Lightkeeper’s Cottage and The Tower
… continued from Part 1
Duncan McGregor Lambert took on the post of first official light-keeper at Chantry Island in 1858 and moved here with family. Lamberts cultivated the island, developed pasture for the dairy cow, plantated fruit trees, herbs and vegetable garden. The light-keeper’s dwelling, other living quarters and storage sheds were built. No wonder, this was declared as best kept station on the Great Lakes in the Superintendent of Lights annual inspection report for the year 1878. “How did they manage all this?”, was the question from one of us tourists, standing outside the lightkeeper’s cottage. Helen had a befitting answer, “They had kids!”
A Peek into Lightkeeper’s Life
My readers would remember Helen, our “storytelling guide” from the previous post on Chantry Island. A little over 30 minutes into the tour, we were now visiting the Light-keepers’ Cottage, a one and a half storey structure built with limestone blocks, having a stale roof that was painted grey. On ground floor, there were three rooms, a large living room combined with kitchen that also had a fireplace. On to a side, was this dining table ornate with relics donated by the community. The interior truly represented the light-keeper’s life, frozen in time, carefully preserved. All around us, beside that fireplace in the living room, the sitting room on the eastern side and the master bedroom towards north, there was history spanning more than a century of light-keeping. The exterior of the cottage was as remarkably restored as the interior, and we shall talk more about the restoration project a little later in this post. A door from living area opened to the sitting room. On a wall that faced us was this ‘Roll of Honour’, hand drawn sketches of all the light-keepers who served on Chantry Island. Sitting room also showcased the collectibles kept by various lightkeepers on the island in varying times. Master bedroom was accessed through the living room towards west. It had a bed-set and a dressing table and other bedroom accessories. On the 1/2 floor above, that typically appeared an attic, were children bedrooms. The cottage had a cellar, that was most likely used as storage, but had another purpose; it also served as a refrigerator. There was a rock protruding out of the cellar floor, icy cold. Helen told us that the rock, icy cold twenty four seven, has always been there, from the times documented and not documented alike, and was utilized as a refrigeration utility in the household. There were different theories for this ice stone, the one that sounded more logical was about this stone being a centuries old glaciated rock that stayed here after the icy waters receded. Away from the theories surrounding the past, in that moment of present, we all had our turns to verify the icy chill through ‘the physical touch’.
Outside the cottage was this immaculately kept, kitchen cum backyard garden. Duncan Lambert, the first lighthouse keeper was an organized person who set high standards for his successors to follow. He had kept a Lightkeeper’s Log and regularly recorded entries. The entries that survive from Lambert’s logbook give us a snapshot of the life on island and the lightkeeping responsibilities. An excerpt from the logbook entries in 1880 tells us about the movement of Labmert’s family to and from the island, logistical and functional arrangemenents in discharge of his duties and more. A photo of the original page kept by Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre can be accessed here.
|March 31-||Louisa, Frank, Kate and myself, William, came over to the Island to get the malps ready to light.|
|April 3-||Light the lamps|
|May 5-||Moved my family over to Chantry Island|
|May 8-||Brought cow over in the scow.|
|July 22-||Prop. Arcadia came with Light-house supplies.|
|Nov 8-||Took cow over for the winter.|
|Nov 25||Moved my family over to Southampton for the winter.|
|Dec 5-||Put out the lights for the season. Frank and I went ashore.|
Money received from parties for seeing Light-house for the year 1880- $12.20 (Twelve dollars and twenty cents.)
Climbing the Tower and the Lantern Room
Standing in the garden of lightkeeper’s cottage, we catched the glimpse of our beloved tower in almost immdediate vicinity. That majestic edifice wearing a sobre limestone white, topped by a bright red lantern in aesthetic contrast. And then, dear reader, came the moment of truth, the time to climb the 115 stairs all the way up to the top. A 105 steep-sloped wooden steps flight through the seven levels of the tower followed by another 10 steps of iron ladder upto the lantern room was a mini endurance test. Our worthy prize; the view from the top, from inside the sun-lit glass panes of the lantern room that resembled a 12 sided prism, and a technically sound company of Peter. Peter was the safety officer onboard Peerless who transformed to be a tour guide the moment we set foot on the island. Peter was a ‘transformer’, in literal meaning of the phrase; a keen saftey officer while on board and a knowledgeable tour guide on the island. He knew his product, the lighthouse tower, in detail. Peter greeted us, the subgroup of three, at ground level beside the wooden door leading into the tower. Our soon to follow incline was inside a uniform cylinderical space that was a little over 10 feet in diameter. As we ascended inside this vertical cylinder, and I did that with some excitement, the wooden steps creeked under my feet, a familiar noise from a distant yet neighbouring time capsule knocking my eardrums. I could hear him, Duncan Lambert, toiling his way up to the lantern room, carrying the stock to light the tower. It smelled kerosene, and that raw milk odour of sperm whale oil; the burning lamp in the lightkeeper’s hand flickering in the wind that trickled in through an open window on third floor, or maybe fourth. I felt that swaying of sea breeze on my face, and it carried that sour taste from rough seas and the seamen in the distance, battling the high waves in their tiny and big schooners. Soon I would light the lamp on the tower and that beacon would connect me with them instantly, my mates of the sea, afloat the shiny dark waters of the mightiest of the lakes.
