Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 9
by Edward F. Bush
The Great Lakes Region and the Upper St. Lawrence
In order to describe early developments on the Great Lakes, it is necessary to return to the early years of the 19th century when the Province of Upper Canada was very much of a backwoods wilderness. Pioneer settlements existed at such places as York, Newark and Niagara, with Kingston only presenting a finished aspect.
These vast freshwater inland seas, the Great Lakes, ravaged frequently by savage storms, offered a challenge to the mariner comparable to the ocean itself. Seas on the lakes were shorter and sharper, and at the same time the navigator was ever within range of the perils posed by off-shore navigation rocks, shoals and sandbars. Lighthouses, therefore, were as much a necessity to the Great Lakes mariner as to his contemporary on the high seas. And, in fact, lighthouse development on Lake Ontario was coincident with that on the lower St. Lawrence as well as with many of the early installations on the Atlantic coast.
In a more or less chronological account of early lighthouse construction on the Great Lakes, the trend of settlement will be followed, from Lake Ontario, over the steep Niagara escarpment to the shallow reaches of Lake Erie, thence through Lake St. Clair to the broader expanse of Lake Huron, and finally to the frigid, rock-bound waters of Lake Superior, more than 600 feet above sea level. (Lake Michigan, lying wholly within American territory, is not included in this treatment.) With the first settlements and resultant waterborne trade, safeguards to navigation soon followed.
The journals of the House of Assembly for Upper Canada record the passing of an Act dated 5 March 1803 "to establish a fund for the erection and maintaining of lighthouses."1 Lighthouse commissioners were appointed who were directly responsible to the governor; later, in 1833, the inspector general took over this responsibility.2 With the Act of Union in 1841, lighthouses and divers aids to navigation came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works, although until Confederation, those below Montreal remained the charge of the Montreal and Quebec Trinity Houses.
The first lighthouse to grace the shores of Lake Ontario was built at Mississauga Point at the mouth of the turbulent Niagara River, a site recommended by the Board of Lighthouse Commissioners on 17 April 1804,3 James Green, the Niagara customs collector, was given charge of the work and the contractor was a John Symington. When the project was completed, the officer commanding at Fort George was to appoint "a careful non-commissioned officer or soldier to keep the lights lighted during the season for which he will receive from the commissary at the post one shilling Halifax currency per day."4 Military masons of the 49th Regiment of Foot were engaged at civilian rates. The resultant labour cost became the subject of official correspondence in which an ambitious young officer, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Brock, found it advisable to render his superiors an explanation, dated 15 November 1804.
It transpired that the resultant cost, using military labour, ran to £9 7s. 6d. The total outlay came to £178 3s. 8d. Halifax currency.6 The hexagonal tower, an artist's attractive sketch of which appears in Figure 53, was completed in 1804 preceding by five years Green Island lighthouse, the first on the lower St. Lawrence. Research to date has not elucidated the type of apparatus used on this first lighthouse on the Great Lakes; the light may have been derived from tallow candles, or more likely from one or more Argand lamps fitted with reflectors and burning sperm oil. In any case, the Mississauga lighthouse stood for only 10 years, giving place to fortifications in 1814 following the American sack of Niagara.
Authorization for the construction of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse on the crescent-shaped island enclosing what was to be one day the busy port of Toronto was given on 1 May 1808, the project to be directed by William Allan whose commission read:
Constructed solidly of limestone by artificers of the 41st Regiment, the tower was originally built to a height of approximately 67 feet, with a 15-foot extension added in 1832. The hexagonal tower, as may be readily seen in Figure 56, has vertical sides for the first 10 feet or so, after which the walls assume a slight taper up to the extension, of slightly different stonework, which again assumes the vertical. The tower door, recessed slightly into the four-foot-thick wall, has a pleasing rounded arch. The original lock is in place, to be opened by means of an enormous, outsize key. The polygonal lantern and platform are not the originals, being of a design more frequently seen in the later 19th century. The lantern deck was sheathed with copper as a precaution against fire.8 The lantern is gained by a spiral staircase. in the centre of which rises the original weight shaft, a revolving light replacing the former fixed one in 1832.
