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Porphyry Point, ON  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.   

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Porphyry Point Lighthouse

Just east of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior’s northern shore, the volcanic Black Bay Peninsula separates Black Bay and Nipigon Bay and consists of over 300 distinct lava flows. Porphyry Island, the last in a chain of islands that stretch southwest from the peninsula, is named for the island’s igneous rock, known as porphyry, that contains quartz and feldspar crystals. Another unique feature of the island is the presence of devil’s club, a shrub with a spiny stem and large leaves. The population of devil’s club on Porphyry Island and three nearby islands is the only known occurrence of the plant east of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1872, Parliament allocated $8,000 for the construction of three new lighthouses in Lake Superior to assists the rapidly expanding trade on the lake, and a contract was entered into for the construction of two lighthouses on Michipicoten Island and one on Porphyry Island. The following description of the new light on Porphyry Island was published by the Department of Marine in 1873

Porphyry Point Lighthouse in 1907
Photograph courtesy Library and Archives Canada
Another very superior lighthouse was recently erected at Point Porphyry, Lake Superior, which has already been of much service to the steamboat trade on the lake. Mr. Donald Ross was appointed keeper of this light on the 10th April last, at a salary of $400 per annum. The tower is a square wooden building, painted white, and the light is a fixed white catoptric, and can be seen at a distance of 16 miles. The lighting apparatus consists of five No.1 circular burner lamps and 20-inch reflectors. It was lighted for the first time on the 1st of July, 1873.
The total cost of two lighthouses on Michipicoten Island, along with the lighthouse at Porphyry Point, came to $7,549.37.

Porphyry Point Lighthouse consisted of a roughly square dwelling with a hipped roof from which rose the light tower. The base of the wooden tower was square, but the middle section was octagonal and the top portion featured an octagonal, iron lantern room, surrounded by a gallery supported by numerous corbels. From the ground to the ventilator and vane atop the lantern room, the lighthouse measured thirty-six feet tall, and it exhibited a fixed white light at a height of fifty-six feet above the lake.

Keeper Ross passed away in 1880 and was replaced by Andrew Dick, who had earlier served as a temporary keeper at Battle Island and who also received an annual salary of $400. The 1881 census shows that the Scottish Keeper Dick was forty-eight at the time, and that he and Caroline, his thirty-four-year-old Indian wife, had eight children living with them. A ninth child arrived later that year, and a tenth was born in 1884, just four months before Caroline passed away. Two logbooks kept by Keeper Dick during his thirty years on Porphyry Island are in possession of the Thunder Bay Museum and provide some insight into the Dick family’s time on the island.

Following her mother’s death, Emily, the ninth child, assumed most of the domestic responsibilities as evidenced by these entries made by her father:

January 3 - Emily hauling wood with the dogs. About three loads.
January 16 - Emily mending fish nets.
January 17 - Cut some wood. Emily got two loads home with the dogs. She is gone for a bag of wheat to the boat house.
January 19 - Emily cleaned out the hen-house and put some gravel in it.
January 22 - Emily baked bread today.
Agnes, the oldest child, apparently suffered from a physical ailment and was rarely mentioned in the logbook. Her passing was noted in the entry for Christmas Day, 1901: “There is one person less in this house since last Christmas. Agnes, the oldest of the family, is gone over to the majority. Fine and mild all day. Emily not able to kill a chicken for dinner. Christmas, but no presents.”

In 1907, Peter Tonge supervised the construction of a rectangular, wooden fog alarm building on Porphyry Island to house a three-inch duplicate diaphone plant with two six-horsepower kerosene engines supplied by the Canadian Fog Signal Company of Toronto for $7,250. The fog alarm was placed in operation on July 15, 1908 by Joseph Bosquet, who would take charge of the light as well two years later when Keeper Dick retired. Keeper Bosquet’s son Ed recalled that Keeper Dick stayed on the island year-round. “[Keeper Dick] had two suits of long underwear, a heavier suit for the winter,” Ed said. “After six months he’d change. He’d hang one suit over the woodpile and it would stay there until he changed again.”

