Lion’s Head Lighthouse: High Water and Storms a Constant Threat

Photo: The new Lion’s Head lighthouse is suffering significant cosmetic damage every time a storm blows out of the east or north. “Protecting the lighthouse is at the top of our minds” says Municipal CAO Peggy Van Mierlo-West. Photo Credit: Joanne Rodgers, Bruce Peninsula Press.
By John Francis

The waters of Georgian Bay have rarely (1986, 1987, 2019) been this high, this late in the year. You can look it up: gives you a very detailed hundred-year graph.

This means that there is no playbook for predicting the damage that fall and winter storms will cause.

Rude surprises have been an ongoing theme over the last year and a half. Lion’s Head lighthouse was badly damaged in October and early November, 2019, then destroyed in January of 2020. Fall and winter storms washed out Cabot Head Road. Countless other locations on the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron coasts have been threatened or damaged.

Now the new Lion’s Head lighthouse — a more robust building, constructed on a much more protected footing — is suffering significant damage every time a storm blows out of the east or north. It should be noted that the damage thus far is strictly cosmetic — the building’s structural integrity has not been threatened.

But still — it looks like being a challenge to keep replacing the siding every few weeks.

The problem is that large drifts of shore stone pile up around the lighthouse every time there is a northeast blow. The last couple of years, those piles have been the largest in living memory.

Brian Swanton Sr moved to Lion’s Head in 1972 to teach shop at BPDS; he has been watching the shore ever since. Now well into his 80s, he likes to take the long view. He watched as storms pushed  a drift of stones up against the new building in November, causing cosmetic damage to the siding of the new building. The municipality bulldozed “about ten or twelve feet of it” back into the water. But early December storms “put it all back plus more”. 

“Remember there was always a barrier across there,” he says, reminding me that Lion’s Head harbour was just a backshore wetland until it was dredged in the late 19th century (and several times since then). That gravel bar was always there, he says. “Mother Nature is just trying to put it back.” 

Swanton was the shop teacher at BPDS in the early 1980s when the shop classes built a replica of Lion’s Head’s original lighthouse. He was co-leader of the volunteer team that built the 2020 replacement after the 1980s building was destroyed by winter storms.

October 2011 file photo: water levels were low and the shoreline seemed stable.

Bruce Draper (who taught metal work at BPDS) represented Lion’s Head Harbour throughout the major upgrades  and breakwater installation of the 1980s. He talked with Swanton after the light was destroyed in January, trying to imagine ways to “weather-proof” a replacement light.

They thought of putting a stone veneer on the lighthouse (rejected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans engineers as too heavy for the underpinning rock) or raising the lighthouse out of harm’s way on a five-foot-high footing (also rejected by DFO engineers as too heavy).  

Draper finds this a bit frustrating. “People who don’t walk by our harbour every day are making decisions — and we have to live with them.” He thinks that placement of a few smart car-sized rocks along the shore north of the lighthouse — to break up incoming waves — would probably offer protection for ten years or so. He is not certain about what approvals would be needed in order to implement such a solution.

Municipal CAO Peggy Van Mierlo-West provided an update on the municipal response: “We met with the building team this week to discuss how to protect the lighthouse. While we dive deeper into a more permanent fix, staff are currently procuring boards to protect the lighthouse and discussing mitigation measures with coastal engineers.  We are hoping to have the repair complete by next week.  A report will be coming to Council regarding next steps. Protecting the lighthouse is at the top of our minds.”