Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”



Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.


Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!


After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.


Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.


The Kingston Penitentiary:Murderers,Serial Killers and Childen

li-kingston-pen-istock-6201954_riot.jpg.size.xxlarge.promor-KINGSTON-PENITENTIARY-CLOSE-large570Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction.  K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.

On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I  had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.

On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.


Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.  

One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835  to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years. 

The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.

Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”

Bad Girls Too

The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).

The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar. 

Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.

Too Tired to Cook up Trouble

Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.

The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage.  6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.  

The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances.  A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”

K.P.’s  “Walk of Fame”

Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.

The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s.  A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.


Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .

Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.

On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”

By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’

Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.

Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P

Through a Hole and Over the Wall

The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.

In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC.  As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.

Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013.  Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”   


Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s  Penitentiary  Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .

The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty. li-kingston-pen-istock-620li-kingston-pen-istock-620 



The Sad, Sad Tale of the Shickluna Gas Station

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With the New Year of 2016 on our doorstep, and a newly-elected federal government promising change, it seems timely to put the spotlight one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. It’s the former Shickluna service (gas) station in the town of Port Colborne in Ontario’s Niagara Region.

What’s the connection, you well might ask, between a small-town gas station and our newly-elected federal government? The answer comes in one word–“history.”

Shickluna has the distinction of being the only service/gas  station in Canada to be named a National Historic Site.

And while this designation alone is cause for praise, the future for the L.J. Shickluna Site is a clouded one. It joins at least two other National Historic Sites in Ontario–the former Bowmanville Boys’ School and the once gracious Bellevue House in Amherstburg on the historically-endangered list.


 Let’s travel back in time first to the island of Malta. One of the smallest nations in the world at only 122 square kilometers, Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea, 80 km south of Italy.

It’s in this nation of mariners, that the Maltese Shickluna family had made their fortune in the ship-building industry.   

The Canadian connection to the Shickluna clan finds its beginning in 1808. In that year, one Louis Joseph Shickluna was born into the powerful family. Following tradition, it was hoped that one day, Louis would take over the family business.

But this young man had other plans.  At age 23, Louis boarded a sailing ship for the British colony of Canada. Adventure was tops on Louis’  list of priorities.  

Disembarking at Quebec City, Louis first found work at a shipbuilding company.  By the next year, he’d moved on to Youngstown, New York.

But not for long. By the mid-1800’s Great Lakes shipping was booming, thanks in a large part to the opening of the Welland Canal in 1833. Seeing his long-term future here, Louis returns to Canada.


He chooses the Niagara area, along the shores of Lake Erie  to make his mark and founds his own shipping company.  Over the next half-century the Shickluna shipyards work at full-throttle, producing some the most advanced Great Lakes sailing ships of the day—some 140 in total.

In the process the Shickluna name became synonymous with wealth, power and innovation in the Canadian shipping industry.

On Louis’ death in 1899, his son Joseph stepped into his father’s large shoes. But the great age of shipping was inevitably  drawing to a close. If the Shickluna dynasty was to maintain its financial and social standing, they would need to diversify.

That future seemed to point to the automobile.


With car ownership growing exponentially across Canada and the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century, gas and service stations were springing up across the nation.  In 1924, third generation Canadian Louis Shickluna joined the entrepreneurial crowd and planned to open his own business.

He’d chosen Port Colborne just east of the town of Fort Erie to start his business.  But this would be no ordinary “get your gas and grease job here” type of commercial establishment. Young Louis Shickluna had plans for something special.   

Working with the Imperial Oil Company, Louis brought built a fair measure of architectural flair to his proposed business establishment. It would be designed in the California Mission Revival architectural style—one that drew its inspiration from the Spanish missions in California.

Gabled pediments, massive supporting pillars, broad overhanging eaves and red Spanish tile roof define the decidedly southwest American style.

(One of the best-known examples of California Mission architecture is featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo which is set north of San Francisco. )

California Mission  architecture was a rarity north of the 49th parallel.  No doubt  Louis Shickluna’s gas station must have caused more than one driver to do a double-take.


Early September 2015 sees your intrepid National Historic Site explorers heading southwest from Waterloo Region to the Niagara Region along the Lake Erie shore.

