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Safe Passage: Aids to Navigation on the St. Lawrence

François Cartier, McCord Museum

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Introduction:

François Cartier, McCord Museum, 2003

Quintessential symbols of the romance of the sea, solitary guardians of our coasts, towers standing firm against salt-bearing winds -- lighthouses have always captured our imagination. Whether depicted in popular art or in written accounts of tragic shipwrecks and heroic battles against cruel seas, lighthouses are objects of curiosity and fascination.

Yet hidden behind the idyllic image lies a practical reality. Lighthouses and a whole range of navigation aids are designed to facilitate the transporting of people and goods by water. Long before the advent of trains and automobiles, sailing ships and later steamboats were the main means of transportation. In the 19th century, they carried many thousands of immigrants inland to the heart of this country-Canada-and many millions of bushels of Western grain on the way to European markets. Ships were an essential mode of transportation in Canada, and one of the keys to its future economic growth.


MP-0000.737.6
© McCord Museum
Print
Steamer "Lakeside" leaving Port Dalhousie, ON, about 1904-1910
Anonyme - Anonymous
1904-1910, 20th century
Coloured ink on paper mounted on card - Offset
7 x 13 cm
Gift of Mr. Stanley G. Triggs
MP-0000.737.6
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Inland Navigation in Canada in the 19th Century
The Golden Age of Shipping
The 19th century witnessed major changes in the Canadian navigation system, in particular, along the Laurentian shipping route. Some historians even call the period "the golden age of shipping." From the early years of wooden rafts and single-sailed Durham boats navigating the shoals and rapids of Canada's rivers, the century saw the arrival, in its waning years, of the era of steamboats. These modern ships, including the famous canallers, travelled the inland waterways transporting people and goods until the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

What:

Here we see two lighthouses. Pairs of lighthouses were often placed at the entrance to harbours and canals, the smaller one first, the larger one behind it. Approaching ships would align the two lights thereby setting a line to sail by.

Where:

Port Dalhousie is located at the north end of the Welland Canal, on the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario. The Welland Canal connects Lakes Ontario and Erie, providing ships a means to bypass Niagara Falls.

When:

Port Dalhousie was the northern terminus of the Welland Canal from 1829 to 1932, when Port Weller took over that role. The lighthouses date from 1852 (the rear alignment beacon) and 1879 (the front alignment beacon). The rear beacon was rebuilt two times: in 1893, after a fire gutted the original structure, and in 1898, after a second blaze.

Who:

The lighthouses guide ships entering Lake Ontario and heading toward Port Dalhousie, on their way to the Welland Canal. To check their approach, the pilots had to make sure that the two beacon lights were visually aligned, one over the other.

M984.273
© McCord Museum
Painting
Lachine Canal, Lachine, QC
James Duncan (1806-1881)
About 1850, 19th century
Watercolour and graphite on paper; Lithography
19.4 x 29.3 cm
Gift of Dr. Daniel Lowe
M984.273
© McCord Museum

Description:

This view, executed near the first lock of the Lachine Canal, looks north-east into the harbour. The small building to the left of the lock served as quarters for the men who operated the floodgates. In 1844, the canal had undergone further enlargement to accommodate bigger vessels, and by 1850 - the time this watercolour was executed - the port of Montreal was receiving 222 vessels per season and the tonnage had increased to 46,000 tons. The canal was also a popular site for leisure activities. A young boy can be seen fishing from the top of the floodgate while other figures observe the scenery from the banks. Although the work is not signed, comparison of the inscription with those on other works known to be by Duncan shows it to be in the artist's hand. The people depicted in the work are also typical of this artist's handling of the human figure.

Keys to History:

The Age of Canals
Because of the rapid increase in river transportation in the 19th century, British colonial officials (and later the Canadian government) authorized a number of modifications to the navigation system, in particular, the construction of several canals and locks. The middle decades of the 19th century became known as the "age of canals."

Massive engineering projects such as the widening of the Lachine Canal (1843-1848) and the construction of the Beauharnois Canal (1842-1845) were needed so that the new steamboats could use the system. These large-scale improvements tended to overshadow smaller but equally important ones, however: the development of an efficient system of navigation aids, in particular, the construction of more lighthouses of various types.

What:

The Lachine Canal was dug by hand by labourers. Although the bottom was left as is (earth and rock), its sides were built of, variously, cut stone, wooden planks, cement and concrete. To allow for the 14-metre variation in water level from one end to the other, a system of locks was constructed. Seven locks were opened in 1825, but the number was reduced to five in 1848.

Where:

The Lachine Canal runs along the southwest shore of the Island of Montreal. It provides a means for ships to bypass the Lachine Rapids on the eastern flank of Lac St. Louis. The Lachine Canal was the first canal reached by ships sailing up the St. Lawrence River, that is, before the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

When:

The idea to build a canal around the rapids at Lachine dated from the end of the 17th century (during the French regime). The canal as we know it was opened in 1825. It was later enlarged, for the first time between 1843 and 1848, then between 1870 and 1885. Closed to maritime traffic in 1970, the canal was rebuilt and reopened in 2002.

Who:

In the 19th century, the Lachine Canal was used by an array of ships, from small Durham boats to large cargo ships. The men and women who used the canal were just as diverse, from temporarily land-locked sailors to passengers travelling for pleasure or necessity -- including the thousands of immigrants who passed through it on their way to Upper Canada.

M4646
© McCord Museum
Print
Montreal Fire, Life and Inland Navigation Assurance Company. Tariff of Rates of Inland Navigation Insurance.
August 28th, 1843, 19th century
Ink on paper
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M4646
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Reasons for the Increase in Maritime Traffic
Immigration
There were thousands of new arrivals to the Upper St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions during the 19th century. Whether Loyalists escaping the United States, immigrants from Europe, or Canadians in search of new lands, their presence changed the nature and the volume of maritime traffic on the St. Lawrence. Between 1818 and 1825, for example, approximately 5000 tons of merchandise were shipped upriver to the Great Lakes each year. By 1832, that rate had increased to 21,000 tons. That year alone, 52,000 immigrants landed in the major ports of the St. Lawrence.

