Lighthouse Story

“History of Cove Island Lighthouse”

Cove Island is the jewel of Georgian Bay lighthouses- perhaps of any on the Canadian Great Lakes. It has the distinction of being both the first lighttower to be lit on Georgian Bay in 1858, and the last to have its keeper removed in 1991. As such, it spans Georgian Bay’s entire lightkeeping history. Most of its original buildings still stand and it may be the only light left on Georgian Bay with a rotating Fresnel lens. Within this eighty-five-foot limestone tower lie the roots of this inland sea’s lighthouse beginnings.

Cove was the most remote of the six Imperial tower construction sites and the most difficult and expensive to build. The dwelling and first storey of the tower were in place by November of 1855 despite the lateness of the season and the stormy weather. In 1856, seven masons and stone cutters worked the limestone extracted from the island, while ten labourers, one blacksmith, and a foreman concentrated on the tower. One can still imagine the sounds of the scene: the tools shaping the stone ashlar, the shouts of workmen, the horse hooves and carts. Vestiges remain from this time: a set of initials and the year 1856 carved into one of the deep-set tower windows; an iron capstan embossed with the words ‘C. Yale, St. Catharines, C.W.’ [Canada West] lying half-hidden in the grass behind the boat-house, believed to have been used to haul construction materials ashore; and a collapsed lime kiln with a stand of cedar trees growing out its bowl-shaped centre. By October 1856 the tower had reached its full majestic height, although the cast-iron lantern room and Fresnel lens did not arrive from France for another two years.

Entering through the back kitchen, the interior of the original1856limestone dwelling seems haunted. Layer upon layer of tired wallpaper peels and curls away from mottled terra-cotta coloured walls. Creaking wooden stairs lead to the loft where the ceiling is no more than 5’6″ high. Keeper Bill Spears’ words are recalled: “it was mighty cold in the spring – it’s all stone. A long time to get it warm, get the bedding warm. And oh was it damp. You couldn’t keep wallpaper on the walls.” Downstairs, old books are strewn at the foot of the fireplace and stacked on the mantle­ each dusty copy bearing a yellowed Upper Canada Tract Society bookplate, ‘with a love of Books and with Books to read no man need be lonely.’

One of Cove’s institutions was keeper Bill Spears (1949-1976.) During his twenty-seven-year tenure, Cove Island was a communication hub for several Georgian Bay lights as it had a radio­ phone. On a regular daily schedule, Spears contacted other lights, exchanged weather and other information then transmitted this information to Wiarton. If a keeper did not answer two consecutive calls, it was assumed there was a problem, and someone was dispatched. Even a case of mumps was not allowed to interfere with these regular radio reports and so in 1954 the ill keeper found himself living and sleeping in the fog plant between the two diesel generator engines during a fourteen day period of continuous fog because his assistant was too inexperienced to run the equipment.

Spears loved the old fog alarm that delivered a deep resonating bellow which sometimes could be heard as far as Tobermory, six miles away: “when it got foggy we’d say, ‘better start up the old sergeant major!’ You could really feel the vibration once the old boomer got going.” When the fog horns were replaced by automated electric systems, (derogatorily referred to as “car horns”) the keepers were forbidden to touch them. Before the Coast Guard could do away with the keepers it had to prove that the automated system would work efficiently. Jack Kennedy, Superintendent of the lights, remembers the night Bill Spears could not take the puny sound any longer. After a few drinks he pulled the plug and started up the real fog horn, then just sat and listened to its reassuring grunt.

When the last keeper Jack Vaughan took over, the job was primarily one of caretaking the site. In 1991 he was taken off the light, bringing to a close the glorious era of lightkeeping on Georgian Bay and the Canadian Great Lakes.


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