The area is home to a number of Sites, including the previously profiled Point Abino Lighthouse and several Sites connected to the War of 1812-14. But we’re most eager to see NHS Shickluna, surely one of the most curious Sites in our travels across Ontario.

Historical research has little-prepared us for the sad reality of Canada’s only  gas station National Historic Site.  Standing on a weed-choked property, with derelict rubble propped against the building,  Shickluna is  boarded and closed. Its white stucco paint has peeled and the exterior is vandalized with graffiti.

 “It doesn’t even have a plaque indicating what it is,” I comment to Louis. We leave with no fond memories of Canada’s gas station tribute to the California Mission architectural style.


A chat with local residents following our Shickluna visit gives us was no solace. It does reveals Port Colborne’s mood about the town’s only National Historic Site.

“It’s an eyesore,” says one resident. “And right on the main street. It makes the town look bad.”

Another puts blame on the National Monuments and Sites Board for allowing a “national treasure” to deteriorate so shamefully.

Still another shares the Shickluna buzz around town.  

“A developer bought it a few years ago and is just waiting till there are enough complaints that the town will order it torn down as a hazard and eyesore.”

He continues the Port Colborne scuttlebutt. “The word is that demolition is what the developer wants in the first place– National Historic Site or no National Historic Site.

“You mark my words,” our “mole” predicts. “You’lI see high- priced condos on the property in 5 years. “

Under 10 years of Conservative government, Parks Canada which oversees National Historic Sites, has been stripped to the bare bones, both financially and with respect to resources.  History lovers hope that a Prime Minister with a history university degree will be kinder.

If you feel that preserving Canada’s heritage is a priority for the new Liberal government, let your MP know. I have.

The former Shickluna Service Station in Port Colborne was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995.  

Look to the Sky and feel the Wonder: Gillies Grove, Arnprior


“It’s a reverential place,” I whisper to my companion. “You seem to leave the outside world behind when you step onto the path.”

He agrees. “It reminds me of when the Pevensie children stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.”

Indeed Gillies Grove National Historic Site in Arnprior is a magical and otherworldly place. It is surely one of only a handful of Ontario’s National Historic Sites where man plays little part.


Dense forests, Canada’s First Nation people and abundant wildlife greeted French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he ventured into central Canada in 1613.

The French explorer had crossed the sea to the New World, then turned his sights on the daunting St. Lawrence River. This massive waterway would lead him into the heart of Canada. Halting at the turbulent rapids at Lachine, the adventurers traded ship for canoe and set off into the unknown.

Algonquin guides led Champlain and a number of his crew westward along the Ottawa River—a landmine of rocks, rapids and shoals.

For the French explorers, the view must surely have been awe-inspiring. Dense virgin forest grew on either side of the fast-flowing Ottawa River. Sugar maples, yellow birch, American beech, eastern hemlock and basswood trees stretched as far as the eye could see.

All were dwarfed by magnificent stands of the Eastern White Pine. One of the tallest species of tree in Canada, a mature White Pine can tower over 50 meters.  


Fast forward now  to 1823. Scottish-born land developer Archibald McNab has petitioned the Canadian government to grant him land along the Ottawa River west of Ottawa. McNab’s aim was to become wealthy by selling plots to the influx of Scots, English and Irish who were flocking to Canada at the time.

As McNab’s plan went forward, expanses of forest land was cleared for farming. The trees provided raw materials for barns and houses. And soon the forests became a memory.  

The Eastern White Pine had a different fate than homesteaders cabins. It was especially prized in both France and England. With trunks that grew long, straight and strong the trees provided perfect raw materials for the masts of sailing ships.

And so, the Eastern White Pine gradually disappeared from the eastern and southern Ontario landscape.


The decimation was halted by lumber magnate Daniel McLachlin, who had acquired an expanse of land outside the town of Arnprior. While most of McLachlin’s purchase was razed for lumber, he preserved  22-hectares for family picnics.

When McLachlin went bankrupt, the 22 acre site was purchased by another lumber king—David Gillies. Gillies prized the land and stated his wish to preserve the forest reserve after his passing.

