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 http://www.palps.ca 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!

No Ordinary Pioneer Home: “Uncle Tom’s” Cabin. Dresden, Ontario.

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The book “The Life of Josiah Henson; formerly a Slave” begins ominously.

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N. about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP. But was hired by Mr. M to whom my father belonged.

The only incident I can remember which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm was the appearance of my father one day with his head bloody and his back lacerated. …His right ear had been cut off close to his head and he had received 100 lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal attack on my mother and this was his punishment. 

 You’ll know Josiah Henson better as “Uncle Tom,” the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You’ll also know Henson’s home, just outside Dresden, Ontario as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” 

On a recent road trip down the 401 to “tobacco country,” in the Chatham-Kent area, your intrepid National History Site adventurers arrive at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Each year, thousands of visitors from Canada, the U.S. and beyond stop to pay tribute to both Josiah Henson and Emily Beecher Stowe. 

Now largely forgotten Harriet Beecher Stowe played a significant role in the emancipation of the American Negro after the U.S. Civil War. So much so that when she was presented to President Abraham Lincoln, he is reported to have greeted her with: “So you’re the little woman responsible for starting the Great War.”


“Betrayal” set the stage for Josiah Henson’s flight to Canada in 1830. After purchasing his freedom, Henson’s master pocketed the money and prepared to put his “property” on the slave’s auction block in New Orleans.

Providence was surely on Josiah’s side for he was able to escape with his wife and 4 children. Travelling at night along the “underground railway” (a series of safe houses for runaway slaves) the family made their way into the northern states, then over the Niagara River into British North America. Here they were free. 

The Henson family settled in Dawn Township near the little village of Dresden. With financial assistance from members of the American Anti-Slavery movement, Henson purchased 200 acres of land. His dream was to build a self-sufficient community for other fugitives from slavery. Henson called it “The Dawn Settlement.”it was a worthy name for those who were starting a new chapter in their lives. 

Over the coming years, the Dawn Settlement prospered. The land was rich and supported farming of corn, wheat and tobacco. Virgin black walnut trees were harvested and the valuable timber was exported to Britain and the U.S. Henson also oversaw the building of a number of mills, a brickyard and a school for the manual trades.

At its peak, the Dawn Settlement was home to 500 former slaves.  And life was good. But for thousands of slaves still in bondage in the southern United States, their existence was a bleak and painful one.

Then unexpectedly an unknown American travel writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe set the wheels in motion to change the lives of over 50,000 American slaves. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1842. At one time the book would be the world’s second ranked best seller. Only the Bible sold more.


Chapter One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins with two white men—one a plantation owner; the other a slave trader discussing a “property” deal. Eliza, a “house slave” enters the room to fetch a young child and is noticed favourably by the visitor.

“By Jupiter,” says the trader, turning to the girl in admiration, “there’s an article now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.”

He presses his host. “Come, how will you trade about the gal. What shall I say for her, what’ll you take?”

As Josiah Henson’s memoir had begun with physical brutality and disfigurement, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opened with no less an abomination: the trading in human lives. From childhood she’d witnessed both forms of cruelty and vowed she would do what she could to change her flawed and barbaric world.

Harriet had learned compassion and the concept of equality from her father. Lyman Beecher was Abolitionist who regularly sheltered runaway slaves from the American south. He assisted them to cross the border into Canada and freedom. 

By her early 20’s, Harriet was writing regional travel articles for American journals.  But her reading  the book The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in 1841 turned her thoughts to writing more serious subjects.

The passage of the American Fugitive Slave Act only confirmed Harriet’s literary direction. Under the terms of the Slave Act, any American finding a runaway slave must turn them in to authorities or risk prosecution themselves.

Appalled by this legislation, Harriet  sat down to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She based her principal character “Uncle Tom” on Josiah Henson. 

Given the political times, with Abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln having been elected, Beecher Stowe’s “expose” was explosive, and she was in demand to speak around the world.  Her visit to England, a nation which had abolished the scourge of slavery in 1808 saw the author feted as “royalty.”

