A Brief History of The Pelee Island Lighthouse

I acquired A Brief History of The Pelee Island Lighthouse by Ronald Tiessen and Irena Knezevic after Mark and I visited the island in 2020. The island was only partially open for business during that COVID summer, and the museum and Heritage Centre (where one could buy local books) were both closed, so I bought all my Pelee Island books from them via mail order.

The Pelee Island lighthouse was built in 1833 yet from the start of operation it proved to be an ineffective beacon. The first lighthouse keepers complained about insufficient oil as fuel, and sailors and navigation crews complained about the lighthouse which all too often remained dim:

“General dissatisfaction pervades all maritime classes who navigate the Lakes as well as those interested in the shipping interests of the country, in consequence of being forced to pay a special tax for lights when there are none where they are most required…[they are] so badly kept up as to be worse than useless, tending from their imperfect state to lead a mariner into danger rather then preserve him from it. I allude particularly to the light upon Point Pelee Island.” [1]

It wasn’t long after construction that the lighthouse structure started to subside, eventually developing a lean of 1.6 degrees to the southwest. This is understandable since it was built on such a shallow foundation as a sandy beach.

I was not aware that the island was invaded in 1838 when rebels who attempted to overthrow the government of Upper and Lower Canada attacked Pelee, forcing its first keeper and his family to flee.

While the first keepers were already based on the island and had homes nearby, subsequent keepers had no residence, and found themselves sleeping on the beach or on the uncomfortable lighthouse staircase when they first arrived. Photos in the book do show a small wooden residence and outbuildings adjacent to the tower, yet there was no trace of such buildings when I visited the lighthouse in 2020.

Supplies were requested yet often went unheeded. Keeper William Swetman, Jr. wrote in an 1865 report:

“I beg leave respectfully to remark that I think every Light House Keeper should be provided with a…life boat and necessary [equipment] for rescuing drowning persons…a sufficient number of men could be procured as volunteers. Last Spring in the month of March [during] one evening a heavy storm of wind and rain [approached]; at the time the lake [was] full of drifting ice, [and] five men [found themselves] on a cake of ice about two miles distant from the light. [They] were discovered fast drifting up the Lake in a most perilous situation; my skiff which was not suitable was sent immediately to their relief and providentially they were all rescued, but chilled and nearly exhausted”.

I read the repeated requests for supplies from successive keepers, so I conclude that the authorities routinely ignored their needs at the peril of those they were hired to protect. The lighthouse was taken out of service in June 1909, and its upper area was dismantled and the tower was abandoned for ninety years. This book was published in 1999, right before the lighthouse was restored in August 2000. Since the authors did not mention any plans for a restoration, the idea to do it must have come about quite suddenly.

[1] I have quoted both of these passages exactly as they were rendered in the original text, with the brackets, ellipses and incorrect wording. The original text formatted both passages in italics to show that they were from quoted correspondence; I did not feel it was necessary to do so here.

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