With Gillies death in 1967 and his wife’s in 1980, Gillies Grove was willed to the United Church of Canada. Church administration turned the bequest down and the property went on the market.

In 1986, it was purchased by the Ottawa-based Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $100,000.


By the early 2000’s Gillies Grove was on the market again, with the Oblates declaring the property too expensive to maintain. Arnprior buzzed with rumours that their beloved Grove was about to be sold to a developer who would raze the property for building lots.

It’s reported that the howls of protest coming out of Arnprior could be heard as far as neighbouring Pembroke!  

It was conservationists to the rescue. Gillies Grove was purchased by The Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2001. The organization continues to administer the property with volunteers from the Land Preservation Society of the Ottawa Valley.


Let’s take a leisurely stroll ourselves through the Grove. It’s a mere hop-step-and jump from the fast-running Ottawa River.  

As is customary, we’re accompanied on our National Historic Site adventure with our Golden Retriever, Hailey. Given the time of year (late fall) and the weather (cool and rainy) we are the only visitors to Gillies Grove. We allow her the privilege of exploring off-leash.

Seemingly awed like us by the experience, she stays close. Her nose confirms that there are other species than trees and plants in the Grove.

A number of birds—many now rare in populated southern Ontario lure dedicated bird-watchers to the Gillies Grove site. They include the uncommon scarlet tanager, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls.

If you stay long enough and show patience, visitors may be treated to the acrobatics of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree. Look down too and if you’re sharp-eyed, you may spy red-backed salamanders scurrying along the forest floor.  

A dazzling array of plant species changes according to the season. Spring flowers include hepaticas, violets, red and white trilliums. Summer brings white baneberry and the Indian pip plant.

But today, we’ve come primarily to see the Eastern White Pine. And  we are rewarded. The pines stand shoulder-to-shoulder near the centre of the grove. So high are they that from the ground it is difficult to see their top-most branches.

In May of 2015, the Nature Conservancy announced that the tallest tree in Ontario finds its home in Gillies Grove. Measuring 47 meters (147 feet) high and more than 100 cm. in breadth, this magnificent giant stands taller than a 13-story building.

Estimated to be between 150-200 years old, the pine has been added to Forest Ontario’s Honour Roll as the province’s tallest tree.  A bench has been placed beside the gentle giant to invite tree-huggers to rest a spell and look up—look way, way up!

Gillies Grove was honoured as a National Historic Site in 1994.

Take that, you Yankee Landgrabbers! Kingston’s Murney Tower


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We’re headed out on our most ambitious National Historic Site adventure so far. It will take us to Kingston, “the Limestone City.”

As is customary, Louis is the driver/navigator, with Hailey as co-pilot up front. Me? I’m in the back doing research. It’s a jolly band.

Over the course of the next 2 days, we’re aiming to visit all of Kingston’s 21 National Historic Sites. It’s a tall order, but the Sites are in a cluster along the historic waterfront. We should be able to meet our target.

Truthfully though, I’m carrying less than my usual enthusiasm about our outing. Kingston, strategically located where the St. Lawrence River and the Rideau Canal meet Lake Ontario was a key British military base before and during the War of 1812-14.

But for this blogger, recounting rounds of musket fire and rapacious American invader tactics are not high on her list of historical interests.

I’m making an exception for the curious Murney Tower. Read on to find out why.

We’ll time-travel first back to 1794, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, of all places. There the ever-striving British Navy is bombing the be-jeepers out of a squat, round watch tower at Mortella Point on the coast of the island nation.

Over the next several hours, 2 British warships, with 104 guns on board, relentlessly pummel the French-held tower.

Given the strength of the British assault and the diminutive size of the fortification, logic predicts that the building will be soon leveled.

Not so fast.

This is no ordinary 19th century fortification. When the smoke clears, the Mortella Point watch tower remains virtually intact. The British are so impressed with the impregnability of the fortification that they borrow the concept as their own. From now on, they`re called Martello Towers.

Over the coming years, a number of Martellos are constructed along the south coast of England. Try to get through these defenses, Napoleon!

