For nearly 200 years Toronto’s Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, along with its resident restless ghost, have overlooked nautical traffic coming and going across the mile-wide harbor. Situated on the Toronto Islands, essentially a finger-like peninsula of interconnected sandbars deposited from the eroding Scarborough Bluffs on the city’s eastern perimeter, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is the oldest Ontario landmark still on its original site. From its strategic vantage point on the southern spur of the Islands, the tower has witnessed most of Toronto’s history unfold; for 150 years its light beam has shone for some 30 to 40 miles over the sweep of Lake Ontario.
The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is arguably the oldest lighthouse in Canada. Some say the Sambro Island tower (built circa 1760), just outside Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia, is older. But because Sambro was extensively restored and fortified in 1998, it is modernized, while the Toronto lighthouse remains much as it when it was completed in 1808. Even its 80 wooden stairs winding up the narrow spiral staircase to the lantern, which were constructed of resilient and rot-resistant Douglas fir planks, haven’t been replaced since the 1870s. Without doubt, Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is the oldest maritime signal on the Great Lakes.
As early as 1803, it was realized that a lighthouse was essential to the safety of the vessels sailing Lake Ontario. John Graves Simcoe, founder of Toronto and Lieutenant Governor, the British Crown’s representative in English Canada, visited the peninsula and chose this ideal site for the lighthouse.
The original structure was 52 feet (16m) high including the lantern and built of Queenstown (Canada) limestone, which was transported to the site (approximately 10 miles across the lake) by barge. The building and its base, packed with stone to keep it in place, are hexagonal - one of only three lighthouses in Canada of that distinctive design. The diameter of the base is 22 feet (6.7m) and the circumference is about 68 feet (20.7m). The walls at the base are 6 feet (1.8m) thick, gradually decreasing in size to 4 feet (1.2m) thick at the top. The structure was heightened by 12 feet (3.6m) in 1832 using Kingston stone. The overall height from ground to the vane of the lantern is 84 feet (25m).
The first light was a fixed white lamp that annually burned about 200 gallons of sperm oil. When the tower was raised in 1832, an improved white light was also installed and, after 1863 coal oil replaced the sperm oil (about 900 gallons of coal oil used yearly).
In 1878, a new white revolving light was installed. This was one of the best and most powerful in North American waters. The light revolved once every minute and 48 seconds. The power to revolve the light itself was provided by a cable with a heavy weight on one end, which was wound around a drum every 14 hours by the lighthouse keeper. The weight, travelling down a tower in the centre of the lighthouse, caused the cable to unwind which, being geared to a shaft, revolved the light. Powerful reflectors projected the light.
Also in 1878, the balcony around the lamp room, which was originally built with wood, was reconstructed using iron. This proved a very wise measure because the following year, the weathervane was struck by lightning, which travelled down the walls, cleaning off all the whitewash.
In the winter of 1916-1917, the first electric light appeared. This was a fixed white light, which flashed on and off. It had powerful reflectors and covered an angle of 240 degrees. In the spring of 1945, the present light was installed. A fixed green light is in use to distinguish it from the mass of white light emanating from the island and the city beyond.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1956, replaced by an automatic electric signal fixed on a promontory due east of the Toronto Islands. On May 23rd, 1958, the lighthouse was transferred to the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto’s Parks Department.
Manuel Cappel, the current keeper since 1999, prefers to call himself the “guardian” of the lighthouse.
“This is a volunteer position, purely a labor of love,” says Cappel. “I look after the light, switching it on and off regularly to ensure everything’s in working order. I see it as minding an important and often forgotten page out of Canada’s history.”
Cappel considers the Gibraltar Point tower a rare old building worthy of continued preservation. “She’s aesthetically and architecturally beautiful. During the day she’s serene and welcoming. But at night, she can be downright creepy.” He is referring to the renowned “mystery of the lighthouse.”