The new colonists needed a variety of goods to survive: food, clothing, farming equipment, stoves, hardware, etc. For a number of intermediaries, especially insurance companies, the increase in cargo hauling meant a commercial boom.

What:

The insurance business has been around for a long time. From the earliest years of the St. Lawrence River transport industry, there were companies to insure the cargoes of ships sailing up and down the river, as indicated by this printed list of insurance rates. It also shows that the premium was calculated on the basis of the ship's route on the St. Lawrence.

Where:

The Montreal Fire, Life and Inland Navigation Assurance Company, to state its full name, set up shop on St. James Street in what is today called Old Montreal. In addition to its numerous agents in Ontario (in Prescott, Kingston and Toronto, for example), the company employed agents in several American cities, including Detroit and Cleveland.

When:

These were the rates in 1843, a time when more and more people and goods were being transported on the St. Lawrence. For example, when this rate list was issued (on August 28, 1843), the Lachine and Beauharnois canals were under construction. The increased traffic represented a good business opportunity, and several companies jumped at it. The Montreal Fire, Life and Inland Navigation Assurance Company was founded in 1840.

Who:

The rates were of interest mainly to shipowners, since the document lists the premiums for schooners, Durham boats and steamers. The document was probably given to merchants as well, so that they could determine the

VIEW-812.1
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Loading grain in sailboat "Lake Michigan", Montreal, QC, about 1878
Notman & Sandham
Probably 1878, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Albumen process
10 x 8 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
VIEW-812.1
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Shipping
Although the quantity of merchandise carried upriver increased throughout the 19th century, the flow of goods in the other direction was actually more important to Canadians. In 1832, 66 000 tons of goods were being shipped annually from the Great Lakes region to Montreal, including 92 000 barrels of flour and 300 000 bushels of wheat. During the 19th century, grain was second only to coal in terms of the quantity shipped. The products from the West were usually carried by barge or schooner to Montreal or Quebec City, before being loaded into oceangoing ships for transport to the ports of Europe.

What:

The grain barges used in the late 19th century were built of wood and generally had no engine. They had to be towed to their destination. Most had a single small sail to make them easier to tow.

Where:

The port of Montreal was the main terminal for grain barges sailing downriver from the Upper St. Lawrence. This is where their valuable cargo was transferred to larger vessels such as sailing ships or steamships destined for faraway markets.

When:

With the opening up of Western Canada to settlers in the late 19th century, grain became one of the principal commodities transported on the St. Lawrence system. Ships make the same journey today, their holds bursting with grain.

Who:

Grain barges were often owned by large transport companies such as the Canada Atlantic Railway. To transport Western grain to the terminals (e.g., at Coteau-du-Lac on Lake St. Francis to the west of Montreal) for loading on barges, the company built railroads.

M930.50.7.868
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Rideau Canal
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
15.4 x 21 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.7.868
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Strategic Considerations
The main impetuses in the development of Canadian shipping routes in the 19th century were economic and social. But there was another important reason: fear among the Imperial powers in London of the American threat. On two previous occasions (during the American Revolution of 1775 and the War of 1812) the Americans had compromised the safety of the St. Lawrence navigation routes and revealed the weaknesses of the network.

Aware of this strategic liability, in 1817 British authorities started work on improving inland shipping in Canada, in particular the Ottawa River route and the Rideau Canal. The largest public works projects were launched, however, after 1840 and the Act of Union. The Act opened the way for local authorities to borrow large sums of money in London and thus to finance such undertakings.

What:

The Rideau Canal, which was almost 278 kilometres in length, was built so that Canada's inland waterways would be further away from the American threat. Recall that during the War of 1812 the Americans invaded Canadian territory and compromised the safety of shipping on the St. Lawrence River.

Where:

The Rideau Canal connects the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River along a north-south axis. From its northern end, next to the city of Ottawa (formerly called Bytown), the canal runs south to Kingston, where it meets the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

When:

The Rideau Canal was built between 1826 and 1832 under the direction of Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Considered at the time a marvel of Canadian maritime engineering, the canal is still open as a navigable route, making it the oldest canal of its type in continuous use in North America.

Who:

Approximately 2000 men worked on the construction of the waterway. Many fell ill with malaria while living at the site, where conditions were extremely unsanitary. It is estimated that one-quarter of the workforce, some 500 men, died either of malaria or accidents while working on the canal.

M930.50.5.549
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Design for corporate name of Richelieu and Ontario navigation company
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
8.5 x 16 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.5.549
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Consequences of the Increase in Maritime Traffic
New Business Opportunities
Numerous shipping companies were founded during the middle decades of the 19th century, and a variety of factors came together to ensure their success. The harbour at Quebec City had become a major destination for oceangoing ships. There was therefore a need for fleets of smaller boats to carry the offloaded merchandise and passengers to Montreal. Competition in shipping on the St. Lawrence was fierce, with every company trying to outdo the others in terms of safety and efficiency.

One of the best-known shipping companies on the St. Lawrence was the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, itself the product of the amalgamation of two smaller firms. Its first president was the celebrated captain of industry, Sir Hugh Allan.

What:

The Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company was founded in 1874 when two rival shipping firms joined forces: the Compagnie du Richelieu, which operated boats in the Quebec portion of the St. Lawrence, and the Canadian Steam Navigation Company, which operated further to the west.

