By Zoë Mason,
Bruce Peninsula Press
“It was an inhospitable place,” writes Patrick Folkes of Cabot Head. “[It was] of interest only because Wingfield Basin held the possibility of being useful as a harbour of refuge.”
The excerpt is from his book Cabot Head: A History of its Lighthouse, Shipwrecks, Fishery and Timber Industry, which indeed paints a desolate picture of the site at the time of its delineation by Captain William F. Owens in 1815.
“The Niagara Escarpment,” Folkes continues, “forms the spine of the Peninsula, trending north and northwest. At Cabot Head it turns abruptly west in which course the last veneer of forested talus gives way to a dramatic precipice, unbroken but for the ancient erosions of Georgian Bay.”
The image he summons in his opening here is of course of the land as it was, untouched, over two hundred years ago. Today such a description would read instead “At Cabot Head it turns abruptly west in which course the last veneer of forested talus gives away to a dramatic precipice, unbroken but for the ancient erosions of Georgian Bay — and the striking silhouette of the Cabot Head lightstation.”
Erected beginning in 1895, Cabot Head lightstation was the Department of Marine and Fisheries’ reluctant response to increased commercial traffic in the hazardous waters beyond the Cabot Head point. Over 125 years, it has undergone a lengthy evolution. From a guiding light for the steamer traffic of the late 19th century to an important conservatory of regional flora and fauna, a tourist trap, and a museum, the light station has played many roles in the history of the Northern Bruce community.
But now, a perfect storm of circumstances threatens to reduce the light station itself into nothing but a ruin, like the sunken wrecks it presides over.
* * * *
Brent Skippen is a man who loves lighthouses. Or at least, if he doesn’t, he does a very good job hiding it.
A large picture featuring a grid of lighthouses dominates one wall in his Lion’s Head home, and he happily shows me a picture he took of the last lighthouse he kept, a squat structure somewhere in the isolated waters of Lake Erie. He took the picture aboard the helicopter that taxied him and the other light keepers to their posts.
He tells me a bit about life at lighthouses with a smile, fondly but not nostalgically. In the other room, his wife jokes that he should tell me it was exactly like The Lighthouse, last year’s disturbing, Oscar-nominated psychological thriller by Robert Eggers. He assures me it was not, but it sounds like there was still a certain amount of lonesome drudgery. At the Erie station, for example, he jokes that the light keepers walked around the parapet a few hundred times a day for exercise.
His stint at Cabot Head marked the third of an eventual four terms as light keeper.
“I’d been a light keeper for about three years by that time. And [when] that job came open, I had been up on a remote island in Lake Superior,” he says. “ I thought this would be a better spot, and it was.”
As far as his experience as light keeper at Cabot Head, it was largely unremarkable. It wasn’t his favourite lightstation — that honour goes to Killarney — nor his most exciting (no helicopter entrances here). However, his time at Cabot Head does leave him with the intriguing distinction of being the light station’s last light keeper.
“By the time I got there in ‘82, it was pretty well all automated,” he recalls. “So I was sort of a glorified security guard, keeping things up until the end.” He smiles, adding that Cabot Head is the “best place in the world to be a security guard.”
“You could do all your reading, everything you wanted. A lot of keepers had hobbies, builders, whatever. Some people made jewelry,” he says.
In the eighties, during Skippen’s time at the light station, there were many lingering signs of the world that existed in it before. He tells me that in the basement, a long strip was on the floor that was used to mend nets — a hobby of longtime light keeper Harry Hopkins.
* * * *
Hopkins was a World War II veteran before he came to Cabot Head — after the First World War, preference was given to veterans when the time came to appoint new light keepers. After securing the appointment in 1951, he went on to become the light station’s longest serving light keeper, occupying the post until his sudden death in 1981. He was also a father of seven. His eldest daughter, Karen, looks back fondly on childhood summers in Cabot Head.
Karen was nine when her father got the job as light keeper in 1951, over ten years before the road was eventually put in. She remembers taking the boat from Dyer’s Bay and heading north.
“ It wasn’t usually too bad til we got out to the point, and then around Shingle Beach you’d get into the wind,” she recalls. “And then it would be rough, and then I didn’t like that.”
Years later, her younger brother, Robert Kim, reached shore by helicopter off the icebreaker the Alexander Henry, according to his collection of stories, Adventures at the Light with No. 6.
Karen’s memories of Cabot Head are of the joys of quiet isolation.
“We got up in the morning and had breakfast and then you’re in your bathing suit all day. You had to wait for an hour after you ate but then you could go for a swim. So you have that to do every day. You go for a swim, and we did a lot of reading.”
She seems to look fondly back on those still summer days.
“It was a great way to be,” she says.
Her brother Kim’s recollections reflect the rambunctiousness of unrestrained boyhood.
He writes of skipping bullets from his .22 on the glassy waters of the basin; causing landslides with his brothers on the bluffs; lapping water out of puddles like a dog; rattlesnake encounters and making knives.
According to Karen, there wasn’t electricity at the light station for much of her childhood. Kim writes that television landed in Cabot Head in the mid to late fifties. It was, for much of its history, a world unto itself — a circumstance that produces pleasant solitude as well as crushing loneliness and, at times, complete subjugation to a climate that can be extreme.
Ruby Hopkins, Harry’s wife, describes these contradictions in a poem included in her son’s book, which concludes: “But never mind folks, I think it’s swell / It’s a ¼ heaven; mix the other parts hell.”
* * * *
Capturing both the good and the bad — the whole picture of life at the light station — and relaying it to today’s youth is one of many aims of the Friends of Cabot Head.