Figure 55 depicts the Gibraltar Point lighthouse as it appeared in the early days of "muddy York," and Figure 56 as it stands today in quiet, spacious and well-tended parkland, across the bay from the maelstrom of downtown Toronto.
Leaking lanterns have always been a problem with lighthouses, and Gibraltar Point was no exception. By 1822, the lantern stood in obvious need of repair, the rain beating in to such a degree that frequently the light was extinguished. In the words of its builder, William Allan, reporting to the executive council that year,
"Haunted" lighthouses are most likely as common as allegedly ghost-ridden old houses. Apparently the first keeper of the Gibraltar Point light died suddenly in 1815 under mysterious circumstances; the subsequent discovery of a human skeleton near the site gave rise to the legend that the lighthouse was haunted.
The Gibraltar Point lighthouse is the oldest extant in the Great Lakes region and second only to Sambro Island in the whole of Canada.
False Ducks Island
Lighthouse construction in Upper Canada proceeded slowly in these early years. The establishment of a Trinity House for the region, suggested by Lord Bathurst in 1816, was never implemented.10 In its session of 1832-33, the legislature observed that to date, besides the Gibraltar Point light, only two additional lighthouses had been built in the area Long Point on Lake Erie and False Ducks Island at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.11
The latter, an early installation built in May 1828, was quite recently demolished. J. W. Macaulay, lighthouse commissioner, complained of "the scantiness of the appropriation" and the lack of suitable sand and stone on the site. Nonetheless the commissioners addressed themselves to their task.
In June 1828, Macaulay was able to report the making of "a very advantageous contract" for a 60-foot stone tower with stairs and lantern platform for the modest sum of £546.13 The lighthouse was fitted with a polygonal lantern, and its four-foot-thick rubble masonry walls were in fair condition nearly a century later. The district engineer in 1924 recommended "the scabbling of the entire surface," repointing with the best quality mortar, and the entire tower to be whitewashed, the results of which may be seen in Figure 5714 This lighthouse, unlike some of its contemporaries in these early years, maintained a high reputation for the quality of its light, apparently derived from three Argand lamps with reflectors which in the words of the inspector general "are kept in a more cleanly state than any which are to be found on the opposite shores of Lake Ontario."15
The Point Petre lighthouse was built under contract by the firm of Matthews and Scott for the sum of £398. Located on the southwest extremity of Prince Edward Peninsula, the Point Petre lighthouse, no longer in use, stands about 12 miles from Picton. The 62-foot circular and slightly tapered tower of "even coursed rubble" was "topped by a cornice of stepped corbelling," on which was set the 12-sided lantern on a platform of the same configuration. Neither the lantern nor the platform is original.16 The original lantern was supplied by a blacksmith, Thomas Masson, for £164 10s., and the chandelier, reflectors, lamps and lantern glazing were ordered from Boston. The commissioners were well pleased with the work.
The commissioners considered the Point Petre tower to be of sounder construction than that at False Ducks. The light consisted of 11 Argand lamps with 16-inch reflectors set in an iron chandelier and complemented with 11 copper oil heaters, the whole supplied by Winslow Lewis of Boston for the sum of $522.65.18 The Point Petre light was said to have a range of 25 miles in clear weather.
Nine Mile Point
The Nine Mile Point lighthouse located on the western point of Simcoe Island, a landfall light for vessels making for the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario, is of identical design to the Point Petre structure but only 45 feet in height. The Nine Mile Point lighthouse is still in use today. The old weight shaft and weights are still in place, though the lantern is thought to have been replaced at a later date. This lighthouse is one of the few, other than range lights, equipped with the reflector or catoptric type light, the apparatus consisting of three parabolic copper reflectors lined with quicksilver. Built in 1833 it is not surprising that the mortar is now soft, and so this tower may require considerable maintenance to preserve it. The site is accessible to motor by means of two ferries.
