Digest>Archives> December 1996

The Imperial Towers of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay

By Wayne Sapulski


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Nottawasaga Island Light, Ontario, Canada.
Photo by: Wayne Sapulski

We in the United States share a common maritime heritage with our Canadian neighbors of the north, on our Great Lakes. Like ours, their lighthouse construction on the Great Lakes followed the trend of settlement, from Lake Ontario, over the Niagaria escarpment to the shallow reaches of Lake Erie, then through Lake St Clair to the broader expanses of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

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Cove Island Light, Ontario, Canada.
Photo by: Wayne Sapulski

In the early days, local commissions governed the establishment and operation of Canadian Lighthouses. Their operation was modeled on that of England. Canada had Trinity Houses at Quebec and Montreal which imposed dues upon the vessels that used the individual lighthouses. After the uniting of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840, lighthouses in Upper Canada (or Canada West as it was known until Confederation in 1867) came under the jurisdiction of the Board of Works. This agency attempted to improve the operation of lighthouses by standardizing and modernizing the lighting apparatuses, as well as setting higher standards for keepers. Improvement, nevertheless, was slow in coming.

Westward Expansion

The lighting of Lake Huron began when a lighthouse was established at Goderich in 1847. With this exception, mariners were totally unaided by either lights or buoys along the entire Canadian shore of the lake and the whole of Georgian Bay. During the 1850's several events occurred to cause traffic on Lake Huron to increase dramatically.

With the opening of the Bruce Peninsula to settlement, people began to pour into the area. A free trade agreement with the United States in 1854, lifted the duty on many staples, promising prosperity and economic development. The opening of the St. Marys Falls Canal at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1855 gave trading schooners from the lower Great Lakes access to Lake Superior as well. The first railway terminus on Georgian Bay opened between Toronto and Collingwood. Collingwood became an important transshipment center with immigrants and supplies flowing west, while grain and wood products were off-loaded and sent east to the Atlantic ports and international markets. As the economy grew, so did the number of collisions, fires and groundings, but the demand for water transportation (the only economically viable type of transportation available) continued to grow. Finally, the advent of the steamship and its increased use at night by owners in order to maximize profits worsened the number of marine casualties. The need for navigational aids became urgent.

To remedy this situation, in 1855 the Board of Works contracted John Brown of Thorold (Ontario) to erect the stonework for a series of eleven towers with dwellings which would light Lake Huron and Georgian Bay from Point Clark to Christian Island (see map).

The sites on the original contract were:

1. Point Clark

2. Chantry Island

3. Cove Island

4. Nottawasaga Island

5. Griffith Island

6. Christian Island

7. White Fish Island

8. Mississagi Strait

9. Isle St. Joseph

10. Clapperton Island

11. Badgley Island

Of the eleven towers planned, only the first six on the list were actually built, simultaneously for the most part, during the four year period of 1855 to 1859. The six came to be known as the Imperial Towers (more about this later). A lighthouse was never built on White Fish Island, despite repeated recommendations over the years for one. The last four in the series, marking the North Channel of Lake Huron, were smaller structures built years later of wood by different contractors and utilizing a simpler reflector-type of lighting apparatus.

Site Selection

Site Selection was based on known hazards to navigation, predominant traffic patterns and the proximity of good holding ground (anchorage areas) where the small ships then in use might seek shelter to ride out a storm. Point Clark, 20 miles north of Goderich on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, for instance, is the site of a dangerous reef which extends about two miles off shore directly in the path of coasting vessels. Farther up the eastern shore, Chantry Island lies 1 1/2 miles southwest of the Saugeen River mouth at Southampton and is bordered by extensive shoals that radiate like tentacles for most of a mile to the north, west and south. Yet Chantry Island provides Lake Huron with a rare protected leeward (eastern) side where vessels can ride out even the most violent storms. Several miles off the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula near Tobermory, Cove Island marks the Lake Huron entrance to Georgian Bay. Off the western shore of Georgian Bay, Griffith Island lies at the entrance to Owen Sound and is of help to vessels entering Colpoys Bay, where good shelter and anchorage can be had. At the southern end of Georgian Bay, Nottawasaga Island lies 3 miles northwest of the entrance to Collingwood Harbor near a shoal hazard called the Mary Ward Ledges (names after the steamer Mary Ward, which met her end there). As mentioned earlier, Collingwood at the time was becoming an important port. Finally, traffic heading northward from Collingwood for points on the eastern shore of Georgian bay usually passed between the long sandbar at the southeastern tip of Christian Island and the mainland. The eastern shore of Christian Island also provided good shelter from storms.

