Lighting the way to safe navigation on Superior

March 2023

Understanding the moods of Superior allows people to comprehend the mysterious sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Assurance for safe passage on this big lake cannot be taken for granted even though it is where Thunder Bay developed as a national transshipment hub drawing shipping traffic.

Commodities have been transported on Lake Superior for thousands of years, starting with the canoe. In 1855 the Soo Locks opened up allowing even more traffic to flow. Furs, minerals, wood and later immigrant passengers found it the most effective mode to travel and populate the west.

Just after Canada’s Confederation, in a letter penned December 30th, 1870 to the government, Thomas Dick made a request that Lake Superior waters be safer to navigate. In a beautifully written letter in cursive-loop, found at the National Archives of Canada, Dick states “The undersigned has the honour to report that it is very essential to the safe navigation of Lake Superior that lights should be erected on Michipicoten Island and Point Porphyry”. It continued, “No time should be lost in making the lake line of route as safe as possible and without delay”. He goes on to say that twelve thousand dollars would be needed to complete the work of erecting these lighthouses.

Porphyry Lighthouse was to be situated on the southwest point of Porphyry Island, 43 kilometers east of Thunder Bay. The light had three purposes. One was to identify the north channel between Isle Royal and the north shore, providing safe passage to Thunder Bay. The second was to identify the hazardous north shore, the third to direct vessels wanting to enter Black Bay.

In 1872, construction began on the three lights: Porphyry Island, situated at the mouth of Black Bay and two other lights on Michipicoten Island located 65 km south west of Wawa. The base of each timber building measuring 26 by 30 feet wide (imperial measurement at the time) had a height of 36 feet.

Each one-story lighthouse contained a bedroom, kitchen and living room accompanied by a 10ft square tower which was topped by an octagonal tower of equal height. The white painted light structure looked like a three-layer wedding cake when completed and would be home to light keepers and their families for 85 years. The original Porphyry light was demolished in 1961.

Names such as Ross, Bosquet, McLean, McKay, Graham and Merritt were all part of the roll call over the years that manned the lights as head keepers. Andrew Dick was the most prominent, having lived there for thirty years, year round with a family of ten children and a First Nations wife, Caroline. Having grown up on Black Bay, Caroline was instrumental in helping her Scottish Presbyterian husband and family survive the wilds of the northwest.

The cast iron housing atop the octagonal tower had a ventilation stack to remove sooty air emanating from the four whale oil lamps. Keeping the light clean and the copula glass clear was part of the daily chores. The catoptric lantern included four reflectors 20 inches (50cm) in size and was 56 feet (18m) above the water. The light could be seen for approximately
13 miles (20km) out into the water.

Having accommodations below the light meant keepers didn’t have to go into the weather and could catch a little sleep in between tending the light. Later, in 1907 a fog alarm building was established to protect vessels from catching Porphyry’s Reef 1,100ft (350m) to the south. Many episodes of fog were registered in the daily logs kept by the keepers because
of the cold year round temperatures of Superior.

In 1929 the SS Thordoc left Thunder Bay laden with many tons of Robin Hood flour. It ground to a shuddering halt on Porphyry’s northern reef in the dead of night. The captain handed the piloting to the second in charge and due to the magnetic disturbance in the area the ship went off course. A female passenger disembarking the flooding vessel to a lifeboat reported that she could see the light from only a hundred feet away. Later, the flour was offloaded allowing the vessel to be re-floated and repaired at Portship in Thunder Bay. For a decade after, north shore residents were still using flour from the wreck to bake their bread!

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Porphyry light station. Hammerskjold’s woodworking class under the direction of Mr. Robert Dasey, a Technology teacher at Lakehead Public Schools, is building a scaled down replica of the original Porphyry Lighthouse. This replica will be unveiled on Porphyry Island, on July 1st, to celebrate 150 years of light keeping at the site.

Superior lighthouses have played a significant role in keeping commerce moving through the port of Thunder Bay and to other ports far and away. Celebrating this milestone acknowledges the existence of those men and women who helped build our country and provide safe passage.

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