Digest>Archives> May 2008

Memoirs Of A Lightkeeper's Son

Remembering Life On Ontario's Victoria Island

By Colin MacLean


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Colin MacLean, son of Keeper Jim McLean. Courtesy ...

My Dad, James (Jim) McLean, was employed at United Grain Growers Elevator in Current River, Ontario, Canada, in the 1920s. We owned land in Cloud Bay, and had built a home for our family one mile from Lake Superior and two miles to Highway 61, where the school was located. All ten of us attended the one-room school. Dad applied for a government job as a lighthouse keeper during the Depression. To be eligible, you had to be a veteran of the First World War.

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Victoria Island Light Station before the 1887 ...

Dad was born in Sault St. Marie, Michigan. The family lived in Echo Bay, Ontario, just east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. My grandmother (Margaret McLean) went to visit relatives on the other side of the Canada/U.S. border in August, weeks before he was due to be born, so he was registered and raised as an American citizen. Although an Army veteran, when he applied for the position of lightkeeper in 1932, he had to prove he was a Canadian with an American birth certificate.

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Jim McLean was the lighthouse keeper at Victoria ...

Dad's first spring as a keeper was in 1933 at Victoria Island. He had a room in Thunder Bay, but got to Cloud Bay on some weekends to visit his wife (Sarah) and ten children. He had to row an older, heavy lifeboat three miles from the island to a government dock at Cloud Bay, and then walk the one or two miles to our home. I was born in McKellar Hospital in March 1929; I was the first child in the family that wasn't delivered by a midwife at home. My younger brother Edmund was also born in the hospital a year and a half later.

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As nighttime approached, the keepers at ...

The tugboats Whalen and Strathmore were used to take all lightkeepers to their posts in the spring, at the start of the navigation season. Dad wouldn't make it back to our home until early May, depending on ice conditions. With no electrical power or telephone, he had no idea when the tug would arrive to bring him to the city. My brother and I would walk the mile and a half to the lakeshore at Cloud Bay, after dark, to see the light lit at sundown, and then we would know Dad was alive and fine.

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Sarah McLean, wife of Keeper Jim McLean. ...

The tugboats were also used to tow rafts of pulpwood to American ports on the inside channel. There was smoke on the horizon all day, every day, from boats using the outside channel. My Dad could name the boats and often the captain as well, without the aid of our telescope.

We spent the summers with my Dad at the lighthouse. My first memories of Victoria Island Lighthouse concern Dad's cooking, which was extra special. Carnation canned milk (we thought it tasted like ice cream), French's mustard, Bee Hive Syrup, huge cans of honey, homemade Scottish scones, and boxed cereal were some of the things we never had at home.

Sometimes the waters of Lake Superior would bring stray logs to our shores. Being a government employee, the keeper was allowed to gather any logs on the beaches of our shoreline. Sometimes these logs were piled on the hot black sand of the beach, to be collected by our little boat later on a calm day. This was a hobby for our Dad. This allowed him to keep a generous supply of logs behind the woodshed, to be cut at our leisure to be used as kindling, cookstove fuel and box stove fuel.

Dad was very efficient and honest. The light had to be lit the second the sun set, which varied every night. Victoria Island Lighthouse had a stationary (fixed) light. There was no electricity. When the blinds in the lighthouse were rolled up for the night, Dad lit the light, then let the blind on the south side of the tower down and up a couple of times as a greeting to the keepers at the American lighthouse of Rock of Ages, two miles south of us. The American Coast Guard keepers would light their light, and then hold the rotation of their turntable toward Victoria Island. Rock of Ages was on one solitary rock, not much bigger than the base of the lighthouse itself. It was situated five miles off the end of Isle Royal on the U.S.A. side of Lake Superior.

At the end of the day, Dad entered his report in the "Daily Log" book. It contained the name of every vessel that passed, weather, visitors, and the time in minutes of the lighting and extinguishing of the light.

On foggy days, if we heard any boats blowing their horns in the inside channel, Dad had to carry our foghorn, a square box the size of an end table, up to the lighthouse. He would then face it toward the oncoming boat, and he had to turn a handle to blow our answering warning to let them know how close their ship was. Sometimes we could barely see them in the fog as they passed a half-mile offshore.