Like most other historical buildings, the lighthouse has had its share of tragedy giving rise to tales of the macabre. Such a day was January 2nd, 1815. On this day, the lighthouse’s first keeper, John Paul Rademuller, died in circumstances which have forever left two unanswered questions: How did he die? And by whose hands?
Time has drawn its mantle over this period and we are left with few facts and much supposition. The facts are, according to the story that appeared in The York Gazette of January 14th, 1815:
“Died on the evening of the 2nd of January, J.P. Rademuller, keeper of the lighthouse on Gibraltar Point. From circumstances there is moral proof of his having been murdered. If the horrid crime admits of aggravation when the inoffensive and benevolent character of the unfortunate sufferer are considered, his murder will be pronounced most barbarous and inhuman.”
It is known that Rademuller was a beloved character around Muddy York, as Toronto was then called. Part of his popularity stemmed from his home-brewed beer, made in the style of his native Germany. Rademuller’s most frequent guests were the soldiers of the Fort York Garrison stationed straight across the channel.
During and after the War of 1812, when the U.S. besieged and destroyed most of York (only the lighthouse was left undamaged), drinking was the main pastime of most off-duty military recruits. Rademuller was typically happy to oblige patrons who dropped by any hour of the day or night. There were rumors Rademuller was also actively involved as a smuggler who brought whiskey from the United States.
But on that blustery, fateful night in 1815, so the story goes, Rademuller answered the door of his nearby cottage to be confronted by a trio of drunken British gernadiers. They demanded his beer, but Rademuller gently refused, and tried to send them away, infuriating them further. As Rademuller shut his door, one soldier threw a piece of firewood at his head, while the others beat him with their heavy belts. Rademuller crumpled. His body, it is said, was dragged up to the lighthouse lantern and flung over the side. His broken remains were then cut into pieces and buried around on the islands. True or not, Rademuller was never seen again.
There is no record to be found of a courtmartial or trial for this crime ever having been held, so we are only left with conjecture.
But the mystery thickened when in 1893, George Durnan, the fourth lighthouse keeper at Gibraltar Point, found bits of a coffin and parts of the jawbone of a man, about three feet beneath the sand close to the keeper’s house. It was always alleged that Rademuller was buried west of the lighthouse near the lagoon at the base of the south side of Blockhouse Bay and, in order to certify the story, Mr. Durnan undertook a search and discovered the buried remains.
Although it was, and is, assumed the bones were that of Rademuller’s (the Toronto Islands were also a burial ground for prehistoric aboriginals), a full skull or other limbs were never found. But some less tangible traces of the first keeper seem to be in evidence today.
Cappel enjoys relating the story of the lighthouse spectre. “On dark and stormy nights, Rademuller has been sighted trekking up to light his beacon. Some claim it’s his enduring dedication to lighting of the lamp; others declare he’s still searching for his dispersed bones to be given a proper burial.”
An eerie stillness does cling to the clearing where the lighthouse stands. Once located at the water’s edge, continuing deposits of sand and silt over the centuries have accumulated so that the lighthouse today is actually about 300 yards from shore.
Over the years, there have been countless reports of thumps and bangings within the structure when no one is inside. Orbs of swirling light and an eerie ethereal “mist” have been seen and even photographed emanating from the tower. Subsequent keepers and visitors to the lighthouse have stated accounts of strange echoes in the tower, clicking of heels treading the stairs, or sounds like something or someone being dragged up to the lantern.
“I’ve never seen or heard anything odd,” counters Cappel. “So is the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse haunted? I guess it is if you want it to be.”
* J.P. Rademuller 1809-1815
* William Halloway 1816-1831
* James Durnan 1832-1853
* George Durnan 1853-1908
* Captain P.J. McSherry 1905-1912
* B. Matthews 1912-1917
* G.F. Eaton 1917-1918
* F.C. Allan 1918-1944
* Mrs. Ladder 1944-1955
* Mrs. Dodds 1955-1958
This story appeared in the
January 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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