When Keeper Dick left the island, the Bosquets discovered thirty years worth of Toronto newspapers in the dwelling’s attic. It took the Bosquets nearly an entire summer to burn all the papers, which had been delivered to the island a month at a time. Ed Bosquet would later serve as keeper at Slate Islands for nearly two decades.

On November 8, 1929, when Edward McKay was serving as keeper, the steamer Thordoc piled up on rocks near Porphyry Point in a dense fog. The vessel’s crew took to lifeboats and rowed to the lighthouse in the early morning darkness. An investigation into the incident found that Captain A. Peterson had “erred grievously,” and the ship’s owner had to compensate Robin Hood Flour Mills $146,326 for the loss of its flour. After much of its cargo was removed, the Thordoc was refloated roughly a month later and towed to Port Arthur for repairs. Keeper McKay and others in the vicinity made off with enough flour to last them for several years. Before arriving on Porphyry Island in 1922, McKay had served at Battle Island Lighthouse, where he replaced his father as keeper in 1913.

In 1911, the light at Porphyry Point was improved by substituting a fourth-order lens for the catoptric apparatus formerly used. The characteristic of the light was changed from fixed white to flashing green in 1944 and then to flashing white in 1947.

The present lighthouse, a square tower topped by a lantern room and supported by a square, pyramidal structure, was erected in 1960.

Keeper Cliff McKay
Photograph courtesy Jane Byers
Jane Byers, granddaughter of Keeper Clifford and Fran McKay, one of the last families to live at Porphyry Point Lighthouse, contributed the following essay about life on Porphyry Island. (Clifford McKay was the nephew of Edward McKay and during his tenure as head keeper he was assisted by Robert McKay, his cousin, William McKay, his son, and his wife.)
On Porphyry Island just off the northern shores of Lake Superior proudly stands the Porphyry Point Lighthouse. Named for the black volcanic rock it’s perched on, the lighthouse has watched over the entrance to Black Bay since 1873. The light station was manned vigilantly from just before the ice melted in the spring until the lake’s winter freeze. Time spent on the island was a magical experience never forgotten by those fortunate enough to have visited there.

Lying just east of the mighty Sleeping Giant and only accessible by water or air, Porphyry Island was a seventeen nautical mile or a two hour passage by boat from the mainland camp. Grandpa’s expert maneuvering of the fishing vessel and Superior’s restless waters would make the voyage to the island an exhilarating adventure. A few drops of the lake’s frigid spray could take one’s breath away, and the enormous swells would make one’s stomach drop with each surge. Plowing into the harbor’s calm was always a welcome sensation as the powerful engines subdued and one glided to a stop at the dock. From there, it was just a fifteen minute tractor ride through the woods to the lighthouse.

The days flew by on the island. Hours were lost on the beaches collecting pieces of broken glass, polished to perfection from their trip along the rocky bottom of the lake. Against the black pebble sand, they looked like sparkling treasure and came in every color. Smooth pulp logs washed ashore and were perfect for constructing massive forts. Exploring the woods one would occasionally discover an Ojibwe Indian burial mound. Their arrowheads were sometimes found and fashioned into tomahawks again. Fishing with Grandpa entailed helping with the nets and cleaning the fish for Grandma to fry to perfection and eat with fresh produce from her garden. The greatest thrill of all was climbing to the top of the lighthouse tower to gaze out from almost ninety feet above the beautiful blue lake. Looking down on the huge freighters as they made their way along the shipping channel was breathtaking. Days when the thick, heavy fog would move in Porphyry’s horns would start their deep, eerie warnings. The radio would periodically crackle with “Maydays” from frightened boaters lost in the disorienting haze. Alone, Grandpa would head to his boat and always find the distressed vessel to rescue, towing them safely into the harbor.

