Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2005

The Lights are Out and No One Is There

Keepers and crew disappear

By Larry Wright


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The Lambton underway in the choppy waters of Lake ...

The life of a lighthouse keeper was very lonely and sometimes mundane but even worse was the life of a crewmember of a lighthouse tender. He was just a supply vessel worker who spent most of his time on the open water delivering supplies to light-stations and doing maintenance work on aids to navigation. One of the few joys they had was seeing the smiling faces of the light keeper and his families when they arrived at the light-stations with news from the outside and much needed supplies. Often as well as trading stories they would trade supplies like fresh vegetables for fresh fish, berries and home baking and even sometimes libations. But beyond that they spent most of their time riding the waves and doing maintenance to the aids.

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The Lambton in the snow and ice.

The following is the tragic story of the C.G.S. Lambton, its crew and five Canadian Lake Superior light keepers.

The early part of the 1900's was a treacherous time if you were a lighthouse keeper at a Canadian light on the Great Lakes. As a light keeper you not only received poor pay but you were required to supply most of your own provisions. Worst of all the Canadian government had decided in 1915 that lighthouse keepers were responsible for making their own way to their station for the opening of the navigation season and even more grievous, you had to make your way home from your station at the end of the shipping season which usually was after December 15th or a “freeze-up”. If “freeze-up” occurred before the scheduled end of the season that was unfortunate and as a keeper you had few options.

1. You could stay at the lighthouse for the winter, which was neither desired by the keeper or the government because it usually met with fatal results.

2. You could wait for a complete freeze over of the open water and walk to the coast.

3. You could try to make for the mainland fighting your way through shifting ice, freezing temperatures, snow or ice storms, high seas and strong north winds and pray that you made it to safety.

All three options were a gamble and often ended in tragedy, which is what happened with William Sherlock, keeper at Michipicoten Island East End Light, who almost lost his life in December of 1916 while removing himself and his son from the island to the mainland. However, in 1917 he was not so lucky. He lost his life trying to get to the mainland in December of that year.

The same fate met Otter Island light keeper, Robert McMenemy, who was found dead leaning against a tree on the east shore of Lake Superior in 1918.

After the these tragedies and other near misses a strong letter writing campaign began from the keepers and their families insisting that the Coast Guard make an effort to get the keepers and their assistants (who usually were a member of their family) to their posts in the spring and home again at the end of the shipping season. One of the main instigators was George Johnston, the keeper at Caribou Island (who eventually was promoted to foghorn inspector). He and his assistant were stranded on Caribou Island in 1919 until Christmas day because of severe weather.

The Government finally relented and started to use the tenders Grenville and Lambton on the upper lakes to take the keepers to

their postings.

Johnston wrote in a report at the end of the 1921 season that the Lambton was not a safe boat for Lake Superior in December. However his observations were ignored and the government continued to use the Lambton on the big waters.

The Lambton, a sturdy little buoy tender, was built in the shipyards at Sorel in 1909. It was 108 feet (33.23 metres) long with beam of 25 feet (7.69 m) and a draft of 13 feet (4 m). It had a 90 NHP and was triple steam driven with a tonnage of 323 tons.

The Lambton left Sault Ste Marie around 10:30 am on April 18th, 1922 with a pair of Playfair boats from Midland (the Glennfinnan and the Glenlivet). Its passenger list was small but vitally important to shipping on Lake Superior, for the manifest read; George Penfold - keeper at Caribou Island, John Douglas - keeper at Ile Parisienne, John Kay - asst. keeper Ile Parisienne, Malcolm Easton - assistant keeper at Caribou Island, William D. Reid - keeper at Michipicoten Harbour.

When the Lambton entered Whitefish Bay it was reported that there were heavy gales sweeping the upper lakes. The three ships were encountering heavy ice in the bay. The Soo Star reported that there was heavy weather on the 19th but all vessels are safe. In fact, on the 18th, traffic was halted through the locks at the Soo because high west winds pilled ice up and had broken up pulp log booms and sent them adrift in the area of the locks and rapids. On the 19th the steamer Yorkton ran aground in the bay but worked free and returned to the Soo. The Lambton and the two Playfair boats struggled through the ice together past Parisienne Island. It was reported by the captain of the Glenfinnan that his ship became bogged down and the Lambton came to his assistance. When the Lambton came to help there was a collision between the two but no damaged occurred. The captain also stated that before the Lambton cleared the ice floes, she broke her steering gear but it was not a result of the collision. The Lambton rigged steering with 1" lines, enabling her to proceed with the other two. The Playfair boats were ordered to stay together and one of them having broken a steering of her own decided that they needed to return to the Soo. They just managed to get back to the safety of the bay when the storm broke. The Lambton had pressed on.

The storm was strong out of the northeast all day on the 19th. On the 20th the winds were fresh from the north and diminishing by evening. But by that time the damage had been done. The little Lambton was unaccounted for. It had been spotted by the Glenlivet about 40 miles (64 km) above Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, the 19th with steering gear disabled. On the 20th the steamer Franz had reported that they had seen the light on at Caribou and that there was a fire on the beach. This gave hope that the Lambton had made some of its destination points. The Westmount had reported no light on Caribou on the 21st. The report came in that the Lambton had not been to Michipicoten Harbour.

Concern for the Lambton had been raised by weeks end and Mr. G. W. Johnston, Inspector of Fog Alarms, was able to contact the Superintendent of Lights, Mr. Arthur, on the 23rd. Immediately he tried to contact the Commissioner of Lights and the Assistant Deputy Minister for permission to start a search. The tug G. R. Gray was commissioned to start a search and to take a complement of men to be temporary keepers if needed.

As the tug left the St Mary's River and proceeded on course for Ile Parisienne the captain knew that there had been no channel broken threw the ice. He figured that because the ice was so heavy, Captain Alexander Brown of the Lambton decided not to attempt to put the keeper, John Douglas and his assistant John Kay ashore and that he had pressed on and would drop them off on his down bound trip.

The Gray then proceeded to Michipicoten Harbour along the east shore keeping a constant vigil for any signs of the Lambton. After arranging for a temporary keeper for Michipicoten, they loaded supplies and also arranged for a temporary assistant keeper for Caribou. Then they set off. The tug arrived at the little island off of the main island of Caribou and immediately put the temporary keeper, George Marshal, his assistant and a crew of five men ashore to start a search. Four of the men set out on foot to search the shores of both islands and one man set out in a rowboat. There was no one there. The lights were out and had not been lit that year.

The search continued with reports of wreckage coming in from the American patrol boat, the Cook, which had picked up some wreckage. The steamers Grant Morden and the Collingwood reported wreckage from 14 to 21 miles from Crisp Point. The steamer Glenbrae reported considerable wreckage 15 miles north of Caribou Island. Wreckage seemed to be scattered for 40 miles but the winds had changed a fair bit so it may be possible that it was all the wreckage of the Lambton.

The government officials concluded that the Lambton had been lost sometime in late afternoon of the 19th while trying to head for the shelter of the north shore to be protected from the northeast gale. It was also concluded that she had been lost between Caribou Island and Gargantua with all 16 hands and 5 lighthouse keepers.

So the life of a crewmember of a light tender and the life of a keeper are not as wearisome as at first thought. In fact, in many cases of the early years it was often very frightening and more dangerous than believed.

As complied by Larry Wright from the Sault St. Marie Star April 1922 and the Office of the Superintendent of Lighthouses,

Parry Sound May 1922.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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