The wheels of progress moved much slower than in the British Isles. It would take  11 years and a Civil War for the United States to follow Great Britain’s lead.


“This is strange,” I remark to my husband, Louis as we approach Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum Historic Site. 

“It’s not been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Site. Surely Josiah Henson’s house where he sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves lives and breathes Canadian history.”

My trusty driver is equally perplexed by the omission. “I’m going to find out why when we get there,” I announce to him. Louis is used to my “must know ways!” 

The Site’s interpretive staff have a perplexing  answer to my question “why?” “Josiah Henson has been declared a Person of national significance to Canada but his house is not,” offers the Curator. I’m incredulous and ask for more information.

“Because the cabin house was moved from one part of Henson’s property to another,” he answers.  And Parks Canada won’t designate us as “Officially Historic” because of this.” With curious piece of bureaucratic tomfoolery,  our guide gives a wry smile and shrugs his shoulders.


Restored to a sound condition in recent years, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a two story weathered timber cottage. The second story is off-limit to visitors. One downstairs room is furnished with a kitchen table, a sideboard and various kitchen equipment.

The dining room across the centre hall catches the visitor off guard. Wax representations of Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy are startlingly realistic.  

Most visitors make the Cabin their first stop but other Site buildings are of interest as well. A period sawmill and a smokehouse, cunningly built into the trunk of a large sycamore tree give a notion of life in the mid-19th century.

The Dawn Settlement church displays the original organ and the pulpit where Josiah Henson preached at  Sunday services. The last stop is the Henson family cemetery where Josiah and members of his family are buried.

A federal National Historic Site or not, I’d encourage you to make a visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Pick up a copy of  The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in the Museum’s large bookstore when you’re there.Only 69 pages, it is a window on a world, not so very long ago where men, women and children were bought and sold.


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 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.

REFORM, RIOT AND RUIN The Sorry Tale of the Bowmanville Training School for Boys /POW Camp 30

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It’s been great fun! 123 National Historic sights visited, researched and photographed. 43 blogs posted. Articles in Canada’s History, Country Connection, Grand Magazine published. Newspaper coverage too in the Kitchener Record and the Guelph Mercury.

From the stunning wall murals of little St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Brantford, to the eerie elegance of the Massey family crypt at Mount Pleasant Cemetery; from the medieval hulk of the Huron County Jail where the boy Steven Truscott was held, to the archological treasures of Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island, we’ve uncovered Ontario’s history with feelings of awe and wonder; gratitude, admiration and pride.

One only failed the test.

So tag along with me to the little town of Bowmanville, east of Oshawa. It’s the site of the former Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Walk with me round the sprawling site which also served as a Prisoner of War camp for high-ranking Nazi officers during the Second World War.

Chances are  you’ll feel bereft too.

“The Most Progressive Facility of its Kind in Canada”

Constructed on farm land outside the town, the Bowmanville Boys School took shape in 1925. It was, at its inception, considered the most progressive training school in Canada. Boys aged 8-14 were sent to Bowmanville to be “reformed.”

Architect F.R. Heakes, an admirer of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was charged with the task of designing the 6 buildings that would make up the School. Wright had previously introduced America to the “Prairie”’ style of architectural design.

The movement sought to blend new buildings in with the natural world. A “Prairie” designed structure emphasized low horizontal lines, with gently-pitched or flat roof lines. Building materials were stucco and brick, in soft earth tones. All elements combined to mimic the flatness and openness of the American Prairie.

Popular in the U.S., especially in the American west, the Prairie style did not catch on in Canada, and then primarily in house designs. Few non-residential buildings bear the mellow “Prairie” seal.

“It was an ironic architectural choice for a locked-down training school,” I suggest to my travelling companion. “Wide open spaces and all that.”

Over the next 16 years, hundreds of wayward Ontario youth did “time” at the Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Figures don’t reveal how many left ready to re-join society as model citizens.

