Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on the Toronto Islands is today tucked amongst the trees and away from the shore it once stood so close to.
Construction of the Lighthouse
In 1803, the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada passed an act to build three lighthouses – one in Kingston, one in Niagara and one at Gibraltar Point opposite York (Toronto).
John Thomson, a Scottish-born early settler of York, built the lighthouse at Gibraltar Point. A stonemason by trade, Thomson began building the structure around 1806 and completed it in 1808.
The beacon stood just 8 m or 26 ft from Lake Ontario’s shifting shoreline when it was constructed. The lighthouse was built on 10 acres of pure sand, and its foundation is made from a bed of timber filled with stone. The walls at the base of the hexagon-shaped lighthouse are 1.8 m or 6 feet thick and gradually decrease to 1.2 m or 4 ft in thickness as it rises to the top. Originally 16 m or 52 ft high, the historic tower was put together using limestone and mortar. The limestone was brought to the Islands from Queenston, Niagara, by way of a government schooner called The Mohawk.
The lighthouse was topped with a lantern cage surrounded by a wooden gallery and a weathervane. Its signal was first lit at the end of September 1808.
In 1832, the height of the lighthouse was raised by 25 m or 82 ft by adding stone, this time from Kingston.
The Beacon’s Lights
The lantern had six lamps with reflective backs. The lamps had 2-inch wicks and were fueled by 909 litres or 200 gallons of whale oil each year until 1863, when it switched to coal oil. On a clear night, the lighthouse could be seen 48 km or 30 miles away, and on an average night, 22 to 32 km or 14 to 20 miles out.
The lamps used from 1808 to 1877 were stationary. In 1878 a hand-wound, revolving lantern was installed. In 1917, the beacon was updated to electric lighting. In 1945, to differentiate from the City’s bright radiance, the light was changed from white to green.
Signalling the Approach for 150 Years
For decades, the beacon lit the way for mariners in Toronto’s harbour. During that time, there were still many shipwrecks along the shore. Some due to angry gale force winds or blinding snowstorms on the lake.
In use for almost 150 years, its light was extinguished one final time at the end of the 1957 shipping season. In 1958, ownership of Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was transferred from the federal Department of Transport to the City’s Parks Department.
The Lighthouse Keepers & Cottages
The first lake lightkeeper was John P Rademuller until his disappearance in 1815. The second was Mr Halloway, who looked after it until his passing sixteen years later. From 1832 to 1905, father and son James and George Durnan were the third and fourth lighthouse keepers. Dedie Dodds was the last keeper.
Over the years, the keepers and their families were the founders of the Islands community. The lighthouse keepers lived in white-washed clapboard cottages. While they have since been destroyed, the first cottage was in existence from about 1809 until the mid-1950s.
A Haunted Reputation
In 1794 and before the lighthouse was built, Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe had a blockhouse constructed. It was located north of the lighthouse, near present-day Hanlan’s Point. The blockhouse had two mounted guns with soldiers from Fort York guarding it until the end of the War of 1812.
John Rademuller, the first keeper, was known to keep a keg of beer (from a brewery in Lewiston, NY) at his cottage to share with visiting friends. The soldiers often rowed down or walked from Blockhouse Bay to visit Rademuller. One day in 1815, when three soldiers were visiting, Mr Rademuller thought they had already had enough libations, so he cut them off. So the story goes, this ended in a deadly fight, and Rademuller vanished. For years, no one knew what happened to him, but for generations, the legend was passed down. In 1893, George Durnan, the fourth keeper, found parts of a human jaw bone and pieces of a coffin about 152 m or 500 ft west of the keeper’s house, under 1.2 m or 4 ft of sand. Click for more haunted tales.
Did You Know?
At one time, a peninsula joined the mainland near the foot of Woodbine Ave. It was along this area that Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and his wife, Elizabeth, rode on horseback around to Gibraltar Point.
The Upper Canada Gazette of 16th March 1808, stated: “It is with pleasure we inform the public that the dangers to vessels navigating Lake Ontario will in a great measure be avoided by the erection of a lighthouse on Gibraltar Point.”
The Island itself and its waterways and lagoons are quite different from when the lighthouse was built to what exists today.
Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It’s the second oldest in Canada, with Sambro Lighthouse in Halifax, Nova Scotia built in 1758, holding the title.
Gibraltar Point Lighthouse Photos
- Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 5 by J Ross Robertson
- Ontario Heritage Trust
- Toronto Star: Ghost stories sill haunt Gibraltar Point Lighthouse
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Archives of Ontario & Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 5 by J Ross Robertson