Digest>Archives> November 2002

Burlington Bay Main Lighthouse: Ontario’s Forgotten Landmark

By Barbara Sheridan


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Lighthouse keeper George Thompson kept a daily ...

Nestled in between the massive twin-span Skyway Bridge and an aging lift bridge sits a 145-year-old limestone lighthouse, oblivious to the busy traffic passing by. Situated in-harbor on the south bank of the Burlington Canal in Lake Ontario, Canada, the Burlington Bay Main lighthouse is easily overlooked. But once located, it will reward its finder with a treasure that can be easily visited at close range.

In 1832 the Burlington Bay canal was constructed to allow ships unlimited access to Hamilton’s harbor from Lake Ontario. Even though two small range lights were installed at the canal’s entrance, vessels found it difficult to maneuver within this dark stretch at night. Some ships were even said to have been run aground along the beach by following false lights set up by “wreckers” - scavengers hoping to retrieve lost cargo.

Due to the demands of the distressed mariners and area residents, a 54-foot wooden lighthouse was finally constructed along the Pier. This octagonal-shaped structure was built in 1837 by the American, John L. Williams, and was constructed of clapboard set on a stone foundation. Financing of the structure was made possible by way of shipping tolls. From the sparse data kept on early local marine history, records indicate that William Nicholson was hired as its first keeper, who later was replaced by Thomas Campbell.

In April 1846, George Thompson came aboard as the new lighthouse keeper. Thompson was known to take his job most seriously, and performed his duties diligently. Little did he realize that his tasks would also include extinguishing fires. Strong crosscurrents at the entrance of the canal forced many vessels to scrape their sides along the Piers, sending sparks to ignite the dry wood planking of the pier during the hot summer months. Many times, Thompson would be forced to nip up the burning planks and throw them into the canal. Such was the case on July 18, 1856, when sparks from the steamer Ranger ignited the wooden pier. On that windy day, the fire spread swiftly and engulfed the area, destroying the lighthouse, the ferry house, and the keeper’s cottage.

The light keeper spent several months living in a shanty until a new brick keeper’s dwelling was built in 1857. After a few delays, the new main lighthouse was completed on October 18, 1858, by John Brown, a prominent lighthouse contractor. The 90-foot cylindrical tower was constructed of limestone, the walls being seven feet thick at the base. This time, government officials had insisted on a fireproof structure for longevity.

Along with the new stone lighthouse, a more modem method of keeping the light was adapted. Instead of using the traditional whale oil to fuel the light, this lighthouse was the first in Canada to switch to the use of coal oil. This immediately caused an uproar among the mariners, fearing it would rob the whalers of their livelihood. The government stayed its ground and ignored the mariners’ protests, and by the 1860’s most Canadian lighthouses were fueled with coal oil.

When George Thompson wasn’t performing his duties as a lighthouse keeper, he kept a record of daily comings and goings around the bay and Lake Ontario. In his diary, he notes that the price of the stone light tower was $10,479.98, and records his quarterly salary as $75.00. Depicting the everyday life of local mariners, these diaries are now stored at the Joseph Brant Museum in Burlington and serves as a beacon for local historians. After serving the lighthouse for 29 years, Thompson retired because of poor health. He died in 1879.

Ghosts have been known to haunt many lighthouses, and this lighthouse is no exception. Thompson had often noted sounds of voices and unusual noises emerging from within the stone tower. Other light keepers who took over this position had also made mention of the echoing sound of footsteps and mysterious lights shining from within the narrow windows when making their daily rounds of the pier.

Deemed no longer necessary, the Burlington Bay Main Lighthouse was deactivated in 1961 and currently sits abandoned along with the light keeper’s red brick house, situated several yards away. Unfortunately, both buildings are showing signs of deterioration. Efforts are currently under way by the Bay Area Restoration Council to develop a historical park highlighting the existing lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s residence, in an effort to preserve this local landmark for years to come.

This story appeared in the November 2002 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History