Where:

The Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company operated its vessels on the St. Lawrence from Saguenay and Tadoussac (where the company built a hotel) to Lake Ontario, and from there to Toronto. Travelling downriver the steamers "ran" the rapids, much to the thrill of their passengers.

When:

Right from its beginnings in 1874, the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company was a very successful inland shipping company. It took over several smaller competitors. Then, in 1913, it was amalgamated by rivals during the formation of Canada Steamship Lines.

Who:

The first president of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company was Sir Hugh Allan, a rich industrialist who had also made a name for himself in the shipping business.

MP-0000.25.842
© McCord Museum
Photograph, glass lantern slide
Lower entrance of Cornwall Canal, ON, about 1900
Anonyme - Anonymous
About 1900, 19th century or 20th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
8 x 10 cm
Gift of Mr. Stanley G. Triggs
MP-0000.25.842
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The Buoy System
The annual report of the Minister of Public Works for 1846 discussed the need to improve the buoy system in the St. Lawrence River.

That report was based on information gathered by Captain John S. McIntyre. Appointed by the Canadian government to examine the existing navigation system, McIntyre reported that when the canals downstream from Kingston were completed (the ones at Williamsburg, Cornwall, etc.) there would be an increase on the river of ships drawing more than 2 metres of water (maximum capacity had been 1.2 to 1.5 metres). According to McIntyre, however, few pilots had the ability to safely navigate larger ships on the river. He recommended that "navigation lights and markers" be installed to clearly indicate the channels, especially at night. Such improvements were, he said, "of the utmost importance" to facilitate the transport of Western goods in the St. Lawrence River system and to compete with the American route (along the Erie Canal, from Buffalo to Albany).

What:

The Cornwall Canal, which is 18.5 kilometre long, was made up of seven locks (six after it was rebuilt). It enabled ships to bypass the rapids at Long Sault, which are among the most violent in the St. Lawrence. After its opening the canal had to be monitored because the jetty separating it from the turbulent waters of the river was not very watertight.

Where:

The canal is located in eastern Ontario and runs from Cornwall to a place called Dickinson's Landing (named for the businessman who, early in the 19th century, ran boats and carriages between Montreal and Upper Canada).

When:

The construction of the Cornwall Canal was authorized by the legislature of Upper Canada in 1834 as an alternate to the Rideau Canal route. The work was however interrupted by the 1837-1838 Rebellion and not completed until 1843. The canal was enlarged between 1876 and 1904.

Who:

As surprising as it may sound, the mouth of the Cornwall Canal at Dickinson's Landing is today a veritable playground for divers. When the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in the late 1950s a large section of the shoreline upstream from Cornwall, including part of the old canal, was flooded with several metres of water.

VIEW-3525.1
© McCord Museum
Photograph
S.S. "The Island Wanderer" among the Thousand Islands, ON, 1902
Wm. Notman & Son
1902, 20th century
Silver salts on paper
20 x 25 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
VIEW-3525.1
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Lobbies
By the 1850s, the pressure on the government to improve the navigation signals on the St. Lawrence River had mounted. A powerful group of shipowners in the new Province of Canada joined with colonial authorities in London to lobby for the upgrading. In a letter dated April 13, 1847, the secretary of the Board of Commissioners for the Department of Public Works called for the completion within one year of work on the Upper St. Lawrence section. The work was all the more urgent, he stated, because several businessmen were making plans to transport flour and other products from Lake Ontario to Lachine in boats that drew too much water for the existing canals.

Finally, he requested immediate permission from the government to install lighthouses. The request must have been granted because the official report for 1855 describes the Thousand Islands region as being "lit up like a street."

What:

As its name suggests, The Island Wanderer was an excursion boat that operated in the Thousand Islands region. It had a draft of 58 tons (net tonnage) and measured 30.5 metres in length.

Where:

The Island Wanderer was built at Alexandria Bay in 1879. The town, which was also the boat's home port, is on the American side of the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands.

When:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, river excursions were very popular, especially those that sailed the Thousand Islands region.

Who:

The Island Wanderer was, in 1884, owned by a certain E.W. Bisger. Several years later he enlarged the boat and renamed it The Island Belle.

M930.50.1.703
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Coat of arms of Trinity House
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
3.5 x 3.6 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.1.703
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Administration: The Decision Makers
Trinity House
The first Trinity House opened in Quebec City in 1805. Twenty-five years later, an affiliate opened in Montreal. Modelled on the British organization founded in 1512, Trinity House was authorized to improve the efficiency and safety of shipping traffic on the St. Lawrence. Its work included installing lighthouses and navigation aids as well as removing obstacles such as sandbars.

The two Trinity Houses in Lower Canada were modelled on the British organization: they assisted the Admiralty, the Imperial board of trade and the various lighthouse commissions in the maritimes. Responsible for all of the lighthouses downriver from Montreal, they operated up until Confederation.

What:

Trinity House was an organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of ships and the well-being of their sailors. Part of its mandate was to build and maintain lighthouses and navigation aids.

Where:

In the 19th century in Lower Canada, two Trinity Houses opened: one in Quebec City and, a some years later, one in Montreal. Together they had responsibility for Canada's inland waterways from Quebec City to Upper Canada.

When:

The first Trinity House was founded in 1512 in Great Britain. In Lower Canada, the first Trinity House opened in Quebec City in 1805, while the one in Montreal opened in 1832. The two groups handed over their responsibilities to the Department of Marine in the early 1870s.

Who:

Each Trinity House was headed by three directors. In addition to their administrative responsibilities, the directors held judicial powers and presided over criminal and civil cases such as those related to shipping violations and contractual disputes between sailors and shipowners.

M930.50.1.788
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Seal of Marine and Fisheries
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
2.6 x 4 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.1.788
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Government Services
The lighthouses in Upper Canada were administered by commissioners with direct ties to the governor's office and to the inspector of lighthouses, who himself reported to the City of Toronto administration. After the Act of Union in 1840, the lighthouses of Upper Canada were placed under the authority of the Board of Works of the Province of Canada.

