By John Francis
After an absence of more than eight months, Lion’s Head lighthouse returned to its familiar spot on September 21. Purists will notice a few small differences — the new light is a few feet taller, a bit more robust and located in a less exposed spot -— but it’s the same iconic shape and back where it belongs.
The original lighthouse was installed in 1913 to replace a lantern on a metal pole. A few months later, during the White Hurricane of 1913, the lighthouse was lifted off its footings and blown across the harbour onto the beach. Miraculously it was not badly damaged. Restored to a slightly more sheltered spot, it served for half a century before the Coast Guard tore it down and replaced it with a light atop a metal pole.
But the community didn’t feel right without a lighthouse building beside the harbour. A perfect replica of the original light — built by Brian Swanton’s shop classes at BPDS in 1982-83 — was installed on the shore near where the postcard frame sits today.
When the light-on-a-pole blew down in a storm, the replica lighthouse was moved into place on the pier and pressed into service. The spot they chose for the lighthouse seemed safe enough at the time but the water levels were low in 2000. Fast forward to 2019 with water levels near record highs and waves lapping at the foundation; the light sustained considerable damage in an October 31 storm. Emergency repairs were made, along with a plan to move it to a more sheltered location in spring.
Then the January 12 storm smashed it to bits.
The next morning, Brian Swanton drove down to see the lighthouse wreckage then drove to the municipal office to talk to then-CAO Bill Jones about what could be done to restore the light. Swanton told Jones he still had the original plans which he had used to construct the replica lighthouse. On the way home, Swanton stopped in to see Doug Hill who also called Jones that same day to offer help.
A few days later, CAO Jones invited Swanton and Hill for a meeting to discuss rebuilding the lighthouse. Newly-hired Community Services Manager Ryan Deska agreed to take care of funding, managing community donations and paying suppliers, Swanton dug out the original 1911 plans and handled negotiations with Department of Fisheries and Oceans (who own the land where the lighthouse sits and are responsible for all navigational lighting) and Hill volunteered his time and his construction barn.
Deska has handled the finances from the beginning, collecting close to $16,000 in donations, issuing receipts and paying suppliers as needed. Swanton remarks how convenient it was to just go to the lumberyard and pick up what was needed.
The original “we’ll have it finished in time for the boating season” plans had to be abandoned. Engineering concerns and COVID protocols caused interminable months of delay but resulted in the lighthouse being located in a more sheltered location underpinned by (relatively) solid rock. That also gave Doug Hill time to revise the plans carefully to convert from the original balloon framing to modern platform framing while maintaining the original dimensions.
This allowed them to do the construction in Doug Hill’s barn. Hill designed the light in four sections which could be carried on a trailer and still fit under hydro wires.
Once all the approvals were in place, construction happened fairly quickly. The core construction crew of Doug Hill and Brian Swanton sr, was complemented every weekend by Brian Swanton jr, Logan Swanton and Devan Swanton.
Many other people volunteered where they could. Pat Boyle did the concrete work to remove the old footing and put in the new one. Harold Sutherland provided the concrete. Rick Gore supplied and installed the waterproof membrane on the catwalk. Todd Elliott painted the tricky parts of the top section. “Teddy Hayes did the railing,” Hill told me. “I don’t think there’ll be an invoice for that. And Alton Hunter called me from Florida back in January, wondering what he could do to help.” Hunter Haulage provided the trucks and floats to get the finished lighthouse from the construction barn to the pier.
Swanton, Hill and Deska say that there are many more residents and cottagers who volunteered their help and made donations of money and materials.
Crane day — Monday, September 21 — could not have gone more smoothly.
The four sections were rolled out of the barn on pipes then lifted by crane onto the Hunter Haulage floats.
At the harbour, the sections were lifted one by one. The bottom section fitted perfectly onto the footing. The next section fitted perfectly on top as did the third and fourth. As the top section was dropped into place, a round of applause came from the hundred or so people who had gathered to watch.
The next steps are a bit uncertain. Ice-resistant Hardie-board siding is back-ordered. It looks like cedar shakes but is actually made of fibre-reinforced cement. The tempered glass windows for the top section are on order. When those things are in place, DFO will sign off and hook up the electricity.
When that time comes, Doug Hill thinks there should be a ceremony — not a ribbon-cutting but rather a switch-throwing. “We wouldn’t have a lighthouse to replace if it wasn’t for Brian and his class,” he points out. “Brian should be given the honour of turning on the switch.”
On September 25, there was a piece about Lion’s Head light on the CBC Radio program Ontario Morning. Guest host Susan McReynolds interviewed Ryan Deska and Brian Swanton. If the lighthouse keeps blowing down, she wondered, “why not let it go?”
“What you have to understand is:” Swanton replied, “if you were to go back to the early one in the 1900s, you’ve got a community of about 1,500 people, three or four lumberyards, two fisheries, a major transport company that served the west shore of Georgian Bay and the south shore of Manitoulin Island. The lighthouse was a vital part of their life. A lot of the relatives of those people still live in this area so that connection is there. Young people today — even the graduates from the high school — when they have their graduation pictures taken, what do they do? They all go to the lighthouse to have their pictures taken. It’s the landmark that ties the town.”