Another important lighthouse, built in 1840 in the eastern waters of Lake Ontario and still in use today, is that of Presqu'lle. Located three miles from Brighton, the Presqu'lle lighthouse is an octagonal stone structure, shingled throughout on the exterior and set on a stone base cemented over at a more recent date.19 The cornice, as indicated in Figure 58, exhibits a pronounced flare noticeable from the ground. There are five landings within connected by steep straight runs of stairs with an almost ladder-like ascent. Originally the lighthouse was fitted with a polygonal lantern with guard rail around the observation platform. but recently the lantern has been replaced with a rotating beacon mounted on a buoy structure. The Gothic arch of the door is of rather an ecclesiastical outline.
At Burlington, located at the western extremity of Lake Ontario, two lighthouses were built at an early date, the first in 1838; this one is still standing, although removed from service in 1961. Overtaken by highway construction in recent years, the old Burlington light, situated on a canal known as the Burlington Cut by which shipping enters the bay from the lake, found itself overshadowed by the Burlington Skyway and cheek-by-jowl with a lift bridge. The present light is shown from a reinforced concrete tower, complete with a radio beacon and Airchine fog alarm on the end of the jetty. The old lighthouse, as may be seen in Figure 59, is a tall graceful structure in stone, the tapering tower rising to a height of approximately 55 feet20 with narrow rectangular windows at each of the four landings giving ample evidence of the thickness of the walls. The lantern is believed to be of more recent date. The department had decided upon its demolition, since in this location the light was manifestly useless. Strenuous protests from a local historical society have to date, however, saved the old structure from the wrecker's hammer.
A curious but pleasing survival from Toronto's early days is the diminutive Queen's Wharf lighthouse, whose construction date in the 1864 Admiralty list of lights is cited as 1838 and as 1861 according to the Toronto Historical Society. It is a square frame, two-storey structure with angles at each corner sheared off. It has widely projecting eaves, and its height, base to vane, is not over 20 feet. This little lighthouse was moved about 500 yards from its original location on Queen's Wharf when the city under took a large-scale reclamation of land along the waterfront in 1911; its present position within a street car loop is at the intersection of Fleet Street and Lakeshore Boulevard, a good distance from the harbour. The light has not been in use since this time but the well-built little structure has been kept in excellent condition by the Toronto Historical Society. The only renovation has been the replacement of some of the sheathing boards and the exterior siding, although the original style has been faithfully maintained.21
Port Dalhousie Harbour on the south shore of Lake Ontario features two fairly old frame range lights. The main light, built in 1879, is of the common, square tapered design with an octagonal lantern. The doorway on the south side projects from the wall and has an attractive gabled roof, more or less creating a porch effect, with a transom above the door. John R. Stevens, architect, reported this old range light to be in good condition.22
The inner range light at Port Dalhousie, built in 1852, consists of a four-storeyed octagonal tower with a 12-sided lantern. The gently tapered walls are shingled. Stevens doubts that this lighthouse dated from 1852, considering that its general configuration and design are attributable to the 1870s rather than mid-century.23
Moving over the Niagara escarpment to the shallow waters of Lake Erie, one finds an obvious place for the first lighthouse to grace its shores at Long Point, a sand spit running at an oblique angle some 20 miles out into the lake. As early as 1817, the lieutenant governor of the province cited the need of a lighthouse at this point. The completion of the Welland Canal in 1829 gave added impetus to the project, as a landfall for shipping making for the canal entrance.
The shallow waters of Lake Erie were frequently whipped to fury by sudden and violent storms. Long Point, judging from American representations to the British minister in Washington, was the scene of many mishaps.
The gist of the matter reached the Foreign Office and eventually Government House. In March 1829, the sum of £1,000 was appropriated for the project, undertaken by Joseph Van Norman and Brothers who contracted to build the lighthouse equipped with lighting apparatus for £925 local currency.
The first in a series of three lighthouses on Long Point went into service on 3 November 1830. A circular stone tower 50 feet in height whose walls tapered from a thickness of five feet at the base to two at the top, was set on a seemingly solid foundation 30 feet square, made up of two tiers of squared oak and pine.25 The care so taken, however, was not proof against the continual erosion, which by 1838 had thoroughly undermined the structure. The inherent difficulties of the site were expressed by G. Ryerse, customs collector at Port Dover, who undertook the rebuilding of the lighthouse for the sum of $1,212, in a letter to the inspector general on 22 February 1839.
