Our 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.