Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse National Historic Site of Canada

History

Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse © Parks Canada
Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse
© Parks Canada

The lighthouse on the southern end of Bois Blanc Island was constructed by the government of Upper Canada in 1836, just before the Rebellion crisis of 1837-1838. Located near the mouth of the Detroit River, it marked the main navigational channel and guided upbound traffic from Lake Erie to Amherstburg, Windsor and the upper lakes. Its lantern, situated 56 feet above the high water mark, was reported in 1872 as being visible for 18 miles in clear weather. It was apparently the third lighthouse erected to improve the safety of Lake Erie navigation, following an increase in shipping activity associated with the completion of the Welland Canal in 1829. The Bois Blanc Island lighthouse remained in service until the late 1950s, when it was rendered redundant by new navigational aids. It was transferred to Parks Canada in 1961.

The lighthouse is associated with the brief occupation of Bois Blanc Island by rebel forces during the Rebellion era. On January 8, 1838 a group of 60 Canadian "Patriots" and their American sympathizers on board the Schooner Anne landed on the island. They forced the evacuation of the small military guard and the lighthouse keeper and his family from the island. The next day the rebel's vessel ran aground near Amherstburg and they were all captured. The attack was one of several incursions by rebel forces along the Detroit frontier which prompted the bolstering of militia and regular forces at Fort Malden. In 1961 the lighthouse was designated a national historic site on the basis of being "a point of attack by American Patriots during the troubles of 1837-1838."

The lighthouse relates somewhat more broadly to the development of several communities along the Detroit River which grew as centres of commerce and trade during the 1830s. Amherstburg, with a population of several hundred residents, was no exception. The community had a strong orientation to water transportation in the 19th century. As a military post and a storage depot, and as a regional service centre for area farmers, it had numerous wharves and storage facilities that reflected the development of navigation along the Detroit River. The lighthouse also underscores the strategic geographical location of Amherstburg and the reason why this site was chosen by the British for construction of a military post. The navigation channel became very narrow at this point, compelling vessels to pass close by the shoreline of Amherstburg, along the ease side of Bois Blanc Island. The lighthouse guided vessels towards the channel and away from the dangerous shoals nearby.

The lighthouse is an early example of an imperial tower, a common lighthouse type in the 1830 to 1860 period. The imperial lights varied in height to upwards of 100 feet and were characterized by a tapered circular tower, consisting of a rubble-stone core finished or covered with rubble, hammer-dressed or rusticated stone. The Bois Blanc Island tower has a rubble-stone finish and measures 18 feet in diameter at the base and 40 feet in height. Its gracefully tapered sides are finished with a cornice of stepped corbelling and are punctuated by three windows. The lantern, originally lit by a catoptric burning apparatus, was upgraded several times over the decades until 1954, when it was destroyed by fire. It was replaced by a utilitarian steel frame structure, which was subsequently removed by Parks Canada in the 1970s. Originally, the entrance door was graced with a semi-circular fanlight. During the 1970s the door and fanlight were restored by Parks Canada, but were subsequently destroyed by vandals. As a result, the entrance was infilled with rubble stone masonry.

The use of limestone for the construction of the tower has helped ensure its survival and overall stability for over a century and a half. According to one source, the limestone was brought as ballast from Kingston. The designer of the lighthouse is not known. Plans and specifications were prepared for commissioners who were appointed by the Assembly of Upper Canada to oversee the project. The tower was built on contract by John Cook of Detroit. Although it cannot be confirmed, a local tradition asserts that the architect for the lighthouse was Andrew Kemp, attached to the Royal Engineers, Civil Branch at Amherstburg.

Adapted from the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office: Building Report 91-181.

Partial List of Keepers
1836 - 1870 James Hackett
1870 - 1901 Andrew Hackett
1901 - 192? Charles Hackett

Commemorating Canada's History