Together, the Trinity Houses and Board of Works officials ensured that the St. Lawrence was a safe and well marked waterway, as shown by the number of lighthouses in service by 1867:

- From the Strait of Belle Isle to Quebec City: 24 lighthouses
- From Quebec City to Montreal: 27 lighthouses
- Upriver from Montreal: 80 lighthouses

The various groups amalgamated after Confederation to create the Department of Marine and Fisheries, which, in the 1870s, took on the management of navigation aids in Canada.

What:

The Department of Marine and Fisheries was responsible for a wide range of activities related to shipping and navigation in Canada as well as to the coastal and inland fisheries.

Where:

Because it was a federal agency, Marine and Fisheries was managed from an office in Ottawa. The office was located in the West Block, one of two office buildings connected to Parliament.

When:

The Department of Marine and Fisheries was created at Confederation in 1867 and was put in charge of the lighthouses on the St. Lawrence River in 1870. Amalgamated with other federal departments, namely, the Civil Aviation Branch of the Department of National Defence, it was renamed the Department of Transport on November 2, 1936.

Who:

At the end of the 19th century, the rules for hiring staff in this and all other government departments were quite different from what they are today. In 1876, except for ship inspectors, who had to pass tests to qualify, marine agents, lighthouse keepers, harbour police, ship's captains, and harbour officials were often awarded their jobs because of their political ties.

M999.54.24
© McCord Museum
Painting
Bicquette, 1885-1889
Henry Richard S. Bunnett
1885-1889, 19th century
Watercolour on paper
17.2 x 26.5 cm
Gift of M. Châteauguay Perrault and Mme Valérie Migneault Perrault
M999.54.24
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Lighthouses and Their Role
Terminology
What is a lighthouse? Are all lighthouses the same? The Oxford Canadian Dictionary describes a lighthouse as: "a tower or other structure containing a beacon light to warn or guide ships." Webster's Collegiate provides slightly more detail: "a structure (as a tower) with a powerful light that gives a continuous or intermittent signal to navigators."

Lighthouses are made up of four main components:

1. a base that is raised above sea level by some means. The structure may be a tower located on a cliff, hilltop, island, etc., and it may be built of different materials such as wood, metal, stone;

2. an electric or gas lamp, that is, a source of light;

3. an optical system (reflectors or lenses) to intensify the light and direct it toward the horizon;

4. a lantern or enclosure to protect the lamp and the optical equipment from the ravages of the weather.

What:

The Île Bicquette Lighthouse is a 22.5-metre tower made of stone. It was completed in 1844 at an estimated cost of 6000 British pounds.

Where:

Île Bicquette is located in the St. Lawrence River near Cap-à-l'Orignal, in Parc du Bic (on the south shore). Sailors greatly feared the area because numerous ships were wrecked there.

When:

The Île Bicquette Lighthouse was built in 1843-1844 under the direction of Trinity House in Quebec City. Ships' captains who sailed these waters had first called for the construction of a lighthouse here in 1828. The original lighthouse is still in operation, though it has been automated.

Who:

There is a legend about a man named Fortier who spent the winter at the lighthouse after its two keepers drowned in 1859. One night, hearing strange footsteps in the staircase, Fortier became convinced that the lighthouse was haunted and refused to set foot in it again.

I-8415
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Victoria Bridge and St. Lambert, Montreal harbour, QC, 1863
William Notman (1826-1891)
1863, 19th century
Silver salts on glass - Wet collodion process
10 x 12 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
I-8415
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Categories of Lighthouses
Lighthouses in Canada generally fall into one of four categories:

1. landfall lights, which mark the entry to shipping lanes and are equipped with very powerful lights. Generally used offshore, they are the first points of reference for ships entering and leaving the navigation system.

2. major coastal lights, which mark the entry to major harbours or the mouths of principal rivers. Their lights are powerful, but less so than those in landfall lights.

3. secondary coastal lights, which mark navigable waterways or shoals (like shallow water or sandbars) and are installed on points, wharfs and jetties, or on the shoal itself.

4. harbour entry lighthouses, which indicate where to enter a port facility.

What:

The small wooden lighthouse that can be seen on the wharf of the port of Montreal is a harbour lighthouse. The lamps in these lighthouses are usually not as strong as those in major coastal lighthouses.

Where:

Small lighthouses such as this one are found in most Canadian harbours, large and small. In addition, these square or octagonal wooden towers are found at the entry to waterways like canals, or at the head of the municipal wharf in towns along the coast.

When:

Lighthouses such as the one in this photograph date from the second half of the 19th century. The port of Montreal was a bustling place at that time.

Who:

Montreal's lighthouses were originally run by Trinity House, but came under federal government management after Confederation in 1867.

M999.54.25
© McCord Museum
Painting
Point de Monts, 1885-1889
Henry Richard S. Bunnett
1885-1889, 19th century
Watercolour on paper
18.5 x 20.5 cm
Gift of M. Châteauguay Perrault and Mme Valérie Migneault Perrault
M999.54.25
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Large Lighthouses
The largest and best known lighthouses are the landfall and major coastal lights. One example is the lighthouse at Cap-des-Rosiers, on the Gaspé coast. Thirty-four metres high, it was one of the "Imperial Towers" built with British assistance in 1858. Then there are the tall stone lighthouses found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, such as the one at Pointe-des-Monts. It was 27.5 metres high and had a base 2 metres thick. This type of lighthouse was usually a circular or octagonal tower made of stone, concrete or wood. Its lamps could be seen from far away (30 kilometres or more).

