Look Up. Look Waaaaay Up. The Point Clark Lighthouse
“So if anyone of you feel like you won’t be able to get up to the top or get back down, tell me now,” instructs Emily, our tour guide at the National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse.
She forges on: “A couple of weeks ago one of our guests took a fright and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) climb down. We ended up having to call the fire department and they needed to carry her down.”
No one in our little band of 11 lighthouse visitors—5 adults and 6 children—one as young as 4– bailed. And so we began the trek up to the top of the Point Clark Lighthouse. The view, Emily promised, would be worth the hair-raising journey.
Before the Point Clark lighthouse rose along the Lake Huron shore, 12 miles south of Kincardine, sailors hung a lantern high in a pine tree to warn sailors of the danger. Shoals (shallow rocks) lurked 2 miles off the shore and more than one ship had met its doom there.
But given the prevalence of gusty winds along this stretch of the Lake Huron shoreline, the lantern would blow down regularly. It left unsuspecting sailors at the mercy of the Point Clark shoals.
By the mid-1850’s, with Great Lakes shipping in its heyday, the Canadian Imperial government took measures to improve the perilous situation. In 1855, 12 years before Canadian Confederation, contractor John Brown of Thorold was hired to build an “Imperial Tower” (lighthouse) at Point Clark. It was one of 6 Imperial Towers that would rise along the Lake Huron and Georgian Bay shores.
The Point Clark lighthouse was built to last. It would endure heavy lake winds and considerable moisture. Recurrent freezing and melting over the winter months would do the lighthouse no favours either.
Massive blocks of limestone or dolomite, the best quality available at the time, were brought by scow from Inverhuron, 20 miles to the north. Stone masons now got to work chiseling and setting over 1400 massive rocks into place. Five feet thick at the bottom, and rising 87 feet, the wall tapered to 2 feet in width at the top.
To support the heavy light tower, more durable granite replaced limestone for the top few feet. And so, like a candle topping a birthday cake, the lantern room became the Point Clark lighthouse’s piece de resistance. Windows afford a 360 degree view of the landscape. And what a spectacular view the lantern room afforded!
In 1858, 6 French technicians arrived in Point Clark. Their job was to build and install the 12-sided cast iron Fresnel light which would emit a warning signal. It took the French experts a full year to complete the job.
On April 1, 1859, 4 years after construction began, the Point Clark lighthouse was lit. But no April Fool’s joke here! On a clear day, the revolving light which flashed every 30 seconds could be seen 15 miles away, lakeside.
Keeping the Fresnel light fired 24 hours each day was no easy exercise. Until 1953, the light was powered by coal oil, stored in drums in a crawl space under the ground floor. Each day, the lighthouse keeper ascended the 9 flights of stairs to haul the day’s supply of coal oil up to the top. 97-pound weaklings need not apply for this job!
Emily opens the heavy wooden door of the lighthouse and our stalwart group crowds inside. The air is heavy with age and damp. “I don’t wanna be here, Dad,” one pre-schooler pipes up. “Let’s go back outside.” “You’ll be fine Scott,” says Dad. “I’ll be right here beside you.”
Young Scott’s trepidation mirrors my own. “This is not going to be easy,” I mutter under my breath. Cataracts and myopic degeneration have dimmed my vision considerably and have made my depth perception unreliable. I’ve misjudged flights of stairs on more than one occasion, and been sent careening to the floor.
And these are no ordinary steps. Narrow and steep, 114 steps are broken up by a series of 9 landings. They lead to the ultimate goal, the lantern room perched on the top of the structure.
With Emily leading the way we begin to climb 9 stories. The light is dim making my vision issues more pronounced. By the 3rd story, I’ve moved to the back of the pack, allowing the speedier climbers to move ahead. I’m awed by a grandfather in front of me, shepherding his 2 young grandchildren along. “They’re real troupers,” I comment and he agrees.
By the time we reach landing 7, Emily advises us that the supporting railing on both sides of the stairs now ends. “So it’s now like climbing a ladder to get to the top,” she chirps.
“Lawdy, Lawdy, what fresh hell have I stepped into?” I mutter under my breath as I inch my way upwards towards the heavens.
A lighthouse keeper remained on site until the mid-1960’s. By this time coal oil feeding the Fresnel light had been replaced by electricity. A battery pack served as backup when power failed. In 1966, the Point Clark lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site, the first Ontario lighthouse to be so honoured.
But by 2000, the lighthouse was falling apart. The protective wash of limestone had done yeoman service, but after 140 years, the mortar and many of the stones had cracked. In 2011 it was deemed unsafe for the public and was closed. Experts estimated it would take a year to repair the crumbling stones at a cost to taxpayers about $500,000.
Year 1 of the Point Clark restoration blended to 2, then 3 then 4. Black plastic covered it from top to bottom as workmen replaced and secured the faulty stones. 473 of the original 1400 stones were replaced. And while technology looked after transporting and lifting the massive rocks, all were hand-chiseled before being set in place.
By the time National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse re-opened in June 2105, the cost had ballooned to $1.7 million.
National Historic Site supporters and fans of phanology (lighthouse lore) were delighted when tours of the lighthouse recommenced in the summer of 2015.
We’ve reached the lantern room and the view is breathtaking. “On a really clear day, you can see the Goderich salt mines 20 miles to the south,” says our guide. But the spell is soon broken.
“The trip down the stairs is probably going to be scarier than going up,” warns Emily. “You’ll want to go down backwards, like you would a ladder–especially on the 2 flights that don’t have railings.”
Your ever-curious National Historic Site “reporter” queries: “So has anyone ever fallen going up or down?” “Not while I’ve been here—but then I’ve only been here for 2 months,” Emily answers. “We do our best to ensure the safety of visitors,” she adds.
Other than one missed step, this sight-impaired explorer arrives on ground floor safely. Louis and our four-footed Hailey are there to greet me. It has been an adventure which, despite my challenges, I’m pleased to have accomplished.
Such a feat demands a reward. St. Jacobs “Apple Pie” flavoured ice cream at the local corner store did nicely, thank you.
The Point Clark lighthouse is opened daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm until Labour Day. It’s well worth the $5 price of a guided tour.