The old Scotch Bonnet Lighthouse in Ontario, Canada, off the western shore of the Quinte Peninsula in Lake Ontario, will have its 150th birthday in 2006. But it’s doubtful anyone will celebrate or even take any notice of the occasion. This is a lighthouse that’s far beyond any hope of restoration. Its ghostly shell serves to remind us of what can happen when historic structures are abandoned.
Legend has it that little Scotch Bonnet Island, about a mile southwest of the much larger Nicholson Island, got its name from a homesick Scottish sailor. The low-lying rocky isle’s shape apparently reminded him of the tam-o’shanters back home. The lighthouse was built on the island in 1856 to guide the local shipping traffic, including passenger steamers and schooners carrying grain from nearby Cobourg and Wellington.
Local limestone from the mainland was used to build the
54-foot conical tower and an attached keeper’s dwelling.
A seawall was added in an effort to protect the island and its residents. The island is a maximum of about two acres at low tide and is practically awash in storms. The light’s first keeper was John Giroux, who remained for a dozen years. John Pye, a blacksmith and a farmer became keeper in 1878.
The station was only operated seasonally and was closed in the harshest winter months, but this was still a brutal place to be a keeper. It was reported during Pye’s 20-year stay that, during a particularly rough season, he went through 11 lamps, 77 wicks and 120 gallons of oil. The high amount of materials consumed was the result of storms that repeatedly broke the lantern glass.
Some sources say Pye remained keeper until 1898, but a 1981 article in Country Magazine describes a family named Clark on the island in the 1880s. The Clark’s daughter, Alice, spent her school vacations on the island until she was about 14 years old, helping to polish the lens and to “light up” at sunset. According to the article, Mrs. Clark had a small vegetable and flower garden, using every bit of the island’s limited soil.
In 1909, the light was converted to acetylene gas operation. Three years later, the light was made automatic and the last keeper was removed. An automatic light on a steel skeletal tower was erected on the island in 1959 and the old lighthouse quickly fell into ruin.
Reportedly, Canadian Coast Guard personnel tried to destroy the lighthouse by pulling it over after its days as a navigational aid were over. But the sturdy stone tower resisted and the job was left unfinished. The elements have been slowly completing the demolition in the years since. The island and its ghostly ruins are populated now by nesting cormorants and human visitors are few and far between.
Thanks to the Prince Edward County Archives, the Archives and Collections Society, Ruth Lewis and Michel Forand for providing information for this article.
This story appeared in the
December 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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