On October 2, 1896, the Department of Marine used two buoys that displayed a light at a height of roughly eight feet to mark these hazards. A red buoy was moored “in 30 feet water, immediately south of the 20 foot patch at the south extremity of South-East shoal, 3 1/3 miles south-east by south 1/8 south from Pelée Point light,” while a black buoy was anchored in “30 feet water off the north-east point of the Middle Ground, west by south ½ south 3 ¼ miles from Pelée Point light.”
Your attention is especially called to the fact that the Canadian government has established two gas buoys at Point au Pelée Passage, which have given great satisfaction to vessel owners. The prompt response which the Canadian authorities made to the request of our American vessel owners for additional aids to navigation at this dangerous point on the Canadian side of the international boundary line where our Government was powerless to protect our vessels, deserves the thanks of the association. With a comparatively small tonnage on the great lakes and with a vast coast to light on the ocean and St. Lawrence river, where the Canadian marine interests are large, the Canadian authorities needed little urging to induce a prompt response to our request for assistance on Lake Erie. This was a gracious act not to be forgotten.
After Pointe Pelee Lighthouse, known as “The Dummy,” was destroyed by fire on April 17, 1900, there was pressure to rebuild offshore on either the Middle Ground or Southeast Shoal. The Middle Ground was chosen as the preferred site as it had a solid rock bottom, while the sandy bottom at Southeast Shoal was a shifting one. Construction of Pelee Passage Lighthouse on the Middle Ground commenced in 1901, and that July, the Lake Carriers’ Association moored a private lightship, the converted schooner Smith and Post, on Southeast Shoal. This vessel was destroyed by fire on August 7, 1901, forcing Keeper Thomas Wilson, his son Norval, and William Roach to flee for their lives. Fortunately, the lumber-laden vessel Codorus was nearby and picked up the men.
The wreckage of the burned lightship was blown up by dynamite late in August, and shortly thereafter the 107-foot-long, schooner-rigged, wooden-hulled steamer Kewaunee was brought in to serve as a lightship to mark the shoal. A fixed white light, produced by a cluster of three, fifth-order lens lanterns raised on a high mast, was exhibited for mariners, and a twenty-second blast from a wildcat steam whistle was sounded every two minutes in thick weather.
On December 8, 1909, the 254-foot-long steamer Clarion caught fire just west of Southeast Shoal Lightship during a gale. James Thompson, the first mate, went below decks to locate the source of the fire and was never seen again. The blaze spread rapidly, trapping Captain E.J. Bell and part of the crew forward in the wheelhouse, and the remainder aft with A. Welch, the chief engineer. Captain Bell and the twelve men with him launched a metal lifeboat in an attempt to reach the lightship, but all thirteen perished. The seven men aft tried to launch a wooden lifeboat, but one man and the boat were lost overboard in the attempt.
“There we were, with a roaring furnace beneath our feet and without a boat, even if one could live in such a sea,” Welch said. The steamer L.C. Hanna happened upon the burning freighter, and after three attempts, its captain was able to maneuver the vessel close enough so that the six men aboard the Clarion could jump aboard. The Hanna had arrived just in time as Welch later related, “The intense heat had driven us to about the limit of endurance when we were rescued.”
The Detroit River Construction Company of Windsor, Ontario began work in 1925 on a combined reinforced concrete dwelling, fog alarm, and lighthouse atop a cribwork pier. Under the $134,620 contract, the timber crib was built in Kingsville, towed to the shoal, and then sunk in twenty feet of water. After workers filled it with ballast, the crib was topped by a concrete deck that tapered inward for several feet before rising to support the deck for the lighthouse.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service published the following description of Southeast Shoal Lighthouse:
The new Canadian lighthouse on Southeast Shoal, western end of Lake Erie, established July 14, 1927, replacing the lightship which formerly marked the site, is located on the southern extremity of a sand and gravel shoal extending out from Point Pelee, for a distance of about 6 miles, with an average depth of water of 15 to 20 feet. Test boring were taken on the site for a depth of 40 to 42 feet below lake level and showed almost wholly fine sand well settled for that depth, above a stratum of gravel.The station’s radiobeacon was the first Canadian radiobeacon on the Great Lakes.
A timber crib 70 feet square by 17.5 feet high was built at Kingsville harbor, 20 miles distant, and towed to the site and sunk on the sand bottom with stone ballast, after which about 260 piles were driven through the crib and well into the gravel substratum. Ballast was then completed up to a point about 3.33 feet below the top of the crib and mass concrete run into the remaining space and carried up for a distance of 7 feet, securing the piles and cribwork together. The cribwork, and concrete above it for a distance of 19 feet above the bottom, is 70 feet square, as stated above. The reinforced concrete substructure pyramidal in form then rises for a distance of 18.25 feet, where the pier becomes 33.5 feet square again for a height of 8 feet and then flares out for a main deck 39.5 feet square and 49.5 feet above the bottom. The deck supports a 2-story reinforced-concrete superstructure 30 feet square.
