|Western Islands, ON|
Description: In its annual report for 1895, the Department of Marine provided the following details on the newly erected lighthouse and fog alarm building on the Western Islands:
The Western Islands, off the Eastern coast of the Georgian Bay, have always been a menace to navigation, as they are on the route from Collingwood to Parry Sound, and on the route from the gap to Midland Bay, a route greatly used by grain vessels in the stormy nights towards the close of navigation. It was therefore considered desirable to mark them by a light and fog-alarm, which have been erected on Double Top Rock, at the south-western extremity of the group of islands, and which were put in operation on the 24th October, 1895. In consequence of the exposed location of these islands, it was necessary to erect buildings capable of resisting heavy spray.
Given the station’s exposed location, it was anticipated that the heavy seas that typically occurred during the fall and winter might cause some damage to the station’s buildings. In 1897, shingles on the north side of the dwelling had to be relaid, thirty feet of tramway was rebuilt, and shutters were added to the exposed windows. In 1901, it was simply noted that, “It was necessary to greatly reinforce the buildings to withstand damage by waves.”
In 1910, a new fourth-order lens was installed in the lantern room, changing the light’s characteristic to a bright flash every fifteen seconds. As part of this change, the illuminant was changed to petroleum vapour burned under an incandescent mantle.
On September 9, 1919, a diaphone foghorn, operated by compressed air produced by an oil engine, replaced the old steam fog alarm plant. The new fog signal sounded a three-second blast every thirty seconds. In 1920, the gully between the dwelling and fog alarm building was bridged by a concrete walk.
Frank Rourke served as head keeper on Western Islands from 1956 to 1958, followed by stints at Great Duck Island and Cape Croker. Some writings of Juanita Rourke, Frank’s wife, were compiled into the book Up the Shore: The Lighthouse Years and include the following description of a powerful fall storm at Double Top when the winds were gusting to seventy miles per hour.
Double Top Island where the lightstation is located is about 20-25 feet high when the water is low, nearly 200 feet long and about 50 feet wide. It is divided into three areas by deep rough crevices and had nothing to shelter it from the howling wind and the raging seas.
Living at such a remote, inaccessible outpost required special preparations and presented certain risks. Each spring when the Wings arrived on the island, they would have with them hundred-pound bags of flour and sugar, a fifty-pound drum of powdered milk, and a large supply of eggs preserved in brine. Fruits and vegetables had to be canned, and the season’s meat typically consisted of six or seven sides of cured bacon, supplemented by fish caught at the station.
During Harry Couling’s time on the island, between 1959 and 1965, his son Bill was struck with acute abdominal pain while playing in the lighthouse. When the pain didn’t subside, Keeper Couling tried to launch the station’s boat for a trip ashore, but the seas were just too rough. Dr. Churchill Swan in Midland was contacted via radio for a remote diagnosis, and a seaplane company was talked into attempting to fly out to the islands the following morning.
“I was eleven so I wasn’t really paying attention,” said Bill, “but I guess they figured if it got any worse my Dad was going to have to do emergency surgery to take out my appendix. He would have done it too – it wouldn’t have bothered him.” Guy Larocque managed to land a seaplane in the lee of the island the following morning, and Bill was transferred to it from a rolling boat. After a short flight, Bill arrived in Midland, where his appendix was promptly removed.
Following automation of the station, the Coast Guard arrived to demolish all buildings save the original lighthouse. The boathouse quickly yielded to the workers axes and crowbars, but when the men tried to dismantle the dwelling, the stout structure held its own. After toiling a couple of days with little progress, someone decided dynamiting the house was the only way they were going to get off the rock before winter. A whole case of dynamite was brought to the island, and a few sticks were suspended in each room and linked together with a detonating wire. A thundering explosion blew the walls and floors apart, but the chimney stood resolute and required additional work to dismantle it.
With the original outbuildings removed, the historic wooden lighthouse carries on its vigil alone, sending out a comforting white flash to mariners every ten seconds.
Head Keepers: Richard Smith (1895 – 1900), Thomas J. Richardson (1901 – 1912), H. Hewitt (1912 – 1913), Elias Smith (1913 – 1918), Joseph G. Dixon (1919 – 1925), Charles Vassair (1925 – 1931), Lawrence Tyler (1931 – 1938), Arnold Wing (1938 – 1946), P.A. Campbell (1947 – 1950), James A. Keith (1950 – 1952), Lloyd P. McAuliffe (1953 – 1955), Frank Rourke (1956 – 1958), Robert Henry Couling (1959 – 1965), Gordon W. Champion (1965 – 1966), Vladimir Kruglov (1966), George Bishton (1966 – 1967), William E. Maguire (1967 - ).
Located on Double Top Island, south of Parry Sound. The lighthouse is owned by the Canadian Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Canadian Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright JACLAY, used by permission.