Lighthouse Story

“History of Point Clark Lighthouse”

In 1855, the Imperial Government decided that it was necessary to install a permanent light station, or lighthouse at Point Clark. Point Clark was chosen for a lighthouse because of the shoal about 2 miles off the point (a shoal is a group of rocks or a sandbar under shallow water). During the early 1820’s and 1830’s there was an increase in traffic to northern Lake Huron and Lake Superior. To ensure the safety of sailors, passengers, and the cargoes of the large number of ships going by, the lighthouse was built to warn sailors of the dangerous shoal just off shore.

Before the current Lighthouse was built, a seaman’s lantern was hung on a branch of a pine tree near the beach. The seaman’s lantern was used by sailors to help them locate the point, and therefore, warn them of the shoal. This also gave Point Clark its original name, Pine Point. (The new name Point Clark came from the people who settled the land above the hill who came from Clark Township near Toronto.)

For the construction of the lighthouse, the Imperial Government hired contractor John Brown from Thorold, Ontario. Construction started on the lighthouse in 1857 and was completed in 1859. The walls are made of two layers of limestone, one on the inside and one on the outside. The space between the two layers is filled with rubble. The limestone used was of the best quality available at the time. It was brought by scows (large flat bottomed boats) from a quarry just north of Inverhuron ( which is roughly 35 miles north of here). It is also said that some of the limestone may have come from as far away as Kingston, which is roughly 6 hours away from here by car. The limestone used is called Dolomite or Manitoba limestone. Similar limestone was also used to build the Canadian National Parliament buildings in Ottawa.

Here at the base of the lighthouse, the walls are 5 feet thick and as we climb to the top, the walls taper to roughly 2 feet thick at the balcony. The stone part of the tower was completed in 1858. The stonework of the lighthouse stands 87 feet tall. To serve as a temporary light, another seaman’s lantern was hung from a pole attached to the top of the stone work.

The pieces of wood on the floor are actually covering a trap door. This trapdoor led down into a small crawl space or basement underneath the lighthouse. We believe that the crawlspace was used as storage space for the drums that contained oil which was used to fuel the light at the top.

Lighthouse Stairs

The stairs you climbed are similar to the original stairs. Over the years, many of the stairs have been replaced and the railings were added for safety in the early 1990’s. Contrary to common belief, there was never a spiraling staircase here in the lighthouse. This meant that the lighthouse keepers brought up the coal oil used to fuel the light by buckets. He had to fill the buckets from the oil drum kept at the bottom and then carry the buckets up all the stairs. Obviously, the lighthouse keepers had to be in some degree of fitness.

If you look closely at the walls you will notice differences from the walls at the bottom of the tower. That is because the top story and a half of the lighthouse is not made of limestone, but of a ring of granite. The granite was used to support the immense weight of the iron lantern room and the original lens. The lantern room above us was the last part of the lighthouse to be completed. In September 1858, six Frenchmen came to Point Clark and brought with them the material for building the lantern room and the Fresnel (or Dioptric) light. It took the men a year to complete the lantern room and to install the light. On April 1st 1859 the Point Clark Lighthouse was lit and came into service. The Fresnel light, manufactured in Paris, was a second order lens because the light needed to be seen roughly 15 miles out into the lake. It was a white light that revolved and flashed every 30 seconds.

The Light

This light was mechanically run, so it worked much like a grandfather clock, using a system of weights and pulleys. If you noticed on the way up, there were series of wooden boards covering up the old pulley shaft that went through every level in the lighthouse. Weights would have descended through that shaft to keep the lens turning. The pulley you see on the floor was part of that system. However, because the lens revolved as a result of a clockwork system, the lens had to be wound. The entire system was wound once at dusk and then again at 2a.m. In addition to winding the lens at night, the lighthouse keeper also had to keep the rest of the lighthouse in good working order. His other duties included cleaning and whitewashing the lighthouse, polishing and oiling the gears and cleaning the lens (everyday). On stormy nights, the lighthouse keeper had to spend the entire night in the tower, to ensure that the light did not go out. It was very important that the lighthouse keeper kept the light in perfect working order and his daily duties reflected this importance.

Lighthouse Keepers

The position of lighthouse keepers was a coveted government appointment. It was often coveted by locals because there was security and a pension associated with the position. Early in the era of lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the position of lighthouse keepers came as a result of political ties. The federal government appointed the lighthouse keepers, and when a new party came into power, the lighthouse keeper could potentially be replaced. For example the third lighthouse keepers, Mr. John Rae had strong Tory (Conservative) ties and the lighthouse keeper that followed him, Mr. Murdoch MacDonald was a devote Liberal. Later, after the World Wars, the position of lighthouse keeper was reserved for veterans such as Mr. John Ruttle and Mr. John C. Campbell. It is also worthy to note that lighthouse keepers were not well paid compared to their American counterparts. We know that the first lighthouse keeper, Mr. John Young was given a pension of $19.25 after his 20 plus years of service at this lighthouse ended. Also, Mr. Elmer MacKenzie, who was hired after the light was automated in 1963, was paid $75 for a year of service.

The buzzing noise that you can hear above us is the automatic light. The first attempt to automate the lighthouse occurred in 1924. The automatic light lasted for 2 years (to 1926) until Captains and sailors going past complained about the poor reliability and quality of the light. The light was removed and the Fresnel lens was reinstalled. In 1963 the light was automated once again and is still unmanned to this day.

 

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