Animals were abundant on Porphyry. Each spring would find a moose living on the island, having walked across the ice in the winter. Shortly after the lightkeeper’s return, they would swim away. Fox and deer were spotted frequently, and rabbits were everywhere. The fall brought bears from the mainland as they swam over to feast on the Mountain Ash berries.

The Porphyry Point Light was made fully automated soon after Grandpa retired in 1979. He was awarded The Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship and also presented to Queen Mother Elizabeth. The light tower is locked, and the island is now deserted, a nature preserve owned by The Canadian Coast Guard. Only visited by the odd sea kayaker, the forest and animals have reclaimed their island. The era of manned light stations is now mainly a thing of the past. Being a light keeper’s granddaughter is a cherished memory experienced by the extremely lucky and very few.

After months of hemming and hawing, the government granted Maureen Robertson a three-month stay at Porphyry Point Lighthouse in 1994, after she had spied the station during a float-plane ride the previous summer. Robertson was dropped off on the island by a boat out of Silver Islet, and quickly set about cleaning up the station and applying a few coats of new paint. When the Coast Guard came for a visit, they were convinced having a live-in caretaker was a good idea, but after several black bear encounters and a few less-desirable human visitors, Robertson decided in 1997 to spend her summers at Trowbridge Island Lighthouse, where she greeted visitors for fourteen years.

Porphyry Point Lighthouse in the 1950s
Photograph courtesy Canadian Coast Guard
Following Robertson’s departure, Porphyry Point Lighthouse soon fell victim to vandalism. When Doulas Gould, an educator who taught Brian Merritt, son of Keeper Charles Merritt, visited Porphyry Point Lighthouse circa 2010, he was so moved by the destruction caused by vandals that he penned a poem.

Porphyry, poor Porphyry, look at you now
Years of neglect and vandals have sadly torn you down
Once so lovingly tended by the keepers of the light
With neat, warm cosy buildings painted bright red and white
There to guide all vessels t’ween Passage Isle and shoals
And visitors always welcome was the Merritt family’s goal
Now the locks are broken and many windows smashed
All the buildings ransacked and their few contents trashed

Mindless hoodlums and senseless acts
Have rendered this once lovely place
A very sad, sad testament...to a less than human race.

Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior was formed to look after its namesake lights and obtained a lease from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for Porphyry Point Lighthouse and Shaganash Lighthouse. Paul Capon, chair of the non-profit organization, visited Porphyry Point Lighthouse in 2013 and found a somewhat depressing sight, with most of the windows in the keeper’s dwellings having been broken out by vandals. During the summer of 2014, trees were trimmed, trails were rehabilitated, walls were repaired and painted, and more than forty windows were replaced. Starting in 2015, canoeists and kayakers will be able to spend the night at Porphyry Point by paying a fee or donating some time at the station.

Speaking of north shore lighthouses, Capon said: “They’re in beautiful settings, and they belong to the public. The public paid for them, and really they should have an opportunity to see them and see the beauty of northwestern Ontario.” And now, thanks to his organization, the public will be given the chance to do just that.

Throughout the summer season, Canadian Lighthouses on Lake Superior offers visitor tours that depart from Silver Islet Harbour with Artists in Residence and Host Keepers volunteering their time. Each summer, various events take place on the premises, and the keeper’s dwelling along with canvas tents are available for overnight stays.

Head Keepers: Donald Ross (1873 – 1880), Andrew Henry Dick (1880 – 1910), Joseph Bosquet (1910 – 1922), Edward McKay (1922 – 1945), Roy McLean (1945 – 1946), Charles Merritt (1946 – 1959), Clifford McKay (1959 – 1979), Gordon Graham (1979 – 1988).


  1. Annual Report of the Department of Marine, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers’ Association, various years.
  3. “Thunder Bay group restores local lighthouses,” Amy Hadley, CBC News, August 27, 2014.
  4. Superior: Under the Shadow of the Gods, Barbara Chisholm and Andrea Gutsche, 1998.

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