Lighthouse Story

“Lighthouse Keepers at Big Tub”

The beautiful hexagonal tower on Lighthouse Point at Big Tub Harbour was erected in 1885, four years after Charles Earl was first paid $100 a year to hang a lantern at the same spot. For years he had feuded with a neighbour, Abraham Davis, and their Abbott and Costello-style attacks on each other set the scene for the first of many sideshows that would bedevil the Department of Marine and Fisheries over a thirty-year period. Finally, in 1885, Davis won out when he was appointed lightkeeper at the new Big Tub Tower. Ten years later, his tenure ended abruptly and unhappily.

One night Davis left the lighthouse for the scene of the wrecked vessels Owen Sound and Worts in a small skiff. He told his wife he would be back by 3am but he did not return.

Before the Department was even aware the position was vacant, Thomas Vail of Owen Sound wrote:

“Dear Sir,
… as i am informed that the Lite-House at tubaramarrie gorgania bay is vakent and if is is vakent I would like to get it at the same salary as desease if a reckamend is required I can give that from Owen Sounds most respected sitisend I have always been use to the watter hoping to hear from you soon I remain your truly Thos Vail”

Two days later, Alex McNeill, local Member of Parliament recommended that Mr. Davis’ son Henry be appointed as lightkeeper.

The Department wasted no time in hiring Henry as keeper at $130 per annum but before the ink was dry, his mother Flora applied for the same position. She implored that she had a great deal of experience, and was supported by a petition signed by mariners, shipmasters, farmers, engineers, and even a minister. The Department replied that it was against regulations to place women in such positions and Henry Davis took on the role of lightkeeper.

In 1898, a local official added a new twist to the story. He accused Henry of farming out the work of lightkeeper. Dutifully, the Department enquired of Davis whether the allegations were true. At first he denied the allegations stating in a letter that he was never more than “30 minets” away from the light. But, a few days later he made an about-face. He resigned from the position and recommended Henry Martin be his replacement.

The Deputy Minister rolled his eyes and turned his attention to more pressing matters. Clearly he did not intend to take any action. Two years later the Superintendent of lighthouses, P. Harty, wrote after an inspection of Big Tub that Davis was absent and Martin was in charge. Martin said that the keeper paid no attention to the light but employed him to attend it, giving him 9 months of the wage and retaining three for himself.

The Department resigned itself to the need to replace Davis. Their only qualification was that he be “…able to read and write.” The salary would remain at $130 per annum.

Daniel Butchart was the successful candidate this time but in the summer of 1902, Superintendent Harty inspected the station again and found that Butchart hadn’t been there once since his appointment. The light had continued to be maintained by Henry martin. Butchart’s argument was that the salary was not enough to survive on so he had to fish. The Superintendent agrees that conditions at the light were not good. The assistant keeper was living in a small house formerly used as a cow shed. He recommended an increase in salary to an unprecedented $250 for a reliable man. He argued that the light was an important one with its harbour being one of the best refuges on the Great Lakes. Archibald Currie was hired and instructed not to absent himself from the light.

Even thought in 1907 the Department received notice that Currie did not live at the new house provided by the government no action was taken, in keeping with long established departmental procedures.

In July 1910 Superintendent Harty visited Big Tub to deliver supplies and found Currie to be absent. He had to fetch a key for the lighthouse in town. Currie was subsequently dismissed and replaced with John H. Smith, a Baptist fisherman from St. Catharines.

In 1926, after keeping the light “in first class order” for many years, 80 year old Smith asked to be replaced as he was too ill to look after the light. T.A. Hopkins, a veteran of the Great War was appointed part-timekeeper and remained on duty until the light was automated in 1852.

Tobermory’s unusual hexagonal light still stands, warning of the small islands, rock outcroppings and shoals as well as welcoming mariners into the shelter of Big Tub. Friends of Fathom Five and the Township of St. Edmunds have made the site accessible by clearing a pathway.

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