The second Long Point lighthouse was begun on 10 April 1843 and completed ready for service on 16 September of that year. The structure was an octagonal wooden tower 60 feet in height, and the original light was a fixed one employing 16 Argand lamps. The lamps were later reduced to six on the revolving principle and fitted with silver-plated copper reflectors.27 To complete the story of Long Point, one may mention that the third in the succession of lighthouses, a reinforced concrete tower 102 feet high, went into service in May 1916, and is still in use at the present time.28
But before leaving Long Point, now a popular summer resort, one should note yet a fourth lighthouse built in 1879 on the neck of land separating the lake from Long Point Bay (Fig. 61). The square tower with attached dwelling is of frame construction plastered on the inside and shingled on the exterior. The tower has two landings leading to what is now a sunroom, for the light was removed from service sometime between 1915 and 1920 and the structure has since served as a residence. The verandah and kitchen are additions to the original structure. The lantern has been removed and, it is surmised, replaced with the sunroom. At present this one time lighthouse serves as an outsize summer cottage which can accommodate comfortably several families at a time.
The second lighthouse to be built on the Canadian shore of Lake Frie was that on the northeast point of Pelee Island. Built in 1833 and situated in the hazardous Pelee Passage by which shipping passed in increasing tonnage to the upper lakes, the Pelee Island lighthouse exhibited a fixed light for which a range of 9 miles was claimed. The round stone tower was 40 feet in height.29 Despite the importance of this light to navigation, the early one was neglected. The light was destroyed by the rebels in 1837 and was not relit the following spring. A complaint on the neglected state of the Pelee Island light appeared in official correspondence that summer. "The want of attention to the Lights upon this shore is a source of complaint among our traders, as they still pay the dues without reaping the benefit."30 The following year the quality of the light was still unsatisfactory, the result of negligence on the part of an absentee keeper. By 1845, however, the Board of Works had secured the services of a conscientious keeper, a retired German sailor.31
Despite the manifest improvement in the Pelee Island light by this date, it had become apparent that a much stronger one was required to keep shipping clear of the dangerous shoal. The poor condition of the foundation precluded modifications to the present tower. J. Mcintyre's Report on Lighthouses for 1845 stressed the pressing need for an improved facility in this critical passage:
Only in 1861, however, was a considerably improved lighthouse established on Pelee Spit, the foundation for which was a stone-filled caisson well offshore. The 61-foot wooden tower was constructed on shore and transported to the site. On 3 November 1861, the new coal-oil light, made up of nine flat-wick lamps and six reflectors, went into service.33 In 1902 a new cone-shaped lighthouse was constructed of steel plates set upon a steel caisson filled with concrete and masonry. This structure exhibited a powerful dioptric light of the 3rd Order for the first time on 4 July. The establishment included a steam fog siren, indicative of the importance of this light station in the Pelee Passage.34
Before proceeding to the upper lakes, we should mention a curiously shaped lighthouse built in 1845 where the meandering Thames empties into Lake St. Clair. The original coursed rubble tower was circular in shape and had a slight taper; it was heightened considerably at a later date. The tower is in very poor shape having developed an inclination, and the masonry is disintegrating; the whole structure indeed is due for demolition.35 This old lighthouse forms one of a pair of range lights designed to guide vessels on a safe course over a dangerous sandbar. Its companion, built in 1837, has been replaced recently by a steel tower visible in the right background of the photograph in Figure 63. Although local representations have been made for its preservation on historical grounds, by all accounts the old lighthouse is beyond restoration.
The first lighthouse to be built on the shores of Lake Huron in 1847, the Goderich lighthouse, stands on a cliff over 100 feet above the lake level. Standing in what is now a park, this square and rather squat stone tower faced with smooth, even-coursed stone still serves, with its mercury vapour light, as a principal beacon along Huron's shore. In 1896, the original stone lantern deck was replaced with a reinforced concrete slab; the lantern too is new.36
In 1859, the Department of Public Works completed a series of six very tall tapering lighthouses of graceful proportions on the shores of Lake Huron and contiguous Georgian Bay. These circular stone towers, all of which have lasted well to the present day, are known locally and within the department as "imperial towers." The derivation of this term has not been traced. Certainly all were built under Canadian authority. It may have been that the design originated in England, and local lore in several instances traces the building material to Britain, but this seems highly unlikely. Dwellings, storage sheds and out-buildings of the same material originally formed one complex at each of these locations, but at several sites only the lighthouse remains. The six lighthouses are Point Clark and Chantry Island on the eastern shore of Lake Huron; Cove Island off Tobermory at the entrance to Georgian Bay; Griffith Island at the entrance to Owen Sound, and Nottawasaga and Christian Island in southern Georgian Bay.
