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 built in the 19th century, but lighting of the Canadian Thousand Islands began with the establishment of nine lighthouses. Cole Shoal is the most eastern of these first lighthouses, and the only one of the 1856 series that still survives, making it the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Canadian side of the River.
Despite beating of the odds of destruction, there are almost no known historical images of the lighthouse. This may be because of its location, in an area of the River with few islands, tucked away from the most popular riverboat tour routes. It is located on a shoal just south of the mainland, approximately five miles west of Brockville, Ontario. The List of Lights from 1893 described it as a “white, square, wood” structure located “on [a] pier, 5 miles W. of Brockville, ¾ mile from N. shore.” In fact, the lighthouse is only about a quarter of a mile from shore, and can easily be seen from there.
William Henry Bartlett was an artist whose sketches in pen, pencil, and sepia were sent to engravers and etched onto steel plates. The thousands of prints made from these plates are proof of his success in catering to the popular taste for picturesque landscapes. Bartlett visited North America four times: 1836–37, 1838, 1841, and 1852, and hundreds of engraving remain to document what he saw. He is believed to have visited Canada in both 1838 and 1841, and apparently visited Brockville in the latter period. The timing meant that he was there 15 years before the construction of Cole Shoal Lighthouse.
Cole Shoal lighthouse was established in 1856. It was also known as Five Mile Light (because it was located 5 miles west of Brockville) and as Coleman’s Creek or Cole’s Shoal light because it was located close to where early settler Adam Cole and his wife (Thankful Fulford) settled at Cole’s Ferry. The Fulford connection was to play a role in the preservation of the lighthouse many years later.
Although no historic images of the Cole Shoal Light have been found, to date, we have a good idea what the lighthouse looked like at that time. The nine 1856 lighthouses were virtually identical, varying only in height depending on their location; Cole Shoal was 31 feet from its base to its vane.
The first lightkeeper was Richard Elliott, who acted from 1856 to 1882, when he retired. Richard Elliott was replaced (for a brief three weeks in October 1882) by his son S. Elliott, who was followed by Erastus John Rowsome (1882 - 1884), Robert Philip Boyd (1884 - 1918), and finally by David Hodge (1918 - 1927).
Most lightkeepers in the Thousand Islands were residents of the area, and continued to live in the area after retirement. Richard Elliott was no exception. In this black-and-white image, he can be seen standing in the doorway of a partially constructed lighthouse tower. (This is the back light at Cole Shoal, which will be discussed below.)
Relatively little is known about these lightkeepers, but small details have survived in materials lodged with families, in departmental files, government documents, and in the National Archives and Libraries. Thus, we can read (sadly unexciting) entries from Robert P. Boyd’s 1894 to 1896 diaries about all the daily rowing he did while executing his (additional) duties as a Fisheries Officer, how a dwelling was built for keeper Elliott in 1860, and how keeper Hodge somewhat plaintively asked about obtaining a new boat in 1917 as the one he had was leaking badly: “about a pailful every time I go to the light, I do not consider it safe in a big wind.” Mr. Hodge also reported in 1922 that a duck had smashed one of the lights of glass in the lantern and that he was unable to repair it.
Cole Shoal was discontinued as a light in 1927, but the tower was left standing for many years at the request of local mariners, to act as a daymark. Periodic offers were made to the government to purchase the structure (most often for use as a hunting spot, but one gentleman suggested that he would haul the tower across the ice to the mainland to use it as a cottage), but these offers were all declined. The coal-carrying steamer Valley Camp ran aground on Cole Shoal in 1939. More famously, the freighter Henry C. Daryaw sank there in 1941; eighteen of the nineteen crew aboard were able to get to safety, but as there was no help to be had from a lightkeeper, they were forced to hitchhike to Brockville for assistance. By the mid 1940s, the letters to the government began to refer to the decrepit state of the structure, warning that it would fall down if no maintenance were done.