Ina Toxopeus, a founding member and longtime chair, describes the mission of the volunteer organization thusly: “the long and the short of it is to preserve the lighthouse as a historical site, [run] the museum, and to maintain the property so that it will show the flora and fauna, the history of fishing and maritime [enterprises], and of course to be a self sustaining entity.”
Toxopeus has had a many years long love affair with the lightstation.
“She won’t tell you this, but Ina was part of a group of people who actually did a sit-in on the road when the government was decommissioning that lighthouse, fighting for an opportunity to preserve it,” says current chair Ron Wheeler.
“My family comes from salt water, sea, life saving and lighthouses, not to mention fishing,” she explains. Her family background has instilled in her a profound respect for the water and, by extension, the light stations that help to navigate it. “I had a cousin, he did freighter work in Europe. He said he’d take a Category Five hurricane on the Atlantic Ocean or a typhoon on the Pacific rather than a November storm in the Great Lakes.”
In fact, safety is one of the many reasons that Wheeler and Toxopeus believe that the lighthouse must be protected.
“It started there for commercial traffic,” says Toxopeus. “Well, the commercial traffic is going, unfortunately. But what is happening is tourist traffic.
Wheeler recalls a summer several years ago marked by several drownings. The light station, he says, was used as a base for the ensuing search.
“There was one policeman standing on top of the catwalk with a walkie talkie, talking to the guy on the phone in the cottage, talking to the boat in the water,” remembers Toxopeus. “The light is there for a reason, because of that.”
Despite the obvious benefits for safety and search and rescue, the future of the light station is currently under significant threat.
Although Wheeler says the government was aware for many years that there were hazardous materials in the soil surrounding the Cabot Head lighthouse, it wasn’t until 2017 that they chose to act on it, and he says they did so with little notice at the start of the year’s tour season. In the ensuing years, membership of the Friends has dropped 60 per cent, a tragic and damaging leak has caused ceilings in the heritage building to collapse, and bureaucratic entanglements have prevented the Friends from accessing the property to assess damages, withdraw museum artefacts, or remove thousands of dollars worth of assets from the crumbling property.
“We’ve been faced with the perfect storm as a group,” levels Wheeler. “Closure at an inappropriate time; the federal government dragging their heels; but worse yet, while that road is not being traveled as much, and being watched and taken care of, the weather over the last two years with unusual prevailing winds in the winter, have taken its toll on that road along a great large portion of the shoreline on Georgian and Lake Huron.”
The result of these combined factors has been devastating.
“It’s already rotting,” says Wheeler. He brought the leak to the attention of the government contractors last July when he discovered it on an authorized walkabout, but when he visited again in November, nothing had been done, and the damage was significant.
In addition, as the bureaucracy of the overlapping land claims and lease confusion continues in Cabot Head, the Friends have continued to pay for operating costs and insurance, all without any income coming in.
“The reserves we had put aside where we’re going to put the new windows in, have all basically been eaten up over the last four years paying our operating costs,” says Wheeler. “And so we’re down to the fact where we have enough money to probably cover our operating costs into 2021.”
And after that? Wheeler is blunt: “we’re dead.”
The fact is, Cabot Head has been embroiled in politics to its detriment for decades. Originally, the Cabot Head area was proposed to be included in the National Park — a proposal that would please all parties in the complicated issue, including the Friends, the residents of Dyers Bay, and the Crawford family who own the land the road crosses.
A notice of agreement from the mid-eighties — when the solution was proposed — reads “that the waters Wingfield basin be included in National Park boundaries, and be made accessible by both land and water for people who enjoy the land access by way of a bypass road to avoid traffic through Dyers Bay.”
Ultimately, the bypass road did not go through. Municipal elections that took place shortly after the proposal was made voted out the politicians who had collaborated on the bypass road plan, and, according to Wheeler, “ the first thing that the new people who were voted in did was withdraw from the agreement to the park.” Wheeler says the local residents were motivated by fear of expropriation by the government and disapproved of ceding first right of refusal to the government should they choose to sell their properties once they became a part of the park land.
Wheeler and Toxopeus both resent their place in the ongoing conflict surrounding Cabot Head road.
“The target of his anger has generally been Friends of Cabot Head and the lighthouse. There’s a long portion of that road that belongs to the province,” says Wheeler. “We are not the only culprits here.”
Toxopeus adds that they are not only open to alternative routes, but welcome them. They, too, have suffered due to the unending onslaughts of tourist traffic in the past. They just hope that their lighthouse isn’t what resolution of this conflict costs.
“When you have 18,000 people, the last year that the property ran, and I think the year before we were like 16,000 — it’s not a road to nowhere. It brings value to the community,” says Wheeler.
“Do we understand there’s increased traffic? Are we sympathetic? Yes. But we don’t want our lighthouse closed down either.”
* * * *
The enduring charm of lighthouses isn’t hard to pinpoint. They invoke Lightfoot-esque imagery of Canadian desolation and determination.
Before the closure, the Friends of Cabot Head had hoped to find novel ways to bring this charm to a greater audience. They envisioned dark sky walks and creative retreats. They had their assistant lightkeeper program. They were collaborating on shuttles and other new ways to bring tourists — in a controlled fashion — to Cabot Head.
Now, their dream is far more grounded — to see the lighthouse last another year. Wheeler says that at the rate the damage is progressing, it’s possible the structure could decay to the point of collapse within a couple of years.
“The saddest part about all of this,” he says, “is that this remediation program that they put in was over a million dollars from taxpayers dollars, and it’s going to waste, it’s all going to be destroyed because nobody can decide who’s going to be the caretaker.”
In the afterword of his book, Folkes writes the following, which serves as a poignant conclusion to the turbulent saga: “although the storm signal and the original light tower are gone, much remains. The concrete foundations of the fog alarm facility have defied time and weather. There is still interest here in these defiant ruins.”