Operation Kiebitz and other Escapades

In 1941, The Bowmanville Training School moved into the second phase of its history. Now called Camp 30, the buildings would welcome more formidable “guests” than youthful pickpockets and vandals.

Over the course of World War II, approximately 800 high-ranking Nazi officers who’d been captured by Allied forces would now call Bowmanville’s Camp 30 home. For security sake, the Allies wanted to relocate these devils as far away from Europe as possible. The wilds of “the colony” would do just fine for this purpose.

The prize “guest” was U-Boat commander Otto Kretschmer. Between September 1939 and March 1941, Kretschmer sunk 47 Allied ships including convoy vessels which were bringing food and supplies to England.

War lore reports that on learning of the capture of his #1 U-Boat ace and his incarceration in Canada, Hitler ordered his SS masterminds to engineer Kretschmer’s escape. It is known to history as Operation Kiebitz.

With Nazi operatives passing information to prisoners in Camp 30, the German officers built an underground tunnel–15 feet deep and extending horizontally 300 feet beyond the barbed-wire. Inch by inch, the escape hatch was excavated.

Cups and spoons, pilfered from Camp 30’s mess hall were the tools of choice.  An ingeniously-devised trolley carried the dirt up to the building’s attic. Not only was the tunnel wired for lighting but a ventilation system was installed.

Ah! German technology!

But with the tunnel almost ready to receive its first celebrity escapee, it collapsed. Kretschner’s Canadian visit was extended to the end of the war!

Operation Kiebitz was only one of many escape attempts undertaken at Camp 30.With typical German efficiency an “escape committee” approved all projects.

A visit to Camp 30 is not complete without mention of “The Battle of Bowmanville.”In late 1942, Hitler gave notice to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Allied Commandos would be immediately executed upon capture in Germany or other Nazi held-countries. Churchill retaliated by issuing orders that POW camps in Europe and Canada would now shackle their highest-ranking German officers.

Camp 30 followed orders and a prisoner riot ensured. Guards from other detention centres were called for reinforcement. They found Kretschmer and friends barricaded in the cafeteria armed with baseball mats and sticks.

The Training School’s Sad Demise

After the end of the war in 1945, Camp 30 returned to its original purpose and the school reopened. It remained in operation until 1979, then closed. More enlightened approaches to youth punishment had replaced incarceration.

Over the coming years, the site served a number of purposes: as a private, later a Catholic school and then an Islamic university. In 2008 the site was abandoned and has remained vacant for the succeeding 7 years.

With the purchase of the property in 2012 by a developer who planned to demolish the buildings for a housing project, local history buffs howled. A movement was quickly formed to save this chapter in Bowmanville’s history.

In an effort to be conciliatory, the developer donated to the town the section of the expansive property where the buildings were located. Efforts now turned to having the 6 remaining buildings designated as a National Historic Site.

In a 2012 newspaper interview, Bowmanville’s Board of Trade President went on record hoping that the designation would bring with it federal funding.

And sprinter Ben Johnson will get back his gold Olympic medal!

Almost 10 years later, National Historic Site Bowmanville Training School for Boys and POW Camp 30  remains in architectural hell,  vacant, defaced and crumbling.


With the Silcox National Historic Site tour moving into eastern Ontario, we’ve planned a stop in Bowmanville. I’ve done my homework and know that the former Boys Training School has fallen on hard times.

Still, nothing prepared these amateur history sleuths for what was revealed to us on Lamb’s Road just north of the town.

We see a property choked with weeds, garbage and broken bottles littering the onetime tended grounds. Graffiti mars the sides of every building. The blackened results of 2 arson attempts remain visible.

Those windows not smashed have been boarded up. Doors have been ripped from their frames, allowing entry and who knows what damage to the buildings. I hadn’t the heart to walk inside.

One lone “No Trespassing” sign mocks the reality of what lies before us.

Today, the Architecture Conservancy Board of Ontario, of Clarington Township continues to explore ways and means to rescue the Site from more destruction. Estimates run as high as $15,000,000.

Only a miracle can save this National Historic Site. Does the Canadian Federal election of 2015 hold the key?