Immense, bright lake! I trace in thee
An emblem of the mighty ocean,
And in thy restless waves I see
Nature’s eternal law of motion;
And fancy sees the Huron Chief
Of the dim past kneel to implore thee—
Peter’s voice brought us back to present who announced that we were on the very top floor, ready to take the flight of steps to the lantern room. The copper dome topping a solid iron structure that housed the priced possessions, the lamp and the lens. All of it, dear reader was state of the art equipment that demanded equally special arrangement to assemble and install this apparatus.
Construction blueprint at Chantry Island Lighthouse and other imperial towers was dolomite limestone. The tower has it’s foundation deep into the bedrock and it’s fouundation walls are said to be 7 feet thick. On ground level the walls are 6 feet in thickness that get tapered to 2 feet as we ascend to the top. The limestone was topped with granite for added strength, and this arrangement was to support and house the heavy lantern and the fresnel lens. Both the lantern and the lens, dear reader, were state of the art equipments of their times. Manufactured by Louis Sautter Company of France, the equipment was shipped alongwith a team of French technicians for its assembly and installation. Such a delicate and specialized equipment was worthy of being installed in an ‘imperial tower’. These lanterns were built in limited numbers and catalogued with each lantern bearing the custom serial number imprinted on its base. The equipment serial number of our lantern at Chantry Island was 788, and it was proudly indicated by Peter, highlighting Chantry Island being among the limited and (understandably) priviledged recipients. The iron lantern is a 12 sided prism, that has 36 window panes, 3 windows on each prism face. Made of cast iron, the lantern is painted red, and is topped by a copper dome. The fresnel lens was also a novel invention in those times for a lighthouse lamp. A second order fresnel lens was installed at Chantry Island tower, that gave its steady light a visibility of around 28 kilometers. A variety of lighting fuel was used in the lamp, the earliest being the sperm whale oil. Colza oil, kerosene and acetylene were used at varying times. The light eventually got automated with electricity in 1954 abolishing the post of lighthouse keeper with it. In the days of burning fuel, combustion fumes and water vapour was a major issue. Ventilation was porvided through the traditional trap ball on top of copper dome. Additionally there was a trap door in the lantern and a glass chimney was provided. In winters these fumes condensed to produce a considerable volume of water vapour. On the top brim of iron lantern, beside the glass panes, Peter showed us brass lion-heads, an imperial architectural symbol. These were the sprouts to spew water away from iron lantern. On the inner side, eavestroughs collected the water drained from the condensed vapour inside the dome and spilled it towards brass lion-heads. This arrangement ensured an uninterrupted light beam away from combustion fumes and vapours.
The view from the top of the tower was majestic. Our eyes circumferenced the tiny island from the top, extending our gaze on the shiny waters of Lake Huron upto the hazy landscape of Bruce Shoreline on one side and the infinite horizon on the other. That feeling of having the entire island landmass visible to the naked eye was mesmerizing. One one side there was a limestone shed in isolation away from the other structures. This, dear reader, was one of the few mysteries of Chantry Island.
Mysteries of Chantry Island
To add a thrilling touch to a trip on an isolated island, there were mysteries associated to the light house tower and the island itself. The very first one being on the origin of limestone used to build the tower.
- The source of limestone is not exactly known. The agreement is on the limestone being a ship’s ballast, but from where no one knows. A theory suggests that it was brought from Europe on a vessel. Another interesting tale suggests that it was quarried by prisoners at Kingston, Ontario. A third hypothesis is that the limestone was quarried locally in an area around Owen Sound, Ontario.
- Mystery number 2, dear reader, points to the windows on the lighthouse tower. Every level of the tower has rectangular windows for interior lighting. The windows on second and third level are different as these are recessed inwards. There is no explanation for this unusual recess. A theory suggests these were provided to house a fog cannon.
- Mystery number three was an isolated structure on the island, initially pointed out by Helen as a mystery building during her briefing on the construction undertaken by Duncan Lambert on the island. We saw this isolated hut from the lantern room on the lighthouse tower with Peter. The purpose of this limestone shed is not certain as the same is not documented on the pages of history. This, dear reader, will leave us with some guesswork. Suppose there was a fog cannon on the rectangular window recess (2nd or 3rd level of lighthouse) then this shed might very well be the powder magazine that might have been used to store the explosives, most likely gun cotton used to fire the fog cannon in those days. It might very well have been used as a kiln for limestone mortar that was needed in abundance both during construction and maintenance. The theory that this building was in use as an ice house, does not go well with the glacier rock we talked about earlier in the basement of lightkeeper’s house. The basement itself was a mini ice house. The other usages point to this mystery building either being used as a smokehouse or a storage shed.
