By Dan McNeil – (July 2020) Whose lighthouse is it anyway?
In early July this year the Canadian Coast Guard ship Limnos operated out of Port Stanley to do routine checks of the navigational aids in the area. This would normally include verification of depths in the channel, positioning-repositioning of the buoyage system and confirmation that the two harbour entrance lights conform to the descriptions provided in official documents. To everyone’s surprise their last act before departing was to spend a couple hours slapping a coat of white paint on our lighthouse.
This was a surprise to many of us because we recall in early 2016 the announcement: “Municipality of Central Elgin (CE) receives $65,000 grant to restore Port Stanley lighthouse” (Jennifer Bieman, St. Thomas Times Journal, July 12, 2016). The article describes the heritage status of the “iconic lighthouse,” as well as plans to refurbish it once the ownership title was transferred. The mayor of the day expressed CE Council’s very positive opinion on the acquisition as part of the plans to preserve Port’s important history and heritage. Concerns were raised about dealing with potentially harmful lead-based paint in future restoration work.
When CE took ownership of Port Stanley’s harbour in September 2010, the federally owned area was 64.5 hectares (159.4 acres). Most of this was under water (over 52.6 hectares, or 130 acres). The actual control of the ‘water lots’ today is questionable as regulatory control of the lake remains federal and provincial. The remaining land area of about 29 acres and all of the associated infrastructure were included in the deal. In 2010, everyone assumed the lighthouse was part of the infrastructure being transferred because it was quite obviously part of the breakwater. Canadian Lighthouse 588.0 wasn’t.
Transport Canada was the federal agent responsible for the harbour. A totally separate department, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), was responsible for navigation aids, including the light on the East Breakwater and the lighthouse at the end of the West Breakwater. Immediately post 2010, CE received correspondence from DFO asking if the municipality wanted to participate in the new Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, with a view to eventually taking possession of Port Stanley’s lighthouse. Apparently, our Lighthouse was “surplus to the operational requirement.” One of the conditions of the program was for a community group to endorse the idea, including forwarding a report on the heritage importance of the structure. The Port Stanley Village Association stepped up to take charge of this and did an excellent job. Several years later confirmation of Heritage Status was confirmed and steps were taken to transfer ownership. Eventually, $65,000 was placed in escrow for CE, awaiting an official announcement of the transfer of ownership. There has been no announcement or press release from the federal authorities.
Divesting lighthouses which may eventually be abandoned is highly controversial and sometimes problematic. Although there was never an announcement of the transfer of title, the funds in escrow were released to the municipality.
When the breakwater was rebuilt, the most important work to preserve the future took place underwater. The wooden cribs were reinforced with steel sheet piling and cement. This important work was not conducted beneath the lighthouse because the municipality did not own it. There is also some speculation about how this might be done in conjunction with building a new breakwater across the mouth of the harbour. Eventual restoration of the lighthouse by the municipality awaits, as does a new breakwater. In the meantime, the new coat of paint is appreciated.
Postscript: Cape Race Lighthouse, on the southernmost tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland and Labrador, is Canada’s most prominent landfall marker. Built in 1906-1907, Cape Race was the first Canadian lighthouse to be constructed in reinforced concrete and probably the second lighthouse constructed in reinforced concrete in the world. Port Stanley’s Lighthouse was also constructed the same way in the period 1907-1909. In 1913, a one-inch diaphone (compressed-air foghorn), operated by electricity, was installed on the Lighthouse. It is no longer in service, but it is greatly missed by many.