How Ontario’s heritage lighthouses went up in smoke

The oldest surviving lighthouse on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence burned down in July — but on the American side, seven are still standing
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on September 11, 2018
Lighthouse on fire.
The Cole Shoal Lighthouse burns after being struck by lightning on July 23, 2018. (Darlene Burns)

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BROCKVILLE — On a clear but choppy Saturday morning on the St. Lawrence River, Mike Milne steps out of a boat and onto Cole Shoal, a few hundred metres from the Canadian shore. A lighthouse was erected on the shoal in 1856 and stood until July, when it was struck by lightning, caught fire, and burned to the ground.

Milne, whose family has owned a nearby cottage for almost 60 years, knows the terrain well. As a kid he would swim out to the lighthouse to play. Now, he removes his sandals and carefully walks across the moss-covered rocks and onto a platform where the lighthouse stood.

On the night of July 23, Milne was grabbing a snack in his kitchen when he heard a “tremendous” thunderclap, so close that he thought lightning had struck the cottage. “It was just one bolt of lightning, and one only,” says Milne. Minutes later, flames had engulfed the lighthouse. Milne, his neighbours, and some local firefighters were unable to reach the shoal in time; they were left to watch the structure burn all night. By morning, the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence was lost.

The Cole Shoal lighthouse — also known as Five Mile Light, after its distance from Brockville’s city hall —  was built in 1856. Though it was decommissioned in 1927, it continued to act as a daytime navigational aid for locals and cottagers in the following decades — and serve as a reminder of the St. Lawrence’s heyday as a thriving transportation corridor.

The lighthouse was one of nine on the Canadian side of the river. All were constructed in 1856. Mary-Alice Snetsinger, a local amateur historian, says the others are long gone and forgotten. The Gananoque Narrows lighthouse fell victim to a lightning strike in 1967. That same summer, the Red Horse Rock lighthouse and at least one other were torn down by the Canadian Coast Guard in order to “beautify the river” for the Centennial. Weather was likely a factor in the demise of the other Canadian lighthouses.

Snetsinger says she’s not surprised that the Cole Shoal lighthouse was lost: its destruction is emblematic of Canadians’ laissez-faire approach to preserving their maritime heritage. The seven lighthouses on the American side of the St. Lawrence, conversely, are still standing.

Those lighthouses were also constructed during the mid-19th century, a period of growth in commercial, tourist, and fishing activity on the St. Lawrence. Tibbett’s Point lighthouse, built in 1827 near Cape Vincent, New York, is the oldest of the Thousand Islands lighthouses. At least one of the American structures is open to the public: the New York parks department made the Rock Island lighthouse a tourist attraction in 2013.

Snetsinger, who used to work for Thousand Islands National Park, says building materials were a factor in the destruction of the Canadian lighthouses: the colonial authorities used wood, whereas the Americans preferred stone and iron.

But she notes that the U.S. also has a stronger tradition of celebrating and protecting its lighthouses. In 2000, Congress passed a law to protect lighthouses. It provides a mechanism for transferring federally owned lighthouses into the stewardship of community organizations and other non-profits.

Canada passed the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act eight years later. It prevents historic lighthouses from being altered or demolished. The minister of the environment, on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, has designated 97 of Canada’s roughly 750 lighthouses for protection since the law came into effect. At the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ discretion, protected lighthouses can be sold or transferred to other levels of government, to community groups, or to individuals who commit to preserving their heritage.

What Canadian law doesn’t do, however, is guarantee funding to maintain lighthouses that are no longer operational. There are about 500 such structures across the country, and Canada has few groups with the resources to adopt them. Critics say the legislation leaves heritage structures at the mercy of the elements. Joe Flemming, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, says the law is “good in theory, but it could use more teeth.”

“It doesn’t really offer any tangible mandate to preserve or restore the structures,” he says. Moreover, “if the weather or natural occurrences place a structure in disrepair” — as happened at Cole Shoal — “there’s no obligation to reverse the process.”

The Cole Shoal lighthouse was adopted decades ago: the Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, acquired it in 1972. The trust has provided regular maintenance to the lighthouse in the years since, including a $15,000 upgrade in 2001.

Representatives from the trust were scheduled to visit the lighthouse the very week it burned down, to assess the need for further repairs and maintenance. Had they intervened earlier, could a lightning strike have been prevented? Probably not, according to Wayne Kelly, director of heritage programs and operations for the Ontario Heritage Trust. “This was an act of nature,” he says. “And on a rocky shoal, it’s difficult to go to ground, so the lighthouse posed an exceptional challenge for the use of a traditional lightning rod.”

A local group has assembled to try to create a replica of the destroyed lighthouse. The Re-Build Five Mile Light committee is hoping to raise $50,000 through an online fundraising campaign. Bob Runciman, a former senator and MPP, serves as chair.

Even if it succeeds in raising enough funds to rebuild, however, the committee will be on its own: the Ontario Heritage Trust doesn’t take part in building replicas, Kelly says, because it would go against prevailing practices in heritage preservation.

“What made that site have value is all but gone,” he says. “There is very little left to conserve for us, unfortunately.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Ontario Heritage Trust had not undertaken preventative maintenance on the Coal Shoal Lighthouse since 2001. In fact, the trust had regularly maintained the lighthouse until its destruction. TVO.org regrets the error.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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