With the exception of the Christian Island lighthouse which is but 60 feet in height, the other five towers all exceed 85 feet. All six are fitted with red cast-iron polygonal lanterns, and the towers are whitewashed. The powerful 2d Order light at Nottawasaga Island has been replaced in recent years with an acetylene AGA-type beacon fitted into the original optic; the light produced is a feeble one compared with its predecessor. Apparently a light of such brilliance is no longer required at the entrance to Collingwood Harbour.
The most southerly of the series, at Point Clark about 20 miles to the north of Goderich, is situated on a low-lying shore and was so located to warn mariners off a dangerous shoal about two miles offshore. The Point Clark tower, containing nine storeys or landings leading to the lantern, has tapering limestone walls fully 5 feet thick at ground level and 2 feet thick at the top, with a total height of 87 feet from base to vane. The exterior stonework is laid in 19-inch courses, while the interior is lined with stone of smaller dimensions. One cannot do better than quote the Stokes report in paying tribute to the craftsmanship of these impressive structures.
Another feature, invisible from the ground but mentioned by Stokes, is that of an artistically designed gutter drain in the form of a lion's head, an example of careful craftsmanship dating from a time less utilitarian than our own.
Unlike so many older lighthouses, this one, and perhaps the others in the series as well, has retained its original lantern. All six lighthouses were fitted with dioptric apparatus of the latest design ranging from the 2d Order for Point Clark, Chantry Island, Cove Island, and Nottawasaga to the 3rd Order for Griffith Island and 4th for Christian Island.38
A few miles to the north on Chantry Island, just to the south of the town of Southampton, stands a similar lighthouse again to safeguard ships from running aground on a dangerous shoal.39 Chantry Island is uninhabited and so has been the scene of considerable vandalism; the dwelling is in derelict condition. Department engineers are considering the lighthouse's demolition because of the high cost of maintenance, and the replacement of it with a simple steel tower. The Chantry Island lighthouse, though a handsome and impressive structure, is one of a type and difficult of access.
The reader will perhaps notice a structural similarity between this series of six lighthouses on Lake Huron with those built under the auspices of the same authority in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Strait of Belle Isle region, completed about the same time (1858) Point Amour, West Point of Anticosti and Cap-des-Rosiers, all of which exceeded 100 feet in height.
The two little frame structures, square with sloping sides in the configuration of a pepper-shaker, built at the entrance to the Killarney Channel in northern Georgian Bay were probably the first lights to go into service in the early days of the new dominion; their revolving lights were lit for the first time on 27 July 1867.40 Of identical design, the one illustrated in Figure 70 is located at Red Rock Point at the eastern entrance to the channel. The little tower has a half-landing below the lantern deck, which flares out considerably to form a cornice at the platform. The lantern is of the familiar polygonal shape. At some later date, the two were converted to range lights to mark the proper course to enter the Killarney Channel.
There are three more lighthouses of sufficient age to merit attention in the Lake Huron region, although all three are of a common design. The Lonely Island lighthouse, no doubt aptly named, was built in 1870 in northern Georgian Bay. An eight-sided frame tower with sloping sides and fitted with a red circular lantern, this otherwise unremarkable structure is at time of writing just a century old and is situated in what appears to be a very exposed location.41
Gore Bay and Strawberry Island
The Gore Bay and Strawberry Island lighthouses (illustrated in Figs. 73 and 74) date from 1879 and 1881 respectively. Both take the familiar form of square, slightly tapering towers with attached dwellings and are set on stone foundations. Strawberry Island lighthouse, 40 feet in height, has two landings within the tower whereas the somewhat lower tower at Gore Bay has but one. In each case, polygonal lanterns are mounted on square projecting lantern platforms.