What:

The lighthouse at Pointe-des-Monts is a tall, circular tower made of stone and equipped with a copper polygonal lamp more than 3 metres in diameter. Originally, it was lit by 13 oil lamps, each equipped with a parabolic reflector, but that system was replaced by a more efficient lens at the end of the 19th century.

Where:

The lighthouse at Pointe-des-Monts is located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, near Baie-Trinité, a small hamlet between Baie-Comeau and Sept-Îles.

When:

The construction of the Pointe-des-Monts Lighthouse was completed in 1830. But the site had been chosen even earlier, in 1826, when Trinity House in Quebec City started planning the lighthouse. It was needed to prevent ships leaving the river at that point from going ashore near Anticosti Island, as many had done.

Who:

The last lighthouse keepers here were Jacques and Marie-Berthe Landry. In 1964, they led a campaign to prevent the demolition of the lighthouse, and the following year the province of Quebec purchased the lighthouse and made it a historical monument.

MP-0000.1828.93
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Lighthouse and wharf, Baie St. Paul, QC, about 1870
Alexander Henderson
About 1870, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Albumen process
10.2 x 12.7 cm
Gift of Stanley G. Triggs
MP-0000.1828.93
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Smaller Structures
Secondary coastal and habour lighthouses are smaller in size and were usually built of wood, which was plentiful and inexpensive during the 19th century. The exterior surface was often covered with cedar strips. These little tapered lighthouses, found up and down the shores of major rivers and inland waterways as well as at harbour entranceways, were known as "pepper-shaker lights." They generally ranged in height from 9 to 14 metres, including the observation deck and the lantern-a glass enclosure to protect the optical equipment.

What:

The lighthouse at Baie St. Paul is a secondary coastal light of the pepper-shaker type so familiar in the 19th century.

Where:

Baie St. Paul is located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. The Gouffre River runs through the town.

When:

Lighthouses of the pepper-shaker type were built during the middle decades of the 19th century. Because they were made of wood, very few are still standing today.

Who:

These small wooden lighthouses were often built by local companies for the government. The builders had to work exactly to the plan.

VIEW-4914
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Murray Bay wharf, QC, about 1912
Wm. Notman & Son
About 1912, 20th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
11 x 16 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
VIEW-4914
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Architecture: Variety of Shapes
According to official reports and lists published just before Confedation, small wood and stone lighthouses dotted the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

Lighthouses that indicated a harbour entrance or its wharf were sometimes built on existing structures. That is, the lantern would be built right on the roof of a building on shore.

What:

The "lighthouse" at La Malbaie was a small lantern perched on the roof of the station at the end of the wharf. Passengers getting on and off ships would shelter in the station building.

Where:

La Malbaie is located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence in the Charlevoix region. However, the wharf shown in this photograph might be the one at Pointe-au-Pic, just to the west of La Malbaie.

When:

In the early 20th century, La Malbaie (Murray Bay) was a popular summer destination for the rich and famous. One regular summer visitor was William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States (1909-1913).

Who:

La Malbaie owes its name to Samuel de Champlain. According to the Commission de toponymie du Québec, Champlain called the place "Malle Baye, the word malle meaning "terrible" in Old French. Champlain found the bay "terrible" because its low tides temporarily grounded his ships.

M6650.7
© McCord Museum
Print
PLAN of RIVER ST. LAWRENCE Between Prescott and Montreal.
H. H. Killaly
1856, 19th century
Ink and watercolour on paper - Lithography
50.5 x 523.5 cm
M6650.7
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The Lighthouse at Pointe-au-Beaudet
Located on the south shore of Lake St. Francis near the Quebec-Ontario border, the Pointe-au-Beaudet (or McGee Point) Lighthouse is a typical example of a small shore-based lighthouse. Built in 1847, it is a square wooden building 7.3 metres high. Topped by a glass circular lantern that projects a fixed white light up to 16 kilometres away, the tower sits on a small parcel of land that was expropriated by the government. The keeper was a Scottish immigrant by the name of Alexander MacDonald who at the time earned 35 pounds a year.

This lighthouse, which marked the Lake St. Francis channel, was an important component of the Laurentian navigation system. Destroyed by fire in 1877, it was rebuilt the following year and served faithfully until the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, when more modern navigation lights were installed.

What:

The Pointe-au-Beaudet Lighthouse, a small wooden tower topped by a lamp, was one of several lighthouses on Lake St. Francis. It kept ships from foundering on the rocky point and sandbars in the waters nearby.

Where:

Lake St. Francis is a widening in the St. Lawrence River that covers 50 kilometres between Cornwall (in Ontario) and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield (in Quebec).

When:

In 1656, a group of five Jesuit missionaries heading for Huronia to convert the Aboriginals to Christianity arrived at Lake St. Francis and named it in honour of St François Xavier, who died in 1552.

Who:

The first lighthouse keeper was Alexander MacDonald, a farmer at Pointe-au-Beaudet at the time of his appointment in 1848. He later built a home beside the lighthouse.

M999.54.27
© McCord Museum
Painting
Father Point Lighthouse, 1885-1889
Henry Richard S. Bunnett
1885-1889, 19th century
Watercolour on paper
22 x 24 cm
Gift of M. Châteauguay Perrault and Mme Valérie Migneault Perrault
M999.54.27
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Other Navigation Signals
Fog Signals
Because the St. Lawrence is often foggy, there was a need for sound-based navigation aids. It's well known that sound carries far over water, even though its point of origin is sometimes hard to determine.

Canadian lighthouses, at least those in the 19th century, used a variety of sound-making devices, including bells and even canons (filled with a blank charge). But officials favoured fog alarms (foghorns): they were less dangerous and more efficient. Before the advent of electricity, foghorns were driven by steam, and the siren and compressor were usually located in a building beside the lighthouse. This type of aid was most common in the Lower St. Lawrence region, at large lighthouses such as the ones at Belle Isle and Pointe-au-Père (Father Point).