War is also nigh in the Colonies with Americans pounding on the door to British North America. A number of Martello Towers go up –in Quebec City, in Nova Scotia, and in New Brunswick. There will be sixteen in all throughout the colony.

Four rise in Kingston alone. Given the town`s strategic location, the British are taking no chances with the wily Americans.


Before a musket had even been fired, a brou-ha-ha erupted over the naming of the finest of the Kingston Towers. City fathers had chosen to name it “The Murray Tower” in honour of Sir George Murray, a high-ranking British official living in Kingston.

The man on the street had different ideas. The Tower should be named after sea captain Henry Murney who had once owned the piece of land where the Tower now sat.

To no one`s surprise, the Murray-ites won the day over the Murney-ites. A plaque identifying the Murray Redoubt (Tower) was affixed to the Tower wall to make it official.

But not for long.

And while the culprit was never caught, the second “r” in Sir George’s Murray’s name was indelibly altered. An “n” had replaced it. And so the “Murray Tower” became the Murnay Tower. Not quite right but close enough!

The sign with the artwork remains today.


Let’s take a closer look at structure of the Murney Tower, considered to be the best surviving example of the fortification in Canada.
Built of Kingston limestone and rising 3 stories, the Murnay Martello Tower boasts walls 3 feet thick on the landside and 5 feet facing the water. No wonder they gained the reputation of being almost impregnable.

A deep, dry ditch surrounds the Tower. Access to the inside is limited to one drawbridge over the ditch. I wonder if the ditch was ever filled with water to become a moat?
But protection of the Kingston harbor was only one of Murney’s assignments. On each of Murney`s 3 levels were 32- pound cannons, capable of doing significant damage to ships entering the Kingston harbour.

But these were no ordinary lumbering cannons. They were portable weapons, able to be moved as need be– either lakeside or landside. On the upper floor the largest cannon could be rolled along an iron track for full 360 degree coverage.
The most ingenious feature of the Murney is the “rapid removal roof.” The panels could be removed to provide a flat surface allowing sharp-shooters to lie prone and fire unseen at enemy ships.

Despite their inspired design and superior construction, Martello Towers eventually became obsolete. By the turn of the century, they were closed as active defensive structures.

Now what to do with an thick-walled, windowless structure surrounded by a ditch. Some Martello Towers across the country were torn down, but the 4 Kingston towers remained.

Now owned by the City of Kingston and managed by the Kingston Historical Society, only the Murney and the Fort Frederick Tower on the grounds of the Royal Military College are open to the public.
The Murney Tower was designated a National Historic Site in 1930.


And what would a watch tower be without a ghost? According to paranormal investigators at C.H.A.P.S. (The Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society), the bottom floor of the Murney is especially rife with spooks.

Investigators wielding night-vision security cameras and magnetic field detectors report hearing the shuffling of feet; an unseen hand touching the arm of an investigator and spirit readings in “the red zone.”

The Murney Tower is open to visitors during the summer months. Check out the rolling cannons and paranormals for yourself.

The Point Abino Lighthouse: No Riff-Raff Allowed Here!

Point Abino etc 013Point Abino etc 015Point Abino etc 009Point Abino etc 007Point Abino etc 001Our tour guide’s warning: “When you’re on the bus don’t take any pictures of the houses out the windows” was a first for your intrepid National Historic Site explorers.
But then, there’s nothing usual about a trip to the Point Abino Lighthouse National Historic Site.

Perched on a narrow spit of land on the north shore of Lake Erie, a few kilometers west of the town of Fort Erie, this structure has been called by lighthouse watchers “the most beautiful and the most unusual in all of Canada.”

Having visited a number of historic lighthouses over our continuing adventure to visit all National Historic Sites in Ontario, the stylish Point Abino gets my vote too.

So climb on the Point Abino Lightstation Preservation Society’s (PALPS) tour bus, store your cameras for the short trip, and enjoy the stories told by Al Holland, PALPS President and Chief Tour guide.
Each spring, Al and his wife Prue, both American citizens living in Buffalo 6 months a year, pack up the sunscreen and sunhats and head for Point Abino, Ontario. Al’s been a part-time resident there since his childhood. He’s a storehouse of facts and behind-the-scenes on all things Point Abino.
Great Lakes watchers estimate that there have been over 700 shipwrecks throughout the centuries on the combined lakes. Lake Erie tops the list of loss of ships and lives.

