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.
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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!
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.”
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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.

LOOK UP; LOOK WAAAAY UP: THE POINT CLARK LIGHTHOUSE

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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.  

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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!   

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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.

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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.

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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.