Every Thursday night in summer, we gathered at the base of the lighthouse at 7:00 p.m. to watch for the tourist passenger ships to appear from behind Mink Island, heading for the port of Duluth and Superior. The passengers and crew were always just finishing their dinner, and the decks were lined with passengers who were waving and yelling "hello." Directly opposite the lighthouse, the captain of any of the boat would salute the lighthouse with their very loud horn, and then my Dad would answer with our small portable foghorn. We could hear the passengers' laughter. Immediately after our salute,

the orchestra on the boat would start to play and we could see the people start to dance as the boat slowly turned at our island point.

We swam all summer in Lake Superior from the time school ended until the weekend before school started. During the summer, Lake Superior water only gained a few degrees near the surface. If it hadn't been rough, so we slowly turned purple until our bodies were numb, then we could stay in the water all day.

In June, the strawberries were ripe and we all had to go to the best picking spots before any of the other big families got there. When all the picking was over, we could go swimming to ease all the mosquito bites and sunburns. In July, the raspberries came ripe on Victoria Island. These were as big as cherries and juicy. Late a night, our Mom would still be picking over berries, with tired eyes and red fingers. The next day would be preserving day! At the end of July and into August, the gooseberries on the island rocks were huge, sweet, and dark purple. The high bush cranberries came off the bushes by the handful and were easy to pick, as we didn't have to bend over. August was blueberry time on the mainland shore directly opposite the lighthouse.

Dad built our own fish smoker. Nothing tasted as good as our own hot smoked trout. We also had chickens. With no wild animals on the island except an occasional red deer, we were safe to build nesting boxes for the chickens. We built them on the trails away from the lighthouse, and at dark, they were roosting in their boxes on both sides of the trail. Fresh eggs!

Before my Dad got to be the lighthouse keeper on Victoria Island, someone gave him a beautiful male German shepherd pup, who we named Jack. He was almost human. We had Jack for 15 years. He understood and sensed everything that was going on. In the spring or summer months, if my younger brother and I went anywhere and didn't bring Jack along, we would see him sitting at the back door of our country home feeling sad-ears down, but very observant. We would start saying his name quietly, until our voices got loud enough for Jack's ears to stand erect because he knew we were talking about him. He would then come to us at a bound, over fences, through the creek or swampy ground, through the hayfield that was taller than the dog, until he got to us. Then he would nearly knock us down to lick our faces.

On the island a couple of times or more, when we went fishing or on an errand, my Dad didn't want Jack to come. If Jack wasn't tied up, we could see this black spot at the base of the white lighthouse. If we talked too loud, when we looked up again, the black spot was gone. Minutes later we could see a black spot in the water swimming toward us in icy, cold, choppy water. Getting this wet, happy dog out of the water, into the boat and settled down was a glorious reunion!

Dad retired as keeper in 1959. In the 1970s, we heard that Victoria Island Lighthouse had been closed and they had erected a stationary frame with a light beacon on the top where the old lighthouse had stood. Someone had salvaged all the wood they could get from the buildings. Two of my older brothers were in town on holiday. We took Edmund's boat and went to Victoria Island.

The stone and cement foundation of the house looked far too small, but there were still monkshood flowers overgrown and healthy where the front door of the house had been. The shingled sunroof that covered the back door deck was lying on the grass near where the entrance to the shed had been.

Looking south toward Rock of Ages Lighthouse, where Mom and Dad had carried earth for a flower garden, there were still orange and yellow Iceland poppies blooming. There was no sign of where we had chiseled our names on a flat rock, halfway down to the boathouse. All the sidewalks were gone. We all had a haunting feeling, so we went for a walk to the beach with black sand at the end of the big bay.

We had to pass the signs of where the fish smoker had been and the trees where the chickens roosted, but there were some pieces of boards from what had been their nesting boxes for their one short season at the lighthouse. There had never been any other buildings on Victoria Island (just the lightstation we called home), or any of the other neighbouring islands. All of us were teary eyed as we walked one last time, barefoot, along the hot black sandy beach. We watched as three big white-topped breakers piled in on the point at the same time. This is the reason for the black sand; this is the only place this happens anywhere. The waves coming from the black buoy, showing the start of the reef, end their journey by pounding the rocks every few seconds. We watched from our old vantage spot at the base of what was Victoria Island Lighthouse.

Over the years, we had changed. The island and our home had changed. But our memories did not; they will stay with us forever.

This story was lovingly transcribed by Alma (MacLean) Watts for her Dad. Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, March 2008.

This story appeared in the May 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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