Retired schoolteacher Jim Kilgour of Collingwood, Ontario, has fond memories of leisurely childhood voyages aboard a motor skiff his grandfather had converted into a sailboat. The two would stop at Christian Island, the largest of the numerous islands in the southern part of the Georgian Bay, where they would picnic while avoiding the island’s luxuriant poison ivy.
Another prominent feature of the island is its tall, gleaming limestone lighthouse known as one of the six “Imperial Towers” built in the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron in the mid-1800s. Kilgour remembers climbing Christian Island Lighthouse at the age of six, and the excitement of that day isn’t too far from his mind today as he works to save another of the stately Imperial Towers. Nottawasaga Island Lighthouse, built a short distance offshore as a guide to Collingwood’s harbor, is in desperate need of all the friends it can get.
Kilgour, chair of the town’s Harbourlands Committee, calls the lighthouse on Nottawasaga Island “a symbol and a reminder of our beginnings.” In fact, the lighthouse was first lit in 1858 — the same year Collingwood was incorporated as a town. Collingwood grew into an important center for shipping of goods to Western Canada and later for shipbuilding. As the town earned the title “Chicago of the North,” the lighthouse became one of the most important navigational aids on the Upper Great Lakes.
The town has evolved comfortably into a tourist destination, but the 85-foot lighthouse hasn’t fared so well. While its solar-powered light is still operating at this writing, it has officially been decommissioned and for all intents and purposes abandoned. Large cracks are spreading through its white dolomite limestone exterior. The lighthouse might not stand through many more winters without an overhaul.
The island’s colorful human history has been nicely documented in the books Keepers of the Light by Marion E. Sandell, and Alone in the Night by Andrea Gutsche, Barbara Chisholm and Russell Floren. The light’s first keeper was an Englishman named George Collins who had worked at sea since the age of 13. Collins, who lived on Nottawasaga Island (the name comes from Indian words for “Iroquois” and “mouth of a river”) for 32 years, was credited with doing much to beautify the grounds around the station. He also had Sunday prayer meetings for local folks, who enjoyed picnics near the lighthouse.
George Collins is also remembered as a proficient lifesaver, with 52 rescues in his career. Most notably, he and his son Charles were credited with saving 24 lives from the grounded steamer Mary Ward in 1872. Charles Collins tragically drowned while fishing in 1880, and in Alone in the Night it is reported, “His (George Collins’) relatives remember him pacing the shores of Nottawasaga the entire night, anguishing over the one life he had been unable to save.”
Relatives of other keepers recalled that water for drinking and washing was carried from the bay, and that cooking was done in a wood stove fueled by driftwood. While Sam Hillen was keeper in the 1930s, the enormous second order Fresnel lens was still turned by a clockwork mechanism that had to be wound every two hours. One night a cable broke and the huge weights that powered the machinery crashed to the floor of the lighthouse, where the scars can still be seen. New machinery was installed that gave the keepers an extra half-hour of sleep between windings.
After a century of resident keepers the station’s dwelling burned down in 1958. The light was automated a short time later, and for some years it was looked after by attendants who also monitored other navigational lights in the area.
As part of their efforts to make ends meet with limited funding, the Coast Guard announced the decommissioning of Nottawasaga Island Lighthouse in early 2003. For some time they had stopped sending their personnel to service the light, as the tower is considered structurally unstable. Lawrence Swift, a spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, was quoted in the Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin: “Lighthouses do have a life expectancy. If you remove the historical significance, it’s like a car - it’s not worth it to keep putting money into it.”
For local residents like Jim Kilgour, the lighthouse has far more historical significance than the average car. “As a sailor and boater for over a half century,” says Kilgour, “I have agonized over the loss of the many aids to navigation in the central district of the Canadian Coast Guard. I realize that much of the loss is related to budget decisions and the rise of technology, but in many cases what is deleted has a distinct heritage background and that is inevitably lost when the structure is destroyed.”
Aside from the historic value of the lighthouse, its navigational importance is also debatable. The Coast Guard plans to replace it with a new light on a buoy located about four miles from the island. But Kilgour, who teaches classes in boating safety, says the small buoy will not be sufficient to warn boaters of reefs and shallows near the island.
In June, Jim Kilgour told Collingwood’s town council about the lighthouse’s plight. The council, in turn, put forth a resolution to Member of Parliament Paul Bonwick supporting the protection of the lighthouse. According to Lawrence Swift, it will cost about 600,000 Canadian dollars to restore the tower. Kilgour hopes that funding can be found from some government source, but the clock is ticking loudly for the latest addition to Lighthouse Digest’s “Doomsday List.”
This story appeared in the
August 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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