John Brown, Contractor

A Scot by birth in 1809, John Brown served as an apprentice to a stonemason in Glasgow and emigrated first to upstate New York at the age of 23. By 1838, he emigrated once again, this time to Canada, where the opportunity to become a principal in the operation of the Queenstown Quarry presented itself.

In the period between 1846 to 1848, he completed his first government lighthouse project at Mohawk Island in Lake Erie near Port Maitland. By 1850, Brown's reputation and wealth had grown considerably, enabling him to branch out into related industries. With various partners, he opened plaster and cement mills, plaster beds, lime kilns and a steam sawmill. He also built scows, dredges and tugboats in his shipyard at Allanburgh and Port Robinson...from a business standpoint, all a nice bit of vertical integration. His cement and plaster products won World Fair medals in Paris in 1855 and London in 1862.

Renowned for his integrity and work of the highest quality, Brown's projects came to consist almost exclusively of government rail, canal and harbor contracts.

The selection of Brown to build the new lighthouses on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay was a logical one. Brown had the experience the commissioners on the Board of Works were looking for, as well as sufficient capital to finance the steamers, schooners, barges and machinery necessary to complete the structures on isolated sites. As it would turn out, his selection was also a fortunate one. The completion of the contract was to become a monumental task and a matter of principle to John Brown; a lesser man would have folded.

A Logistical Nightmare

The procurement of men and material went smoothly enough. Brown had white dolomite limestone quarries opened at Owen Sound, Main Station Island and Inverhuron. Transporting the cut stone, building suppliers and workmen to the remote sites, however, proved to be a logistical nightmare. Storms caused incessant delays in the delivery of building materials and actual construction once delivered. Four supply boats went down with their loads before even reaching the sites, victims of the very navigation hazards the lighthouses were being built to warn of. One of the four was sunk by an ice flow and countless times materials were swept overboard.

Losses of this nature are not hard to imagine when one realizes that at the time there were no accessible harbors and no landings were possible except upon the unsheltered beaches of the lake.

Skilled workmen sat idle while waiting for building supplies, a situation all the more irritating to Brown since a premium wage was being paid just to induce these men to set foot on such remote sites. Due to a backlog of orders resulting from a massive U. S. Lighthouse building program, late delivery of the lighting apparatuses being manufactured in Paris, France, also kept workmen idle.

It quickly became apparent that the estimates of the cost involved had been grossly underestimated. The original contract price of 3,500 pounds for each tower spiraled skyward. By the spring of 1857, Brown had lost 1,500 pounds on each tower, and despite his considerable financial reserves, he was facing bankruptcy. In addition, an economic depression in 1857 made it unlikely that additional provincial funds would be appropriated. Brown had no choice but to petition the Governor General for funds to save him from ruinous loss. Brown realized the importance of the lighthouses and stated in his petition that he would do everything in his power to complete them, without profit to himself. Such was the great pride he took in his work. Apparently, he obtained the funding for he remained in business until his death in 1876.

Brown's exceptional craftsmanship

Both the dwellings and the towers are testament to Brown's unwavering standards. Only the best materials were used and the limestones was carefully chosen to be free from cracks that would let moisture penetrate. The keepers' houses, also constructed of limestone and given a slate roof, were completed first in order to provide shelter at each site.

For the towers, basement courses of rock reached a width of over seven feet. At ground level, the walls were fully six feet thick, tapering until they reached a thickness of two feet at the top where the walls flared into a projection to provide support for the outside gallery around the light. To accommodate the lighting apparatus and lantern room to be installed later, the interior diameter remained a constant 10' 6".

The craftmanship of the exterior stone work is exceptional. The exterior stone was squared, laid in even 19 inch courses and hammer faced. The interior stonework was carefully worked, squared, and in broken courses. One window was placed at interior landings, which were connected by straight flights of stairs. An arched entranceway provided a place for a fanlight over the door...a nice functional, as well as ornamental touch.

By the end of 1857, the stonework of the towers was more or less complete. Though basically identical, minor variations such as window placement were necessary to allow keepers to view approaching vessels.

The height of five of the towers, from their base to the center of the light, was 80 feet, with a variance occurring in the height of the light over the water because of terrain. The light at Christian Island was a bit shorter at 55 feet.

Each one had a distinctive light characteristic so it could be distinguished from the others. Until then, a temporary light consisting of a seaman's lantern suspended on a pole atop each tower was displayed.

All of the Imperial Towers were fitted with state-of-the-art Fresnel lenses, Argand lamps, and lantern rooms manufactured by the Louis Sautter Company of Paris, France. Prefabricated and dismantled for shipping, the equipment was reassembled atop the towers at each site by a crew of French technicians who accompanied the equipment all the way from France. Suffice to say, the delivery process was a long and arduous one.