In order to reduce to a minimum both wave and ice pressure, a diagonal of the structure was placed in line with the direction of the prevailing winds, while the sides of the substructure, as stated above, have an angle of 45 degrees with the vertical, this being in conformity with the practice for all outside faces of Canadian breakwaters.
The structure had come through two very severe storms since its completion, with only a few minor settlement cracks showing.
The substructure is hollow from a level about 21.5 feet above the bottom, but this space is filled in with stones for a height of 13.5 feet and at this height is provided with a gravel floor for the basement.
The basement within the substructure provides storage for boat, oil, coal, air and water. The first floor of the superstructure is the machinery room, and the second floor contains the living quarters.
The mechanical equipment consists of a 3-inch diaphone fog-signal plant with necessary oil engines and air compressors in duplicate, a 32-volt generating set with storage batteries, an automatic water-pressure system, a 2-kilowatt radiobeacon unit, and a 27-inch short-focus reflector with motor-driven revolving apparatus and 200-watt electric lamp.
The structure cost $135,000 and the machinery and other equipment $20,000; the period of construction covered fully two whole seasons.
William A. Moore was hired as the first head keeper of the lighthouse, and he served until an accident occurred at the station on July 7, 1950. The tender Greenville was transferring 500 gallons of gasoline to the station, when the fuel exploded. The resulting fire gutted the lighthouse and severely burned Keeper Moore and Dowsley Kingston of the Greenville.
John Rice, second mate of the tender, was supervising the fuel transfer, which was accomplished by pumping compressed air into drums aboard the Greenville that forced the gasoline through an antistatic hose and into the lighthouse’s storage tank. Rice was called away to oversee the hoisting of a refrigerator from the Greenville to the lighthouse, and Louis Shaw, an assistant keeper, described what happened shortly thereafter. “All I heard was ‘Shut it off’ and then the explosion occurred. Jack Urquhart aboard the Greenville later reported what he witnessed. “I saw a flash come out of the door and Dowsley Kingston flew out of the door and fell between the lighthouse and the ship in the water.” Keeper Moore managed to escape through a second-story window and lowered himself down by rope, even though badly burned.
Moore and Dowsely were rushed to Leamington General Hospital, where they both died the following day. An inquiry into the cause of the fire placed the blame on the “laxity in discipline and supervision of the crew” and stated that presence of an electric motor so close to the gasoline tank was “inexcusable.”
Southeast Shoal Temporary Lighted Radiobeacon Buoy was established just south of Southeast Shoal Lighthouse while the station was rebuilt. The lighthouse was recommissioned in 1951 and then automated in 1974. A helicopter landing pad was built atop the lighthouse in 1976 to permit access to the station in inclement weather.
Paul Armstrong was in charge of Southeast Shoal Lighthouse from 1951 to 1972, and during this lengthy tenure, he saw his duties change from those comparable to the work of early lighthouse keepers to the electronics age, where lights are powered by generators and can be monitored remotely. Armstrong recalled that about twice each season the lighthouse would be struck by lightning. “It usually just burns a couple of tubes,” he said of a Lake Erie lightning storm, which could be a spectacular sight. Paul and his son Joe would work two weeks at the station, and then have two weeks off while another crew, Ron Wilson and Dave Pilon, took over.
Paul Armstrong’s daughter Carole shared the following experience she had at the lighthouse:
We used to go out to the Light in Summer for some respite. As a teenager I recall a particular visit when I went down to the rocks to read and soak in some of the sun. All of a sudden I could see a snake climbing up the rocks and screamed as I’m dreadfully afraid of them. I knew my dad didn’t hear me so I frantically climbed back up the vertical ladder to the living quarters totally out of breath. It had been maybe 10 minutes when I had left to go down so dad knew something was amiss. When I informed him that I saw a snake he told me I was imagining it as the Light is in the middle of Lake Erie with water all around. I told him he had to go down and look because I was not going back down there until it was gone. He reluctantly went down and sure as guns it had curled up on the platform to sun itself. He frantically got on the radio to my mother who was on land to figure out what kind the snake was and where it came from. When my dad thought about it he realized it must have come off the Coast Guard ship that had brought supplies into him. He was just as much afraid of it as I was and so woke his partner up who had got off the midnight shift and had him place it in a box and seal it until he could get it off the light. We had to wait until the boat came to take me to land a week later. Both my father & I dreamt of the darn thing for the week. I know he was glad to get rid of it off the light before it travelled up the pipes and into the living quarters.
Head Keepers: William A. Moore (1927 – 1950), Paul Armstrong (1955 – 1977).