Grenadier Island Lighthouse

By: Mary Alice Snetsinger

Volume 18, Issue 7, July 2023

Grenadier Island was a busy farming community well before the government established its lighthouse in 1856. When Reuben Sherwood’s survey of 1818 was conducted, 14 families already lived there. One of these was the Root family, whose name would become synonymous with “lightkeeper” on the island. The Root family had left Vermont to come to Yonge Township in Ontario in the 1790s.

This article is one of a series examining the early lighthouses of the Thousand Islands, in both Canadian and American waters. There would be a total of twelve lighthouses built in the 19th century, but lighting of the Canadian Thousand Islands began with the establishment of nine lighthouses in 1856. Grenadier Island had one of them, and it was located at the edge of one of the steep ledges that line the extreme southwest end of the island. Like the others built at this time, it was a white-painted, square, wooden tower. Images from the period show that all these lighthouse towers were very similar in appearance. The Grenadier Island lighthouse had two dual-burner lamps, the light was 55 feet above the water level, and it showed a fixed, white light. While there were a few changes to the lighthouse over the next 67 years, such as the change from sperm whale oil to coal oil as a fuel, the tower changed little in outward appearance during its life as a watched lighthouse.

The first lightkeeper on Grenadier Island was Joseph Austin, who was appointed in 1856, and paid a salary of £22/10/0 (the British pound was the currency used at this time, prior to Confederation), plus an additional £79/2/4 for “supplies and repairs.”  In today’s spending power, this salary amounts to just over £1,800, or a little over $3,000 Canadian dollars.

Lightkeepers were generally compensated poorly, and were among the worst-paid government employees in Canada. As he had to provide his own accommodations, Joseph Austin was forced to manage in an old, cramped, log house. Because of the poor remuneration, most lightkeepers in the Thousand Islands supplemented their income in other ways. On Grenadier Island, a large island with an active farming community, this was done more easily than on some of the other islands. In 1861 “the erection of a dwelling house for the light keeper at Grenadier Island” was reported to have happened, but in reality it did not actually happen until the winter of 1865/66.

By 1860, however, the first keeper was 90 years of age and was considered infirm and unfit for duty. After apprenticing with Joseph Austin for three years (unrecognized in the government records), Albert Root was officially appointed as lightkeeper in December 1863, and went on to act in the position for 45 years! In the 1873 survey by Unwin, he describes the lands reserved for the lighthouse, and their proximity to adjacent lands owned by Albert Root. About 50 of the 80 acres that Root owned were cleared, and were presumably farmed (a young orchard was mentioned specifically). At that time, Albert Root was stated to have lived there for 14 years. The lighthouse reserve itself, says Unwin, had been sold to the government by Root “some years ago.”

An inspection of the lighthouse in 1877 gave the following account:

“Supplied this Station on the 6th July. The Keeper is Mr. Albert Root, who has fourteen children.
It is a white wooden building, 55 feet high, with an iron lantern six feet in diameter; is a fixed white light of the Catoptric order, having three No 1 lamps with 12-inch reflectors; the glass is 14 x 16 inches. The building requires to be painted and bolts to be placed for mooring vessels to.
The Station is well kept.”
Sketch from Picturesque Canada. 1882. Editor George Monro Grant. Volume II.

Delbert Root replaced his father in 1908, and remained in the position until the lighthouse became unwatched in 1923. The Root Family’s 60 years of service did not beat the Gillespie “dynasty” on Wolfe Island (where father then son served for 77 years), but is an impressive feat nonetheless. The passing of the lightkeeper job from father to son (who had typically grown up with the job) was relatively common, and certainly well demonstrated with these two Canadian families.

Library and Archives Canada image dated between 1900 and 1910. PA172484.

I have previously written about the role of women acting as lightkeepers in the Thousand Islands. While there was no female keeper ever recognized at the Grenadier Island lighthouse, this does not mean that they played no role. Parks Canada did a study of the history of the island in 1994, and included a chapter on the lighthouse. The study author, Christina Bates, included some oral history information. From Albert Root’s granddaughter, Lillian Massey, we learned that:

“It was the biggest thrill of a life time to be allowed to go up when they lit it. [The lighthouse] was a wooden building, and it had what you would call a spiral staircase and the lamp was a huge brass lamp with glass chimney. That brass lamp had to be polished, so that you could see your face, and the chimney, and all the windows were cleaned. It had to be lit at sundown and turned off at sunup.
My grandmother used to do all the polishing. My grandfather got the credit for it, but she did all the work.”
Photograph from the Elaine Root Reid collection. Undated.

In 1924, the lighthouse became an unwatched lighthouse, upon its conversion to acetylene fuel. The original tower is long gone – the exact timing of its removal is unknown, but from the 1924 List of Lights, it appears that the tower was removed at the same time as its conversion to acetylene. The description changes abruptly from “white, square, wood (1856)” to “lantern on white, square, steel skeleton tower; on concrete foundation” with the year of alteration noted as 1923; it is further noted as an acetylene light, and unwatched. A light still marks the channel, but it has been modified over the years, as technology has changed and improved. The 2023 List of Lights describes the seasonal light as a “White cylindrical mast, red upper portion.”

By Mary Alice Snetsinger

More about Mary Alice Snetsinger,

Mary Alice Snetsinger grew up in the United States and Canada, and worked for four years at Thousand Islands National Park. She became interested in the 19th century lighthouses of the Thousand Islands in 1997 and has been researching them ever since.  Mary Alice provided TI Life with articles about Wolfe Island’s Lighthouses, Fiddler's Elbow,  Lindoe Island Light, the Ogdensburg Harbor Light and Cape Vincent Harbor Lighthouses; click here to these articles and here to see the latest two, Spectacle Shoal light and Sisters Islands Lighthouse.

Editor's Note: Our thanks to Mary Alice who never ceases to find interesting and unknown facts about these iconic lighthouses of the Thousand Islands!

[Header photo: Watercolor painting of “Grenadier Island, Thousand Islands” by John Herbert Caddy.  Dated between 1856 and 1887.  Object number 952.166.2 in the Sigmund Samuel Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum.]

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 7, July 2023, History, Architecture, Places, People

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Mary Alice Snetsinger

Mary Alice Snetsinger is a conservation biologist now working in Kingston.

Read more articles by Mary Alice Snetsinger and there may be more articles on our old site. Click here to visit our old site.