Lighthouse Story

“History of Cabot Head Lighthouse”

It took years of shipping disasters before the authorities acknowledged that this treacherous stretch of the Bruce Peninsula warranted a lighthouse. Ships entering Georgian Bay headed for ports south of Parry Sound, did so at their peril. Cabot Head, the promontory around which they had to sail, was chosen for a lighthouse and a steam fog alarm. Because of their importance, the Department made a major investment of about $7,500 in the buildings and equipment, even duplicating the fog alarm boilers and machinery in case of breakdown.

On May 18, 1896, the lighthouse went into operation. The light also marked Wingfield Basin, the entrance of which was dredged a few years later to provide a safe harbour on this cliff-lined coast.
After the fog plant was destroyed by fire in August 1907, a new fog alarm building was erected containing diaphone fog horns activated by compressed air. They were extremely effective according to Kim Hopkins who remembers fishing on foggy days just off the point and being deafened by the blast. Like other fog plants, the building had two large doors facing the water facilitating movement of equipment and supplies. The supply ship would anchor a half mile off-shore, and men would ferry the coal or other supplies on a work barge. At the back of the building was a bed-sitting room and verandah for the comfort of the watch on a foggy night.

Except for the Meneray fishery and the sawmill at nearby Wingfield Basin, the lighthouse was initially very isolated. Until a wagon trail was cut through the woods north of Gillies Lake, the only way in was by boat. The first voice contact came in 1915 when a temperamental phone line was strung from tree to tree between Gillies Lake and Cabot Head.

After World War I, lightkeeping positions were reserved for war veterans, and Howard Boyle was the lucky applicant. He held the position for an impressive twenty-five years. Boyle and his wife had a vegetable garden and kept pigs, chickens and a cow. But his greatest pleasure was in beautifying the grounds with lilac trees, stone walls and flowers – a legacy that survives today.

In 1951 Boyle was succeeded by Harry Hopkins who held the post for thirty-one years! In the beginning Harry’s wife Ruby, had a wood cook stove but no running water. A wire angled down from the top of the cliff into the water along which she slid a pail and then pulled it back up with a rope. With Harry working the usual six hours on, six off routine of a lightkeeper, much of the work of raising their nine children (Ken, Karen, Carl, Klyde, Kelly, Kim, Keith, Kris, and Candace Marie) was hers. But when Ruby stayed in Tobermory with the school-age children during the winter, Harry took over responsibility for the younger ones, in addition to tending the light and fog horn and finding time to bake homemade bread.

Occasionally an event occurred to break the routine. One foggy night about three in the morning, the Hopkins’ were awakened by someone hollering. A man in a small outboard wanted to know where he was. Harry went down, guided him into shore and then pointed him toward the shelter of Wingfield Basin. It turned out the boater had only a road map and a couple of chocolate bars on board. Ruby remembers Harry was so mad he almost regretted helping the stranger. Only idiots went on the water without survival rations. For Harry that meant at least a basket with pork and beans, sardines and an onion.

The Hopkins era oversaw many changes. The oil house, blacksmith’s shed and fog alarm building were torn down, and Hurricane Hazel made short work of the boathouse and dock, tossing huge boulders up onto the marine railway. In the mid-1960s a road was built, linking the light to Dyer’s Bay, and in 1971, electricity arrived. However welcome it might have been, electricity was responsible for hastening the end of lightkeeping. An auto­ mated skeleton tower was built and the original tower removed from the house. The last keeper, Brent Skippen, stayed until 1988 to maintain the equipment and care for the site. When he left, the station was abandoned.

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