During one vicious tempest on November 11 1913, 12 ships and 235 men lost their lives. After this, the shipping industry howled for a permanent lighthouse on the north-east shore of the quixotic lake to warn errant ships of the treacherous shoals off shore.

A spit of land at Point Abino,  near the town of Fort Erie was targeted for the construction. Great Lakes watchers breathed a sigh of relief.

Not so fast!There was a sticky wicket to navigate first.

Since 1862, wealthy Americans and Canadians had vacated the cities for their summer homes in the community of Point Abino. “Old money” resided safe and secure behind stone walls and a secured gate.

And now a lighthouse was being proposed at the lake edge? Never! Feelings ran high and resistance was strong within the privacy-seeking Point Abino community.

It would be 1915 before ruffled feathers were smoothed. In that year work on the lighthouse and an adjoining lighthouse keeper’s house began. Even then feelings still ran high with some residents.

Al Holland relates an anecdote that illustrates just how strong anti-lighthouse was.  

“They demanded that all the building supplies had to be transported to the site by barge. No way were they going to let construction and delivery trucks to rumble through their neighbourhood!
Architect William Anderson was hired to design a structure that would complement the air of refinement of the Point Abino community. On rock, jutting approximately 100 meters into Lake Erie, the Anderson’s lighthouse rose.

The 5-story high, reinforced-concrete lighthouse rested on a raised concrete platform. That’s where the utilitarian details ended. 

Built in a Classical Revival architectural style, the Point Abino Lighthouse brings to mind a graceful Greek or Roman temple. Arched windows, pediments, a tower balustrade and oculus (circular) windows lend an air of refinement and elegance, scarce seen before in a utilitarian structure.

Indeed, Anderson’s concept was a decided departure from the usual cylindrical or octagonal lighthouses of the day. To this day, Anderson’s design is judged unique in Canada—some say the world.
A word about Frenchman physicist Augustin Fresnel, the inventor of the Fresnel lens which powered the light beam into the treacherous lake waters.

Lore tells that Fresnel had discovered a way to magnify light rays into one single (and powerful) beam. That his discovery came as he was “playing” with a drop of honey, makes him a role model for creativity!

Before the Fresnel lens, the most powerful beam of light created was no more than 20,000 units of candle power. Fresnel’s invention upped that power to 80,000 candlepower. With the serendipity of electrical power, the candlepower capacity was raised into the millions.

By 1915, Fresnel’s conception of transmitting light had become the standard for lighthouses around the world. Mounted in its tower, Point Abino’s Fresnel Lens measured 5 feet across by 6 feet high.


The classic dazzle of the exterior Point Abino is not complemented by the inside. Tour Guide Al Holland notes that while the exterior has been lovingly restored the interior has not benefited yet. Money of course is at the root of conservation issues. Of interest are  two enormous air tanks. Blasts of air blown from the tanks created the distinctive foghorn warning.

Curiously, Point Abino was constructed 2 feet below flood level. During severe summer storms, the lighthouse is cut off from the “mainland,” and is surrounded by 2 feet of Lake Erie water.
After a fierce summer storm in 1985 the days became numbered for the Point Abino Lighthouse. It had been severelydamaged by winds and water and needed extensive repairs. Canada’s Federal government (Parks Canada) was on the hook for repairs. It didn’t take long for them to lower the boom.

Lighthouse staff were decommissioned in 1989, with operations ceasing entirely in 1995. The lighthouse was closed and was up for sale. Parks Canada was asking $400,000.
To no one’s surprise, there were no takers!

History lovers and lighthouse fans alike were worried about the future of Point Abino. Al Holland recalls the reaction of at least one member of the community when the lighthouse was put up for sale.

“He was a former sea captain himself so he had a soft spot for maritime history. But he was so upset by the idea of the public invading his privacy that he lobbied for the lighthouse to be torn down. Then the problem would be solved.”
To the relief of Point Abino supporters on both sides of the border, the Lighthouse was eventually purchased in 2003 by the Town of Fort Erie. It changed hands for a mere $5000.

