rubber ball in its dish on the high chair.
Photo courtesy of Village Haunts.

Another common report at Dunkirk - and many other lighthouses, it seems - is that of a young girl in white. During one investigation, while looking out of a small basement window in the residence, an investigator saw a little girl in a white dress crossing the yard. Two other investigators witnessed her as well. After she'd walked about 25 feet, however, the girl reportedly vanished. At about the same time, a fourth investigator, working outside of the residence, radioed the team. "You're not going to believe this," she said, "but I think I just saw a little girl in a white dress move across the yard and then vanish."

According to Traynor, historic photos of lighthouse keepers' children may hold a clue to this event. One shows a little girl who matches the description given by all four investigators. And, it seems she still enjoys having her picture taken. During a Civil War re-enactment, Traynor believes a photo taken by a participant shows a young girl with long blonde hair wearing an ankle-length dress. "Not only is she visible," says Traynor, "it appears she is actually clinging to the back of the reenactor... It's almost as if she is enjoying a hauntingly good game of piggy-back."

Whether you're interested in the paranormal, or simply one of the thousands of visitors drawn to American lighthouses for their beauty and history, consider a trip to Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. Visitors possessing the stamina to climb the 61 spiral stairs to the top are treated to spectacular views of Lake Erie and its rugged coastline. For more information, visit the lighthouse web site, or Village Haunts.

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