The Tour Surprises
Just when we thought that the tour was over, there were more surprises for us. As we boarded Peerless for the trip back to Southampton shores, it was time for Wayne to impress us. Our ship captain steered to the tricky depths of Lake Huron to show us the historic ‘island dock’ and ‘long dock’ (now submerged in water but visible to the naked eye, thanks to the clear waters of the lake) while moving through ‘the gap’ between the two. The docks and the gap, dear reader, were part of the effort to establish area around Southampton shore a hrbour of refuge. This historical photograph will give you a pictorial idea of what I am talking about. Owing to a number of tricky shoals off the harbour of Southampton and Chantry Island, and the increasing numbers of shipwrecks contributed to these, a need to build a harbour of refuge was felt. The idea was to build a long dock from the Southampton beach and build another one from the Chantry Island extending towards the long dock, but smaller in length. A gap between the two docks was left and marked as a a safe passage for the ships reaching out to the Southampton harbor. The work is reported to have started somewhere in the winter of 1870 or summer of 1871. There is documented evidence of a Chantry Island South Shoal light that was built in 1874 to mark this harbour of refuge. They say the light was originally installed on an octagonal structure made of timber that rose about 40 feet above the water surface. This light was subsequently replaced by buoys around 1900. With the advancement in technology and navigational aids, the docks for the harbour of refuge went into disrepair and eventually submerged under the rising waters of Lake Huron. As he took us to the north-eastern shore of Chantry Island, Wayne had to increasingly rely on boat sonar to avoid the shoals and also locate the historic gap under water. An announcement filled with a sense of achievement told us that we were located right on top of the gap in harbour of refuge. It was then dear reader, that we caught a glimpse of both the docks down below the crystal clear Huron Waters. Yes, the docks do exist, and so would be the remains of Chantry Island South Shoal light that were reportedly confirmed by a diver to exist on the lake bed. For history buffs, some interesting information on the harbour of refuge can be referenced here.
No lighthouse tour in Bruce peninsula is complete without talking about the shipwrecks of Lake Huron. With Helen taking the center stage again, we got to learn about the most recent one discovered right underneath the sands of Southampton shore. Spotted in 2001 due to receding lake waters and fully excavated by 2004, after about two centuries of staying buried under Southampton sands, the most recent shipwreck discovery was HMS Hunter. A British battleship that had fouhgt Aemricans in the Battle of Lake Erie (1812-13) and was captured by them. Post war, Hunter met her end voyaging Lake Huron waters as a travel ship. Discovering a shipwreck that has the potential of being recognized as a national monument, away from Huron waters under Southampton beach was a surprise. A team of volunteers helped in excavating and documenting the discoveries. The ships hull made of white oak was still intact and revealed some exact blueprint of the Hunter’s build. The artefacts discovered during the excavation are now on proud display at Bruce County Museum. We saw the pictures of the excavation with Helen but were to discover that HMS Hunter was back to being underground. In response to our questions of why, Helen had a befitting answer. The cost of moving the shipwreck and storage costs were estimating to ‘sky-high’; the alternative, “why not to rebury the ship’s hull back to the wet sands that has preserved HMS Hunter so well, for centuries!”
Today, Chantry Island tours are operated by Marine Heritage Society, made possible every year entirely by volunteers. The volunteers include housekeepers and gardeners on the island, captain and crew of tour boats and tour guides. Even the booking office and gift sales shop in Southampton is tended to by these wonderful volunteering souls. This volunteering spirit of Southampton community takes its root from the resotration project of the Chantry Island that was launched in 1997. With the light being automated on the tower, the Island was left to neglect and disrepair, until The Marine Heritage Society teamed up with The Propeller Club and took on the ambitious task of restoring the island to its glory days. The lightkeeper’s cottage was in ruins and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. The resoration project that completed in 2001 has, to its credit, over 300,000 hours logged by over 250 volunteers. Now the volunteers organize and operate Chantry Island Tours each year during the season. They also liaise with the Federal Government in managing the number of visitors to ensure that the bird habitat on the island is not impacted as the island is a declared Migratory Bird Sanctuary. This is a classic tale of a community, keeping their link with the past alive. They are a step ahead in making sure that the same link gets adequately passed on to the future.
On Chantry Island, beside the lightkeeper’s cottage, there’s placed this ‘Gypsy Stone’. Moved with considerable effort to its present location, this stone stands guard over a time capsule containing the elements from the time it was created, Aug 11 2000. The time capsule has in it, preserved, a snapshot from our times, and is a medium of communication with those who will succeed us and open it on 11th of August in the year 2100. Through this time capsule we will pass on the history as kept by us, the relics from our times, and the tale of Chantry Island’s restoration. Along with all these, we will pass on the spirit of volunteering, the very essence of Southampton’s tradition.
Dear reader, this trip to Chantry Island is not your regular tour, driven by the practices of commerce and profits. It’s a tour, driven by the very spirit of Southmapton volunteers, to revisit the remarkable feat of restoring their past, and to stand in audience at the lightkeeper’s cottage and the Chantry Island lighthouse. Not to merely admire the stone and the pulpit, but to feel the very heart and soul of a community.