After the purchase, the top item on Fort Erie’s “must do” list was to negotiate with the Point Abino residents and their Community Association. The public’s access to the Point Abino National Historic Site depended on the community allowing access through their property, via THEIR road.

In the end, money solved the problem. Since 2003, the town has annually paid $4000 and some change to the Point Abino Residential Association. This gives PALPS the right to run a bus to the lighthouse on selected summer weekends.

Even then numbers of bus riders is restricted to 25. A gated road prevents pedestrians from entering the exclusive enclave.

If you go: Tours to the Point Abina Lighthouse have ended for the season. They will resume in summer 2016. Go to for more information.

The Case of the Curious Bean Gravestone or Alan Turing Would have been Proud

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The Silcox National  Site caravan recently took a side road to Rushes Cemetery. It lies northwest of the town of Wellesley, Ontario, west of Waterloo. Tombstones were on our radar that day.  And not any old mouldy stone for these Ontario history-seekers.

We were on the hunt for the Bean grave stone, tagged as “the most curious tombstone in Canada.” Come on along with us to learn the reason why.


Tragedy stalked the life of one Dr. Samuel Bean, born in Waterloo County in 1842. First a teacher, later an evangelical minister, Samuel found his true calling as a  country physician. He set up his practice in the village of Linwood, northwest of Waterloo.

In 1865, the good doctor took a wife, one Henrietta Furry. A brief 7 months later, Henrietta died. After an appropriate period of mourning, Dr. Samuel married again, this time to Susanna Clegg. Susanna passed into her eternal life too, some months later. The two women were buried side by side in the Rushes Cemetery, a small multi-denominational cemetery outside Wellesley.

One can only surmise the reasoning behind Dr. Bean’s efforts to commemorate the lives of his two lost loves in this curious way. On a white marble stone, no more than 3 feet high a finger points skyward with the words “Gone Home” above the two women’s names. Nothing unusual here.

But look below the conventional. Instructed by the grieving widower (time 2) , the stone carver etched 225 seemingly random numbers and letters into the face of the marker. To say visitors to the grave were perplexed at Dr. Bean’s gibberish would be an understatement.

Whether driven a perverse sense of humour, or simply a need for privacy, Samuel Bean would have none of the requests and kept the meaning close to his vest. Then in 1904, on a holiday to the island of Cuba, Dr. Bean, aboard a small sailboat, was washed overboard. His body was never recovered.

And so the meaning of the cryptic word puzzle died with the good doctor.


The years passed and the solution to Dr. Bean’s tribute remained hidden. Drawn by word of mouth, hundreds of visitors arrived annually at Rushes Cemetery to try their hand–unsuccessfully.

Not until 1942 was the message “decoded.” And not by a mathematics wizard or a savvy Alan Turing cryptographer, but the caretaker of the Rushes cemetery. He too took the solution to the Bean puzzle to the grave with him too.

Not until the 1970’s was Dr. Samuel Bean’s tribute to his young wives solved again–and this time revealed. A 94-year-old woman living in a Waterloo retirement home unlocked the treasure chest.

This didn’t stop hundreds of visitors to the Bean grave–camera or pencil and paper in hand– trying to solve the puzzle themselves. No doubt Rushes Cemetery ranks as Wellesley Township’early October 004s #1 tourist attraction.


By 1980’s the carved letters on the white marble marker had worn enough to make them indescipherable and visits to Bean grave diminished.  In 1982, The Wellesley Historical Society replaced the original stone with a more durable grey granite marker.

Much more durable than marble, the Bean gravestone will welcome curiosity-seekers fro decades to come.


Now it’s your turn to try your hand at breaking the Bean code. All the letters are visible in the photos above.

And let this historic site blogger know how you have fared. I’ll be glad to pass on the solution if you’re stumped.

A hint to lessen your agony. The message begins with the letter “I”  starting 7 rows to the top left and 7 rows down.

Another clue. Forget everything you’ve learned about tracking words.

Above all have fun!