On Lake Huron, there has been as yet, but little progress made towards the erection of the several Light Houses, which are so much needed there. Along the entire of the Canada Coast of this vast Lake, the mariner is wholly unaided by either Lights or Buoys, with the exception of the Solitary Light at Goderich. The opening of the Toronto and Lake Huron Railway, and the wants of the numerous and rapidly increasing settlements in the section of the Province bordering on that Lake, make it necessary that no further delay should take place in establishing such Lights as are essential to the encouragement and safety of its commerce.
During 1856, the foundations for the tower and dwelling on Griffith Island were prepared, and the necessary limestone was quarried and dressed, but the work on the lighthouses suffered a serious setback that season when two steamers and a schooner were “totally wrecked,” and much timber was lost. Having to transport the cut stone up to 150 miles also delayed the project, as did the late arrival of the lantern rooms and Fresnel lenses from France.
In 1857, the tower and one-and-a-half-storey dwelling on Griffith Island were finished, and a temporary light was established atop the tower as the lantern room had arrived too late in the season to be put in place. On December 27, 1858, Griffith Island Lighthouse became the third of the six Imperial Towers to be formally placed in operation, exhibiting a fixed white light from a third-order Fresnel lens at a focal plane of 130 feet above the bay. The tower stood eighty five feet tall, and the light helped many a mariner locate the entrance to Owen Sound and Colpoy’s Bay, where safe shelter could be found behind White Cloud Island.
John Frame was appointed the first keeper of the light and served for a few months before Vesey C. Hill took charge and cared for the station for the next twenty-two years. Keeper Hill and his wife Sarah shared an Irish heritage, but Vesey had been born in Ireland, while Sarah was born in Africa. After an inspection of the lighthouse in 1876, Darius Smith, Superintendent of Lights above Montreal, reported:
The tower is a circular stone building, whitewashed, and is 50 feet high to platform. It is only middling well kept. The sill around the outside of the lantern requires to be covered with water-lime and painted. The dwelling and lighthouse both require painting and whitewashing. The keeper is old and not very strong, and, moreover, finds it almost impossible to get any person to remain there to assist him. He would like to be superannuated, or removed to some more accessible station.
William S. Boyd had the longest tenure of any keeper on Griffith Island, serving from 1889 to 1922, while George H. Bennett, his successor, had one of the shortest terms of service. Keeper Bennett, who had lost a leg during World War I, left the dock on the south side of the island on December 13, 1922 for the lighthouse and was swept out into Georgian Bay and perished in the wind and snow. Bennett had been advised by people at the dock to take a horse and return to the lighthouse by land, but he insisted on going by boat.
Frederick Thornley, whose family had been the original European settlers on Griffith Island, took charge of the light after Bennett perished and served as keeper until an acetylene apparatus was used to automate the lighthouse before the opening of the 1924 season. The Lake Carriers’ Association noted in its annual report for 1928 that the light on Griffith Island was improved by “replacing the seventh-order lens with a fourth-order lens.” Griffith Island Lighthouse remains active today with a modern optic producing a white flash every four seconds atop the tower.
Since 1973, all of Griffith Island’s 2,300-plus acres, save the small parcel on which the lighthouse stands, have been privately owned by the Griffith Island Club, which operates an exclusive hunting, target shooting, and social retreat for its roughly seventy members. The club boasts a lodge that can accommodate twenty-two people and has a private chef, a turf runway, and a private ferry service. Game on the island includes turkeys, pheasants, partridges, chukars, and white tailed deer. The club has reportedly applied for ownership of the lighthouse under the provisions of the Heritage Lighthouse Preservation Act.
Description/Height of tower above ground
Activated in 1858.
White flash every 4 seconds.
White cylindrical tower, red lantern. 19.5 m.
Head Keepers: John Frame (1858 – 1859), Vesey C. Hill (1859 – 1881), Garrett Washington Patterson (1881 – 1889), William S. Boyd (1889 – 1922), George H. Bennett (1922), Frederick W. Thornley (1922 – 1923).