What:

In its early years, the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse had a canon beside it. When visibility on the river was poor, the lightkeeper would load the canon with gun powder and fire it. He did this every half hour until the weather cleared.

Where:

Pointe-au-Père is close to Rimouski in the Lower St. Lawrence. In May 1914, the Empress of Ireland sunk nearby, killing 1000 people.

When:

In 1903, the fog canon at Pointe-au-Père was replaced by a "Scotch siren," invented at the end of the 19th century, and manufactured in Great Britain. That device was itself replaced the following year by a diaphone, an even more powerful foghorn.

Who:

Because the diaphone was a more complex piece of equipment, it was sometimes operated not by the lightkeeper but by a "fog alarm engineer." His wages were taken from the meagre salary of the lighthouse keeper.

MP-1986.7.2.7
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Lightship No. 2, Lake St. Louis, QC, 1902
Paul Jobin
May 1902, 19th century
Silver salts on paper - Gelatin silver process
8.3 x 10.8 cm
Gift of M. Paul Jobin
MP-1986.7.2.7
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Lightships
There were more than a dozen lightships in Canada in 1867. Lightships were former wooden ships rebuilt to hold a beacon light. Most were located in the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Some had bells and foghorns. Because they were moveable, they could be anchored in either shallow water, to indicate danger, or deeper water, to mark a passageway.

Life aboard these stationary ships was hard for crew members, mainly because of the vessel's constant pitching, which in very bad weather could affect even seasoned sailors. After the storm, and the return of calmer waters, the crew still had to deal with the boredom and routine of shipboard life.

What:

Lightships were mobile navigation markers used in places where building a permanent lighthouse was too difficult. However, both types of lighthouse served the same purpose: to indicate a channel or obstacle in the water.

Where:

In Canada, lightships were used most often in inland waters such as in lakes St. Louis and St. François, where ship traffic was always heavy.

When:

Lightship No. 2, on Lac St. Louis, was built in 1850. Lightships were most prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although some were still used well into the 20th century, now there is only one in use in Canada.

Who:

Canadian lightships were built in shipyards in Canada and in Great Britian. Although some were manufactured especially of that purpose, most were old ships that had been fitted out as lighthouses.

M930.50.5.560.1-4
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Catalogue illustration of oil lamps
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
10.1 x 11.7 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.5.560.1-4
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Lighting Systems
Combustible Materials
In the middle of the 19th century, the lighthouses that marked the St. Lawrence were equipped with oil lamps. These burned whale oil, which was becoming more and more expensive because of shortages due to the overharvesting of whales. The government therefore decided in 1860 to convert to kerosene, which was less expensive and more efficient. Pilots in the Upper St. Lawrence, according to a government report, had great praise for kerosene lamps. And by 1866, expenditures on whale oil for lighthouses had fallen to zero, while that on kerosene had risen to $3472.43.

The original kerosene lamps were quite similar to the ones that were still in use in the early 20th century. For example, the controller for the lighthouses downstream from Montreal indicated in his 1876 report that the Pointe-au-Beaudet Lighthouse (on Lake St. Francis) was equipped with "two large flat-wicked lamps."

What:

The oil lamps for the early lighthouses had woven circular sleeve-like wicks. Air was able to flow through the wick, improving the flame.

Where:

Oil lamps were installed in all kinds of lighthouse lanterns (the upper section). They were set either in front of a parabolic mirror (catoptric) or behind a glass lens (dioptric).

When:

The use of gas and oil lamps in lighthouses was gradually discontinued in Canada after the beginning of the 20th century. The conversion to electricity took place over a number of years, as regions were electrified. The years between the First and Second World Wars saw rapid conversion to electricity.

Who:

Modern oil lamps, whose wicks do not smoke (allowing for more intense light), are known as Argand lamps, after Ami Argand, their Swiss inventor. Argand lamps have tall glass chimneys.

VIEW-8101
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Lighthouse at Matane, QC, 1915
Wm. Notman & Son
Probably 1915, 20th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
12 x 10 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
VIEW-8101
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Optical Systems
All lighthouses are equipped with optical reflectors that concentrate the light from the lamp in a high-intensity beam. In the earliest lamps the reflector was a parabolic mirror placed right behind it. Catatropic reflectors (from the Greek katoptron, meaning "mirror") could magnify lamplight seven-fold. These inexpensive mirror reflectors were used in Canadian lighthouses until the early 20th century.

They were gradually replaced by lens reflectors called dioptric reflectors (from the Greek dioptrikê, meaning "to see through"). They use lenses and prisms to intensify a light beam and are even more effective than catoptric reflectors.

Both systems were, however, fragile. One of the first duties of lighthouse keepers in the morning was to protect the reflector or lens from the sun's rays by drawing a curtain over it, as can be seen in this photograph of the lighthouse at Matane.

What:

The Matane Lighthouse is a cylindrical tower 20.5 metres high. Like several of the lighthouses in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, such as the ones at Belle Isle (in Newfoundland) and Pointe-à-la-Renommée (in Gaspé, Quebec), the Matane Lighthouse is made of precast iron.

Where:

Matane is located on the north shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, a region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that is often foggy.

When:

The lighthouse dates from 1907. Today it is used as a tourist information centre.

Who:

The Matane Lighthouse was built when William Patrick Anderson was the director of the Lighthouse Board of Canada. During his term of office, several lighthouses were constructed or rebuilt on the St. Lawrence.

