Lighthouse Story

“Cove Island: A Father’s Choice”

It was December 7, 1860. Keeper David McBeath was pacing the shoreline transfixed by the 20- foot sailboat rocking in the heavy swells. The night before he had made his decision – he and his family must leave Cove Island. The sharp crunch of the snow under his feet was nearly lost under the sound of the waves crashing against the frozen shore. Dense clouds rushed over the horizon pushed by biting winds. He turned at the sound of his children’s voices and looked back at the house.

On the front stoop, his wife, Mary Jane, was holding the baby and wrapping a scarf around young Margaret. Their other five children huddled around their mother’s skirt. They were subdued. David and Mary Jane had rationed their food for weeks. Now only dirt was left on the root cellar floor. The urgent letter sent by ship a month ago had been ignored by the Department of Public Works. Twice he had sailed into the shipping lane to flag down other ships. No response. He was desperate for food and supplies for his large family. Winter had them in its clutches, and they would soon be made prisoners by the encroaching ice.

The children began to walk down the path; the youngest moving stiffly under layers of heavy clothing. Turning away from their bright faces McBeath scanned the churning water beyond Flower Pot Island and then began arranging the sail. It was sixty miles to Lion’s Head with only a sail and oar to get them there. Was it the right decision?

What McBeath didn’t know…

The Ontonagan had arrived at Collingwood December 1 and immediately passed McBeath’s desperate message to the collector of customs, John McWatt.

McWatt sent a telegram to the headquarters of the Department of Public Works in Quebec City:

“the lighthouse-keeper Isle of Coves has no supplies for Winter – himself and family will starve. Shall the Rescue take his supplies – No other boat going there”.

When the Hunter arrived in port, it too passed on McBeathe’s message. As telegrams fired back and forth between officials, McBeath’s usual supplier took it upon himself to convince a fishing schooner to make the delivery. But the customs officer, McWatt had picked a different boat, the steamer Rescue. All captains in the harbour agreed with this choice – no other could do it. There was one problem – the Rescue had not yet returned from the Sault.

There was an anxious buzz among the sailors. The harbour was freezing and many ships, including the American Ontonagan were already ice-bound. Then the schooner loaded with McBeath’s provisions became frozen in and her captain demanded that McWatt pay for the freight. The customs collector refused as he had never requested the schooner take the provisions in the first place. Tension mounted. If the Rescue did not soon arrive he, McWatt, would have the death of the McBeath family on his head.

Nearly a week had passed since the Ontonagon first delivered word from McBeath. Finally the steamer Rescue was spotted pushing her way through heavy seas. No doubt her Captain was relieved to have reached port safely. He could not have been pleased when McWatt related the dire situation on the Isle of Coves. It was storming, his insurance was cut off, and the lake was beginning to freeze. Nevertheless Captain James Dick agreed. He spent a full day loading fuel, and then set off with his brother, Thomas Dick, another experienced lake captain. On their arrival, the final report states, the McBeath family “were found about to commit themselves to the Lake upon a very insecure Raft, in the midst of the Storm.” The Rescue battled back to Collingwood and was safely laid up for the winter.

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