In 1947, George T. Fulford wrote to his friend C.P. Edwards, Deputy Minister of the Department of Transport to express interest on behalf of area residents in Cole Shoal. George Fulford, the multi-millionaire inventor of Pink Pills for Pale People, then a former and future Member of Parliament himself, wrote that several interested residents had spoken to him about the “deplorable condition” of the lighthouse, and commented on its historical interest. He asks if certain repairs might be made, failing which there were several interested buyers who would purchase it to preserve it for at least another generation. The undated black-and-white aerial image of Cole Shoal from the Coast Guard files shows the lighthouse at some time during this period - with its lantern removed, and slowly deteriorating due to weathering and vandalism.
The Fulford letter generated considerable correspondence, and a significant maintenance effort was undertaken the following year as a direct result, when the department spent $206.95 on repairs to the beacon. This was to be the last expenditure, however, and the lighthouse was subsequently allowed to continue its deterioration. By 1968, the Department correspondence still makes reference to the Fulford letter, but makes it clear that they have no idea what, if anything, remains of the lighthouse. Other material makes it clear that the Department of Transport saw no historical value in the structure.
Cole Shoal was finally rescued from neglect in 1972, when the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now the Ontario Heritage Trust) obtained title from the Department of Transport. James Wilson of Brockville purchased it for $700.00 for the Foundation. The Foundation saw to it that some maintenance was done on the tower over the years, including jacking it up to prevent it collapsing into the River. Nonetheless, it was in sore need of care by the 21st century. In 2001, the tower was given a $15,600 upgrade, an effort that the contractor Deb Ring claimed would sustain the building for another 30 or 40 years.
Cole Shoal was originally to have been one of a pair of lighthouses, but as it turned out, a second light was not built for over 60 years. So-called “range lights” are defined as two lights that are associated to form a range (a line connecting two charted points), which often, but not necessarily indicates a channel centerline. The Front Range is the lower of the two, and nearer to the mariner using the range. The rear range light is higher and further from the mariner. In the days before GPS, lining up the two range lights allowed mariners to establish their position.
In 1917, a rear (or back) light was built at Cole Shoal. It was also known as the Fulford Range Light because it was built on Fulford Farm, on a small parcel of land purchased from Sherwood Fulford. Cole Shoal began to function as a range light. I inadvertently discovered the back light one day in 2004, while trying to find a vantage point to view Cole Shoal Light. The surprise and pleasure of this find was equaled by that of meeting Mrs. Margaret Cross, who then owned the back light and whose father had been its builder. The rear light was built by local carpenter Albert I. Munro, who can be seen peeking around from its rear in the photograph of the tower under construction. According to Mr. Munro’s granddaughter, Leslie Dunning, her grandfather was at that time training and working with Mr. Elliott.
The range lights apparently did not satisfy mariners, however, for the rear light was abandoned in 1923, after only six years of service. During that period, it had one lightkeeper, John E. Locke. By 1927, Cole Shoal lighthouse itself was discontinued, when a new pair of range lights were established to replace it at nearby DeWattville Island. The rear light has also survived to the 21st century, although it has been altered substantially.
When the rear light was discontinued, the government kept the tower standing, in the event that the new DeWattville lights were not effective. Eventually, after turning down several offers over the years to purchase or lease the tower for use as a cottage or as a summer camp, they elected to sell the tower and the land upon which it stood in 1937. It was offered by tender, and the successful purchaser was its builder, Albert Munro. Mr. Munro submitted the winning bid of $100, and took possession of the tower and the small plot of land it stands upon.
Two photographs above, from around 1937, show Mr. Munro standing in the doorway of the rear lighthouse (with one of his sons faintly seen standing atop the tower), and the tower after its renovation to add a tower room up top, plus the rotary blades of a decorative windmill. The “windmill” was a local landmark for some time, but the blades were eventually removed. The tower remains in the family’s ownership, however, and Ms. Dunning and her husband have been restoring it, with a planned family reunion there on the centennial of its construction.
If you want to see these lighthouses for yourself, Cole Shoal is best viewed from the water, and the Back light from along Fulford Point Road, west of Brockville. Please keep in mind, though, that both structures and the land they are on are privately owned.
By Mary Alice Snetsinger, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Alice Snetsinger is a conservation biologist now working in Kingston. She 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 researching them ever since. Mary Alice provided TI Life with articles about Wolfe Island’s Lighthouses, Fiddler's Elbow, Lindoe Island Lights and the Ogdensburg Harbor Light; click here to see them all.