MP-1986.7.2.5
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Windmill Point gas buoy, Isle Perrot, QC, 1902
Paul Jobin
1902, 20th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Gelatin silver process
10 x 8 cm
Gift of M. Paul Jobin
MP-1986.7.2.5
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Buoys
In addition to their use in lighthouses, gas lamps were used in many of the bouys marking the channels of the St. Lawrence River. Early bouys were made of wood, but by the middle of the 19th century these had been replaced by small metal bouys that burned compressed gas. Gas buoys were small, and to reduce the frequency with which they had to be serviced, a highly compressible gas was needed. Through experimentation scientists discovered that acetylene fit the bill; acetylene could be stored under pressures of 9 to 10 atmospheres.

What:

Navigation buoys indicate channels in a waterway, that is, where ships can safely travel. The earliest buoys were made of painted wood. Gas buoys were made of iron to prevent them from burning.

Where:

This buoy marks the navigation channel near Île Perrot in Lac St. Louis. Ships travelling to and from Lac St. Louis passed through canals: the Lachine Canal (closest to Montreal) or the Soulanges Canal (in the county of the same name).

When:

The Pintsch system for illuminating gas buoys and lighthouses was invented in 1870 and ultimately used all over the world. The gas was stored in pressure containers and passed from there to the storage tank in the light.

Who:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Canada's navigation buoys, like its lighthouses, were managed by the federal government. Specially equipped ships installed the buoys in spring, after the ice broke up, and retrieved them in fall.

MP-1986.7.2.10
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Tug "Scout", buoy sevice, Lachine, QC, 1902
Paul Jobin
1902, 20th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Gelatin silver process
8 x 10 cm
Gift of M. Paul Jobin
MP-1986.7.2.10
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Caring for Lighthouses
Tender Ships
The use of gas of different types in buoys and lighthouses required that the lamps be serviced on a regular basis. Government ships such as this one were used for that purpose. The Scout was built in Cardinal, Ontario, and serviced the navigation aids on the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Kingston.

In 1906, a terrible tragedy occurred on the Scout. Three buoys on its deck were being refilled with acetylene when they exploded, killing three crew members and the captain. The ship was, however, repaired and it served until 1934.

What:

The Scout was a wooden hull buoy tender measuring 22.8 metres long and 173 gross tons. It was driven by a dual-propeller steam engine.

Where:

The Scout was built in Cardinal, Ontario, by J.R. Miller for the Department of Railways and Canals. In 1906, while docked in Kingston, it was badly damaged by a gas explosion.

When:

Built in 1900, this buoy tender was completely rebuilt in 1902, when it was transferred to the Department of Marine and Fisheries. After being damaged by a explosion in 1906, it was repaired and used until 1934.

Who:

The Scout was rebuilt by the Davis Drydock Company of Kingston in 1902. Its hull, which originally measured 22.8 metres in length, was extended to 32 metres.

VIEW-2868
© McCord Museum
Photograph
S.S. "Admiral", Gaspé, QC, 1898 (?)
Wm. Notman & Son
Probably 1898, 19th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
20 x 25 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
VIEW-2868
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Multi-purpose Ships
In addition to buoy tenders, the government operated several other types of ship whose purpose was to improve the safety of navigatation on the St. Lawrence River. Its tugboat service, for example, towed sailing ships on the river and generally served to improve maritime transport.

In the summer of 1854, three paddle wheel steamboats, the Doris, the Advance and the Admiral, were chartered by the Department of Public Transport to assist merchant ships (at the time, mainly sailing vessels) to negotiate the St. Lawrence. These steamers and their successors were put into service in response to the demands of shipowners, who had seen steep increases in the cost of insurance because of the frequent accidents on the river.

What:

The Admiral measured 47 metres in length. Note the presence of masts on the deck and paddle wheels on the sides. Dual propulsion was typical in steamboats of this era, when steam power was gradually replacing sail power.

Where:

Steamboats like the Admiral were designed to operate in rivers and could not handle the open sea. Nonetheless, the Admiral served in the Lower St. Lawrence, where the water can get very rough.

When:

The Admiral was built by the Niagara & Harbour Dock Company in about 1854. The government sold it to S. & C. Peters in 1861.

Who:

François Baby, a well-known shipowner who later turned his hand to politics, won the government contract to operate the navigation steamers the Admiral, the Doris and the Advance in 1854.

MP-1979.155.29
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Ice breaker, QC, about 1910
Anonyme - Anonymous
About 1910, 20th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Gelatin silver process
20 x 25 cm
Gift of Mr. John L. Russell
MP-1979.155.29
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Icebreakers
Ice has always been an obstacle to travel on the St. Lawrence. In addition to ice formation in winter, there is the problem of the spring break-up, which can damage ships and cause ice jams and flooding.

To ensure safe navigation, the government has long used ships to break ice in winter and run numerous maintenance and provisioning duties in summer (to help defray their cost).

In Canada the first icebreakers went into service in the early 20th century, where they plied ice-prone waters from November until May.

What:

The Lady Grey was a steel hull icebreaker. It had a 353 horsepower steam engine that turned two propellers.

Where:

Although it was destined to serve in the waters of the St. Lawrence for the Canadian government, the Lady Grey was built in the British shipyard Vickers, Sons and Maxim, in Barrow-in-Furness. Its successors, for example, the Ernest Lapointe and the Saurel, were all built in Canada.

When:

Built in 1906, the Lady Grey sunk in 1955 after colliding with a ferry, the Cité de Lévis, while helping free it after it became trapped in ice.

Who:

The Lady Grey was named in honour of the wife of Sir Albert Henry George Grey, governor general of Canada from 1904 to 1911.

MP-1979.155.76
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Dredge No. 1, Dept. of Marine, QC, about 1910
Anonyme - Anonymous
About 1910, 20th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Gelatin silver process
20 x 25 cm
Gift of Mr. John L. Russell
MP-1979.155.76
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

River Dredges
The St. Lawrence River is known for its sandbars, its winding course and its strong currents. Sailors have to be very watchful when navigating it. The river even caught the skilled sailor Jacques Cartier; his ship went aground in low water in Lac St. Pierre in the 16th century. By the 19th century pressure on the government to ensure that ships could safely enter and leave harbours such as the one at Montreal had reached a pitch, and in 1844 it ordered the dredging of a channel in Lac St. Pierre. The resulting channel measured 3 metres at its deepest point, followed a gradual curve and was marked by several lighthouses.

