Known to area residents as the “Big Light” and famous to lighthouse aficionados as one of the six Imperial Towers of Lake Huron, Chantry Island Lighthouse is synonymous with Southampton, Ontario. The lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard, but the rest of the station fell into ruin after the light was automated in the 1950s.
A dedicated group of preservationists, the Supporters of Chantry Island, have brought the keeper’s house back from the brink of extinction. The Supporters of Chantry Island group is composed of members of two other organizations, the Marine Heritage Committee and the Propeller Club. Over 250 volunteers have logged 24,000 hours of work at the light station, and over 300 donors have helped financially.
Southampton is the oldest port on the Bruce Peninsula, a finger of land separating the southern part of the Georgian Bay from the rest of Lake Huron. The area was almost exclusively inhabited by native peoples until the second half of the nineteenth century, when Europeans discovered its rich forests, farmlands and fishing. Chantry Island lies in the middle of treacherous shoals, and as Southampton developed as a port the island presented itself as the ideal spot for a lighthouse.
The building of Lake Huron’s six Imperial Towers is a fascinating episode in lighthouse history. The origin of the “imperial” designation is not clear, but it is generally believed that it stems from the fact that British funds were necessary for the completion of the lighthouses. The tall, proud towers certainly live up to their name in appearance. In order of their establishment, the Imperial Towers are Cove Island, Nottawasaga Island, Griffith Island, Chantry Island, Point Clark and Christian Island.
The limestone towers were built by Scottish stonemason John Brown. The original 1855 contract called for 11 lighthouses to be built on Lake Huron and the Georgian Bay, from Point Clark to Christian Island. One of these was never built, and four others were erected years later by other contractors. John Brown pledged to finish the lighthouses without profit to himself, and he proved true to his word. He finished the six Imperial Towers at great personal financial loss, and they stand today as a monument to his skill as a designer and mason. They all remain active aids to navigation.
The construction of the lighthouse on Chantry Island presented special problems. Two steamers and a supply towboat were wrecked at the island between 1855 and 1857. Frequent storms caused delays and drove up costs, and workmen had to be paid higher wages at the offshore site. The tower was finally finished after four years of work. A second order Fresnel lens was installed, and the light was first exhibited on April 1, 1859.
Duncan McGregor Lambert became the first permanent lighthouse keeper on Chantry Island. He saw many changes in his years on the island, including the construction of the “Long Dock” in the 1870s. This consisted of two breakwaters, one extending from the mainland and one from Chantry Island, with an opening called the “Gap” between them. This created a new and much-needed harbor of refuge at Chantry Island. In 1877 a pair of range lights was added to guide mariners through the Gap, and the front range light at the end of the Chantry Island portion of the Long Dock became the responsibility of Keeper Lambert. The rear range light is on shore at McNabb Point, south of the island.
Lambert retired in 1880, shortly after the death of one of his sons at sea. He was replaced by his son William, who had been an assistant from the age of 15. Duncan and William Lambert would keep the light for nearly a half century between them, and they both gained fame from dramatic rescues of shipwreck victims. William, who was credited with the rescue of 20 people, was awarded a gold watch and a bronze medal for his heroic efforts. He also received the Imperial Service Medal at his retirement in 1907.
William Lambert made many improvements to the station, including the addition of a boardwalk from the lighthouse to the Long Dock. The planting of flowers and fruit trees, along with the addition of benches and picnic tables, drew tourists to the island. William Lambert offered tours of the lighthouse for ten cents.
John Klippert was keeper at Chantry Island for about 20 years beginning in 1917. Jean Scott, now Jean Davies, of Winnipeg, was a friend of Klippert’s daughter Ruth and visited the station often in the 1930s. She was recently interviewed by John Weichel for Fo’c’s’le Magazine and recalled her visits there. “They had bats in that house!” she recalled. “Oh! I spent half my weekends running around with a broom batting down bats... I remember one time we knocked over a lamp, which wasn’t very good...”
There was much hard work to do at the lighthouse station, Mrs. Davies remembered. “Every night we had to climb to the top to light the light,” she told Weichel. “He had to pump it up and light the gas. Of course, there were beautiful prisms as I recalled, and when we climbed to the top he’d say, ‘Now you girls keep your fingers off that glass.’ He was meticulously clean... He also had a range light he had to light, on the end of the dock at the end of the island. It was a long way to go. He had an old bicycle and he’d get on it and pedal away down on those boards and out onto the old dock to light the light. I feel really blessed. I have such happy memories.”
Mrs. Davies said she was “heart sick” at the condition of the keeper’s house when she visited many years later. Mike Sterling of the Supporters of Chantry Island has said that the woman’s recollections makes him feel that the preservation group is doing the right thing.
After 40 years of neglect the keeper’s house had no roof and no floors that could be saved. Much of the stonework had fallen into the basement. In 1998 the Propeller Club set specific goals for the restoration on Chantry Island for the year 2001, and every one of the goals was reached.
The restoration project required wood that wasn’t available commercially, so the group cut down 31 giant hemlock trees. Supply boats then carried almost 2000 pounds of materials per day from Southampton to the island. The floors, walls and loft were rebuilt, and a new wooden roof was constructed to guard against the coming winter. The stonework was completed by mason Bill Robinson and his assistants.
The volunteer workers also cleaned up the site around the lighthouse, removing much debris. They built a new work shed on the island, and restored an old rescue boat called the Peerless that was donated by the Town of Southampton.
In early August 2001, the volunteers completed work on the house, with a final cleanup and the placing of the final piece of trim. The volunteer log for the day reported, “We could give Captain Lambert the keys and he could move in again like he did April 1st, 1859. What a thrill.”
On August 11, 2001, the Supporters of Chantry Island arranged a grand opening ceremony. The event included a gathering of the relatives of former lighthouse keepers on the island. One family, the Knectels, gathered on the island for photos for the first time in 62 years, and even the very first Chantry Island keeper was represented by descendants. Mike Sterling reports, “Many tears were shed.”
Work on the site is ongoing. The volunteers have also been giving frequent tours of the island. You can book a tour of Chantry Island through the Southampton Chamber of Commerce by calling 519-797-2215.
The Supporters of Chantry Island have, without doubt, left the island a better place than when they found it. Michael Goodwin’s song “We Were Here” celebrates this, as well as Chantry Island’s history.
“We Were Here”
Words and music by Michael Goodwin
Upon the rugged shores of Lake Huron,
The seasons have all come and gone.
Of men and boats and harbours from the storm,
The Lighthouse brings them back to shore.
The Lighthouse stands for so much more
In the hearts of those who keep the memories warm.
Like a beacon in the night,
Guide us to the light.
Shine within each heart so strong and clear.
As the seasons pass in time,
The past is yours and mine.
Tell those yet to come that we were here.
Amid the daily storms of care and strife,
Adrift upon the sea of life,
A ship can list and sometimes lose her way.
Living in a world of change,
It’s good to know some things remain
That help us all preserve that brighter day.
Tell the world to come that we were here.
This story appeared in the
September 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.
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