On July 23, 2018 the Cole Shoal Lighthouse, west of Brockville, was struck by lightning during a fierce storm and rapidly burned to the water line. This sad event was witnessed by many on both sides of the River. The structure, better known as the Five Mile Light due to its distance from Brockville, was the last remaining wooden lighthouse on the 1000 Islands waterway. The lighthouse was the easternmost of these original, largely identical structures in the Thousand Islands.
The building constructed in 1856, was one of nine similar structures built to aid River navigation. The area known as Cole Shoal on the charts is still infamous with local boaters. It is actually a series of four shoals, three of which are all but invisible until the inevitable crunch of a propeller strike.
Many accidents have been reported over the years. The following appeared on August 29, 1950, in a former popular column in the Recorder and Times known as “On This Date”
“The shoals west of Brockville in the vicinity of Fulford’s Point have reached out and snatched another victim. The Canada Steamship Freighter “Saskatoon” went aground on Cole’s Ferry Shoal about 9.55 o’clock during the rain and wind storm which last night whipped up the usually placid St. Lawrence River to terrific fury. There were no injuries to personnel but there is a six inch split in one of the plates near the boiler room.”
The irony of the date of the fire is that I had arranged a visit from the Ontario Heritage Trust (OHT) the Thursday of that week. They were to attend to survey the building in order to determine the extent of repairs needed to stabilize the 162 year old building as the last repairs dated to 2001. The trust had previously assumed ownership of the property in a land transfer. As a long-time summer resident of Hudson Point, I have been communicating with the Trust over the past twenty years to advocate for repairs.
The structure was built in typical post and beam construction of the period. The base measured 15’ X 15’ and was approximately 20’ tall, without the lantern. A staircase ascended to the third floor which was the lantern roof deck. There were two windows, one west and one south, facing New York State. The keepers were provided a residence in the bay which is still in existence. Every evening the keeper would row-out to light the lamp from the adjacent boathouse. They would repeat the exercise at dawn to extinguish the kerosene lantern. I can only imagine the inclement weather they must have encountered over the years. I suspect occasionally, they may have spent the night in the structure, rather than attempt the risky return trip in the inky darkness. In researching the history I found reference to a letter written by the last keeper David Hodge in 1927. He complained that the rowboat provided by the Government was taking on water badly and not River-worthy in his opinion. In the same letter he reported that one of the glass panes had been broken due to a bird strike. That may have sealed the fate of the structure as it was decommissioned the same year.
Five keepers tended its light during the 71 years that it was in operation. Richard Elliott 1856 -1882, Erastus Rowsam 1882-1884, R. Boyd 1884-1917, ending with David Hodge 1917, who last extinguished the light in 1927.
It remains somewhat of mystery when the lantern was removed. It was obviously there in 1927 and the next known official Department of Transport photograph was taken circa 1948 with no lantern visible. At some point during that period it was removed. Rumour has it that it may be in storage at Upper Canada Village, a lead which will be pursued.
Rebuild or Not
Within days of the fire a local citizens group was formed ad hoc to investigate the potential for a commemorative plaque “at least”. The OHT visit went ahead as scheduled. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to survey as the structure was totally consumed. In August, senior officials of the Trust attended to meet with our group and informed us that they would not rebuild. Their mandate is the preservation rather than replication of historic structures.
Not deterred the initial seed was planted for a historic rebuild. We decided to investigate, and detailed discussions ensued. Retired Senator Bob Runciman was approached and graciously accepted to be Campaign chair. As word spread we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of support received from the local community including Elizabethtown-Kitley & Front of Yonge Townships. We also received generous offers of assistance, rebuild expertise, engineering design and web page hosting, all pro bono.
Now we are asking you to help us rebuild the Five Mile Light.
On February 15, 2019 our website was activated, and officially kicked-off at the Aquatarium in Brockville. A signature supporter was revealed with a $100,000.00 donation from the President of the St. Lawrence River Cruise Lines, Jason Clark. The donation was made in memory of the company founder, his uncle Bob Clark who clearly understood the enduring lure of the Thousand Islands.
Thank you for your consideration in being part of St. Lawrence River history. Our project committee encourages you to visit our website at the following link:
Donations of $20.00 and more are eligible for a tax receipt for Canadian residents.
Mike Milne, Ottawa & Hudson Point.
Header photo courtesy Darlene Burns, Five Mile Light Rebuild Committee.