Lack of funding slowed down dredging operations in the river until 1865 and the start of a major project. That project was financed by the government through borrowing and the levying of a ship tax (based on tonnage) A channel more than 90 metres wide and 6 metres deep was dug by an armada of dredges, built by a shipyard in Sorel, Quebec.

What:

Dredges are ships designed to dig, or dredge out, navigation channels. They are equipped with underwater buckets that rake the bottom of a river or waterway to provide a certain depth of water for ships.

Where:

Dredge No. 1 worked in shallow waters. Here it is seen ready to dredge a shipping channel in the St. Lawrence River.

When:

Only one channel was built using dredges in the 19th century in Canada, but they were very much in use later, especially after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959; its channels must be maintained at a minimum depth of 8.2 metres.

Who:

In Canada, dredges-like lighthouses, buoys and icebreakers-are the responsibility of the federal government. At the time this photograph was taken, they were operated by the Department of Marine and Fisheries.

MP-0000.1249.1
© McCord Museum
Print
Lighthouse, Metis, QC, about 1875
Reverend T. Fenwick
about 1875, 19th century
Ink on paper mounted on card - Photolithography
15 x 23 cm
Gift of Mr. Stanley G. Triggs
MP-0000.1249.1
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Lighthouse Keepers
Although lighthouse keepers were not well paid, they did earn a regular salary, so being named a lighthouse keeper was considered a stroke of luck, especially considering the qualifications needed: "have good eyesight, good morals, know how to read and write, and have a good knowledge of basic arithmetic."

It was nonetheless a hard job; caring for a lighthouse and its optical equipment required skill and diligence. The main duty of the lighthouse keeper was to stand guard throughout the night-to make sure that the lamp burned brightly and never went out. The keeper was often alone while keeping vigil, but his family helped with the other duties in running the lighthouse. The keeper and his family usuallly lived in a cottage attached to the lighthouse.

What:

This photograph shows a wooden lighthouse and the attached home for its keeper and his family.

Where:

Métis-sur-Mer is located on the north coast of Gaspé, in the Lower St. Lawrence. Its first and second lighthouses were built on a point of land that jutted into the river and was owned by John MacNider.

When:

The first lighthouse at Métis was built in 1874. The current tower, made out of cement, was built in 1909. It is still in operation, although no keeper is required because it has been automated.

Who:

At Métis the keepers of the lighthouse before it was automated were: J. Jules Martin (1874-1879); Jules-Gabriel Martin (1879-1906); Élisée Caron (1906-1936); Georges Fafard (1954-1958); Émile Chouinard (1958-1959); Évariste Ferguson (1959-1970).

Conclusion:

The construction in the 19th century of lighthouses and other navigation aids along Canada's sea coasts, rivers and lakes was an important step in the country's national development. The shipping industry expanded rapidly during that period in part because of the improved safety of navigation in Canadian waters. Government officials in both Upper and Lower Canada, and then in the Province of Canada and the Dominion, invested a great deal of money and energy in creating, marking and maintaining the navigable waterways. Their work constitutes a lasting legacy in Canadian maritime history.


Bibliography



Official Documents and Archives

National Archives of Canada (Ottawa), Series RG 11, Minister of Public Works.

National Archives of Canada (Ottawa), Series RG 12, Minister of Transport.

Public Archives of Canada, Census, 1666-1881. [Microform]. Ottawa, Public Archives of Canada, 1981.

Canada, Legislature, Sessional Papers of the Parliament of the Province of Canada. Ottawa, Hunter Rose and Co. Various years.

Canada, Department of Marine and Fisheries, List of lights and fog-signals on the inland waters of the Dominion of Canada: corrected to the 1st April, 1905. Ottawa, Govt. Print. Bureau, 1905 and 1917.

Canada, Parliament, Sessional Papers. Parlement de la puissance du Canada. Ottawa, Queen's Printer. Various years.


Monographs and Articles

Appleton, Thomas E., Usque Ad Mare: A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services, Canadian Coast Guard Internet Site (www.ccg-gcc.ca).

Baird, David, Northern Lights: Lighthouses of Canada, Toronto, Lynx Images, 1999.

Bush, Edward F., The Canadian Lighthouse, "Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Paper in Archeology and History No. 9," Ottawa, Parks Canada, 1974.

Charlebois, Peter, Steamwheelers and Sidewheelers: The Romance of Steamdriven Paddleboats in Canada, Toronto, New Canada Publications, 1978.

Collard, Edgar Andrew, Passage to the Sea: The Story of Canada Steamship Lines, Toronto, Doubleday Canada Limited, 1991.

Dunsterville, Edward, The Admiralty list of lights on the coasts and lakes of British North America : corrected to January 1864, Hydrographic Office, Admiralty, London, G.E. Eyre and Spottiswood, 1864.

Lafrenière, Normand, Gardien de phare dans le Saint-Laurent : un métier disparu, Toronto, Dundurn Press Limited, 1996.

Lafrenière, Normand, La canalisation du Saint-Laurent : deux siècles de travaux, 1779-1959, « Cahier no 1, Parc historique national Coteau-du-Lac, » Ottawa, Parcs Canada, 1983.

Mackey, Frank, Steamboat Connections : Montreal to Upper Canada, 1816-1843, Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000.

Smith, William, "The lighthouse system of Canada: a paper prepared at the request of the Executive Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (...)," n.l., 1884.


© Musée McCord Museum