Quebec Harbour and Porphyry Island
The most northerly and most extensive of the five Great Lakes and credited with being the largest body of fresh water in the world. Lake Superior has few lighthouses of any historic interest, and those in generally offshore, inaccessible locations. The first lighthouse was built in 1872 at Quebec Harbour on Michipicoten Island. As may be seen from Figure 75, this structure consisted of a one-storey frame house with a range light shining from a dormer window. The present facility at Quebec Harbour still answers this description in the current list of lights.42 The second lighthouse to be built on Superior's shores was on Porphyry Island in 1873, at the entrance to Black Bay in the vicinity of Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). This lighthouse has been replaced.
The bulk of lighthouse construction on Lake Superior has been carried out over the course of the past 30 to 40 years: open-work steel towers. mast and pole lights predominate.
Upper St. Lawrence River
Since lighthouse construction in the upper St. Lawrence got under way so much later than on Lake Ontario, its description follows that on the Great Lakes. In point of fact, early lighthouse construction on the upper St. Lawrence was contemporaneous with that on Lake Huron.
The first of the upper St. Lawrence lighthouses on the low-lying shore of placid Lake St. Francis was that at Lancaster Bar, built in 1844. This lighthouse, according to information furnished by the Dominion Lighthouse Depot, was a 20-ft square frame tower of a type frequently seen on inland waters. It is still standing, though no longer in use. A lighthouse of similar design but twice the height was built on Cherry Island in 1847; this light is no longer listed. A square wooden tower appeared on Magee Island in 1848, and a lantern was installed on the roof of a house at Coteau Landing the same year.43
By the mid-1850s, the advent of the river steamer and its increasing use by night called for the lighting of the intricate channels threading their way among the scenic Thousand Islands. A series of nine small lighthouses following the familiar design of square frame and sloping sides was built at Cole's Shoal, Grenadier Island, Fiddler's Elbow, Lindoe Island, Jack Straw Shoal, Spectacle Island, Red Horse Rock, Burnt Island and Gananoque Island. An official report compiled in 1855 boasted that this stretch of the river "is now lighted as a street."44
Of all these small river lighthouses, only Cole's Shoal is still standing though it is no longer in use. The Red Horse Rock lighthouse, which may be taken as one of typical design on in land waterways, survived until 1968. This lighthouse was built in 1855, set on a foundation of piers in the river. The 26-foot frame tower, 12 feet to a side and with a slight taper, was lined with narrow clapboarding and capped with a plain cornice. The octagonal lantern rested on a four-foot square box. The cupola was described as ogee in configuration; that is, embodying a double continuous curve.45 Although reported in good condition, the little lighthouse, then over a century old, has since given place to one of the economical and utterly functional circular steel towers which are appearing in ever greater profusion on our inland waterways.
A surviving example of one of these small river lighthouses, dating from 1874 and believed to be the original, is located at Knapp Point on the north shore of Wolf Island. Its lantern has been removed and replaced with a steel buoy structure on which is mounted a rotating beacon.
A considerable need was felt for a light in the Prescott area in the years following Confederation. In 1873, the Department of Marine purchased a former windmill located a mile below Prescott which they converted to a lighthouse for the sum of $3,266.27. The lantern atop the 62-foot stone tower originally housed four flat-wick coal oil lamps fitted with 16-inch reflectors exhibiting a fixed white light.46 The Windmill Point lighthouse is still in use, showing a dioptric light of the 5th Order.
Although the lighthouse per se is now nearly a century old, the principal interest in this structure is rather related to its function before conversion to serve the interests of river navigation. It was this windmill which gave its name to the decisive action, fought on a cold and dark November day in 1838, in which an American filibustering force under the command of a Polish "nobleman" met decisive defeat at the hands of a mixed force of British regulars, marines and Canadian militia. The Americans took refuge in the windmill, from which they defied the besiegers until guns brought down from Kingston forced their surrender. A plaque affixed to the lighthouse wall donated by a Polish-American patriotic association in memory of the unfortunate Von Schoulz is a fitting tribute to the amicable relations which have for so long existed along the undefended border.