Digest>Archives> July 2003

Explosion at Southeast Shoal

A Dark Day at an Ontario Lighthouse

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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The fire of July 7, 1950 at Southeast Shoal ...

Arch Wicks spent a few years as a radio technician for Canada’s Department of Transport, and he has vivid memories of several visits in the late 1940s to Southeast Shoal Lightstation at the eastern end of the Pelee Passage in western Lake Erie. “It was one heck of a place to get on board from a bobbing fishing boat,” he recalls, “especially with rough water. It meant waiting for the boat to rise up on a wave and then leaping to the lower platform. I was also frequently trapped on board for sometimes a week or more, waiting for weather to calm down so that I could leave.”

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Another view of the fire, courtesy of the ...

He also remembers Keeper William A. (Bill) Moore, who had come from England in 1910 and had been head keeper since the light was established in 1927. Wicks says that Moore “always served tough thick bacon at nearly every meal — hooboy! But I do know he was a very nice, helpful guy.” When he last saw Keeper Moore, Wicks had no idea that his next visit to the station would be under vastly different and sadder circumstances following the tragic events of Friday, July 7, 1950.

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Southeast Shoal Light as it looks today.
Photo by: Stan Severi

On that morning a lighthouse and buoy tender, the Grenville, arrived at Southeast Shoal Light to unload gasoline into a large storage tank on the lower level of the building. Keeper Moore was in the lighthouse, while a marine signals inspector named Dowsley Kingston was in the lower level near the gasoline storage tank. On board the Grenville along with the regular crew was J. A. Arthurs, superintendent of lights and aids to navigation for the Department of Transport. The captain of the vessel was Oscar Morpheth.

John Rice, second mate on the tender, was in charge of the gasoline delivery. He looked for a measuring stick to gauge how much gasoline was already in the tank, but not finding one used a broom handle instead. He then began the usual process of unloading the fuel from drums on the tender by forcing compressed air into them. The gasoline was subsequently forced through an antistatic hose into the storage tank.

Rice was called away to supervise the hoisting of a refrigerator from the ship to the lighthouse, so he instructed crewmember Gerald McPherson to watch the gasoline hose in his absence. McPherson had been filling a coal bin near the gasoline storage tank. McPherson said later that he heard no such instructions, but that he left the lower level of the lighthouse to go on the Grenville for a drink of water because the fumes were getting thick. The only other person in the storage area of the lighthouse at the time McPherson left was Dowsley Kingston, who had been working on an electric motor.

Louis Shaw, an assistant at the lighthouse, later described what happened next. “All I heard was ‘Shut it off’ and then the explosion occurred.” Jack Urquhart, on board the Grenville, said, “I saw a flash come out of the door and Dowsley Kingston flew out of the door and fell between the lighthouse and the ship in the water.” Seconds later, Keeper Moore somehow found his way through the flames to escape through a second story window. Badly burned, he lowered himself down by a rope.

Captain Morpheth immediately ordered the Grenville to pull away from the lighthouse, and the crew frantically battled the fire with four hoses. The fire was out of control and fighting it was futile, and the priority shifted to the need for prompt medical attention for Moore and Kingston. The two men, suffering from second and third degree burns but still conscious, were carried onto the tender. The captain radioed for help, and his call was received by the vessel City of Kingston. Leamington Memorial Hospital soon got word that emergency medical supplies were needed at the Leamington Dock.

Two doctors administered emergency treatment at the dock when the Grenville arrived. Dr. G. W. Bruner later said that Dowsley Kingston told him that he “had passed that motor (the one near the gasoline storage tank) as safe,” and that it “shouldn’t have been in there.” Kingston described a blue ball of flame, and said he had no idea how he had gotten out of the lighthouse.

The two wounded men were rushed to Leamington Memorial Hospital. The next morning at 8:30, 64-year-old Keeper Bill Moore died as a result of his burns. He would have been eligible for retirement nine months later. Keeper Moore left his wife, four sons and three daughters.

That same evening, Dowsley Kingston succumbed to his injuries. The 42-year-old inspector had lived in Prescott, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River. The newspapers reported that both Moore and Kingston died of burns and the shock which followed.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable K. W. Bridges oversaw an inquiry into the fire. On July 17 a coroner’s jury put the blame on the “laxity in discipline and supervision of the crew” of the Grenville. The jury recommended stricter safety measures and better enforcement of regulations for all explosive combustibles, and further stated that the presence of an electric motor close to the gasoline tank was “inexcusable.”

Captain Morpheth said he questioned the crew of the Grenville to find out who had yelled “Shut it off” immediately before the explosion. Since none of the crew admitted to yelling the words, it was concluded that it must have been Kingston, but it couldn’t be known whether he was referring to the electric motor or to the gasoline hose. The precise cause of the fire was never determined. It was decided that either the hose fell out of the tank resulting in gasoline being ignited by the motor on which Kingston had been working, or that fumes were ignited by sparks from the motor.

A lightship served for a time in place of the extinguished lighthouse. Arch Wicks was one of the crew that arrived at the station to get it back into working order. “The interior of the tower was completely gutted,” he says. “Construction people removed all of the interior, and a contract was given to a company who reinforced all of the building with a process whereby they drilled thousands of holes all over from the outside, then forced concrete into the holes.” Wicks oversaw the installation of two new engines in the station — “Diesel this time for sure!” New living quarters were built by a construction crew.

Wicks returned later to install new radionavigation beacon and radiotelephone equipment. The project was delayed and Wicks found himself at the station in a severe snow and sleet storm. “The waves hitting the building sounded as if a huge steel door was being slammed,” he recalls, “and one in particular gave all present some concern that the tower might collapse, inasmuch as the concrete extrusion process was held in some doubt by many.”

But Southeast Shoal Lightstation made it through that storm and many more. Today, the structure stands with an automated light and a helipad atop the former crew’s quarters, a mute reminder of one of the darkest days in Canadian lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the July 2003 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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