Measuring 10 feet in height by 10 feet and 6 inches in diameter, the lantern rooms were made of cast iron, glass and a roof of copper alloys. The lantern rooms were very heavy as they had to be strong enough to surround and protect the delicate lenses as well as be unobstructive to the light produced.

Since the walls of a lighthouse are thinnest just below the lantern room, to support its immense weight these walls had to be constructed of granite rather than limestone. The origin of this machine-tooled granite remains an interesting mystery as the records that might have indicated its origin (as well as the origin of the design of the towers themselves) were long ago lost in a fire. It is possible that these courses of granite were also transported from France to ensure a proper fit for the lantern rooms atop each tower.

As an aside, the heat generated by the light within the lantern room and the cooler air outside created so much condensation on the glass that inside eavestroughs were built into the mullions at the base of each pane of glass to provide proper drainage. Another unique feature was the ornamental cast-bronze gutter spouts in the form of a lion's head which was used around the dome of the lantern room.

Point Clark, Chantry, Cove and Nottawasaga Islands all were outfitted with second order lenses. Griffith Island received a third order lens and the smaller tower on Christian Island received a fourth order lens. The equally immense weight of the lens and lighting apparatus was borne by the tower itself and an iron upper deck supported on "I" beams and early "T" rails.

The Imperial Towers Are Lit At Last

The final schedule of lighting:

Cove Island 10-30-1858

Nottawasaga Island 11-30-1858

Griffith Island 12-27-1858

Chantry Island 04-01-1859

Point Clark 04-01-1859

Christian Island 05-01-1859

With the lantern rooms, gallery railing and doors painted red and the towers whitewashed, the completed lighthouses made striking daymarks for daylight navigation as well.

For a struggling Canada West in the 1850's, the Imperial Towers carried a staggering price tag. The final cost came in at just under $223,000, an amount so prohibitive that none of their kind were ever built again on Lake Huron or Georgian Bay. By 1860 there were only ten Fresnel lenses in Canada West. Six of these were in the Imperial Towers while the other four were located in lighthouses on the St. Lawrence River.

The derivation of the label "Imperial Towers" and whether or not the word imperial should be spelled with an upper case or a lower case "i" remain two points over which some lighthouse historians like to quibble. Clearly, all six towers were built under Canadian authority. The imperial designation was sometimes crucial to new public construction since it meant that all material and construction costs would be assumed by Great Britain. The most likely explanation is that funds from Great Britain were necessary for their completion. Even today these lighthouses remain a sight to behold with nothing of comparable design on the United States side of the border. Given the grandeur of their appearance, they certainly deserve the "Imperial" label with an upper case "i".

And What of the Towers Today?

Built to last, last they have! All six remain active aids to navigation maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard. However, only Cove Island retains any navigational significance. The first light to be lit on Georgian Bay and the last one to have its keeper removed in 1991, Cove Island Light remains in top-notch condition. Most of its original buildings and equipment remain intact. It is the only tower to retain its original Fresnel lens. Lying within what is now Fathom Five National Marine Park, Cove Island Light remains the crown jewel of the six towers.

Point Clark, as a mainland site, remains directly accessible by automobile and has been well cared for. In 1967 it was the first lighthouse in the Ontario region to be declared a National Historic Site. The keeper's house has been restored and is open to the public as a museum with a modest admission fee. When staffing permits, the tower is also opened to the public.

Shorter than the others, Christian Island Light was the first tower to be finished, but the last to be lit. Today, it is the one in the most pitiful condition. The tower remains as sturdy as ever but the windows are boarded up and the original stairs removed. The lantern room was removed and cut up for scrap during World War II. The house is a ruin. Automated in 1922, today a pole-mounted white plastic light sits atop the lanternless tower.

At Chantry, Griffith and Nottawasaga Island, the towers remain in fairly good shape except for a lot of interior maintenance. The houses at all three sites are in ruins, victims of vandalism. In Southampton, a local initiative to stabilize vegetation on Chantry Island and restore the lighthouse site has taken root.

Want to Know More?

This article has dealt with a lot a of facts and figures about the Imperial Towers, but due to time and length constraint, has not covered the human factor at all...heroic keepers, daring rescues, triumph, tragedy...and ghost stories. the reader is directed to two Canadian publications by Lynx Images of Toronto: (1) Ghosts of the Bay, A Guide to the History of Georgian Bay and (2) Alone in the Night: Lighthouses of Georgian Bay, Manitoulia Island and the North Channel. Both publications were written by Andrea Gutshe, Barbara Chisholm and Russell Floren. Alone in the Night book and video are available from Lighthouse Depot.

This story appeared in the December 1996 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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