100 years of Trowbridge

June 2024

A craggy rocky Island capped by a hardy boreal forest is rooted upon an eight acre, eighty-foot-high ridge that could be seen easily from the water if the First Nations dared challenge Lake Superior’s many moods. With the lake levels dipping by over a foot and a half today, it had taken thousands of years for the island to appear from under the glacier melt water that has receded, leaving the lake the largest in the world.

It wasn’t long before the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company’s fur trade declined from changing markets in Europe for bigger traffic to move onto the lake. Wooden sailing vessels and later steam powered ships started to move people and commodities to build western Canada. Starting in 1855, when the Soo Lock were opened, more cargo and passenger vessels appeared, and some vessels disappeared beneath the waves after being shipwrecked due to poor navigation, non-existent charts or any aids to navigation.

In 1906 one unfortunate steamer, the SS Theano, met its match when it collided with Trowbridge Island’s reef and rocky shore. The vessel, travelling into an unexpected winter storm, ended up having the crew abandon ship into two lifeboats, one of which took all night and part of the next morning to reach Fort William (Thunder Bay). The island got its name from a New Yorker named Charles Trowbridge who was one of the first owners of the Silver Islet Mine. As most locals know the mine generated over $3.5 million (in 1870) and was the most prosperous silver mine in the world. The ship later exploded and sank just off Trowbridge with no loss of life, but a lifetime of stories for the crew.

For many years after there was constant discussion on the need of another light in the vicinity of the feet of the Sleeping Giant. From an ‘aids to navigation’ point of view, and for vessels travelling into Thunder Bay, one of the guiding lights was situated at the foot of the Giant which was often obscured from view because of Trowbridge, Marvin, Ship and Shangoina Islands. It wasn’t until 1919 that a survey crew and draftsmen drew up plans for a light station on the island. Started in 1923 construction began, with challenges to get heavy equipment into place such as pumps and compressors. In fact, from the point where vessels docked to bring on workers and supplies, a 426ft tramway was constructed to the fog alarm building.

The use of concrete was very prevalent in the construction of the light station with the 35 ft tower, a smaller version of the Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse near Halifax, being poured, and today looks as good as it did one hundred years ago. The fog alarm built high on the escarpment is anchored partially by a huge concrete wall that faces to the south.

Upon completion of the light tower, and fog alarm building there was also a wooden duplex built to provide accommodation to the keeper and his assistant. As reported by the local newspaper, sometimes the keeper and his assistant would not always see eye to eye. This made for a difficult tenure on an isolated island!

Once the light was fully established and operational, a keeper and his assistant would operate the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week until freeze up late in the year.

There were other wrecks in 1953 caused by fog which caused a collision between the Burlington and Scotiadoc. One crew member was killed, and flotsam and jetsam landed at Porphyry including the Scotiadoc’s life ring that was captured by the Merritt Families children, Charleen (Koeppen) and Brian. Other families and keepers came and went at the station starting with Allan Murray, Simeon E. Merritt, Roy Mclean, Alex Kerr, Lloyd Thompson, Gordon Graham and Orton W.E. Rumley, before being automated in 1988.

This year celebrates 100 years of Trowbridge’s existence in aiding navigation into and out of Thunder Bay. The story of Thunder Bay and its shipping history is enhanced by these lights that help get commodities to market safely. Celebrations began early this year with a well-attended talk by Mrs. Eve Graham and her son Kevin, who shared their experiences at the Thunder Bay Museum. This was followed up by a successful fundraiser dinner and art auction at the Current River Recreation Centre. At the end of May Lakehead Beer Company with the Thunder Bay Yacht Club celebrated a new beer Trowbridge that will be available all summer! The Annual General Meeting took place at the Prince Arthur Hotel and the guest speaker was Allan McNeice, a former Canadian Coast Guard technician. His talk focuses on the impressive optics still in place at the station. McNeice explains how the light is refracted and focused, and the beam can be seen some twenty miles to Passage Island and Isle Royale.

For those wanting to experience a memorable trip, on July 13th, there is a charter departing from Silver Islet to Trowbridge for a celebration. The light will be open for visitors with extensive work having taken place two weeks ago by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada to fix the stairs leading to the light tower.

To other adventurers, the Superior Rocket will be taking people out on the Lighthouse Trail Discovery Tour, starting at the Thunder Bay Marina, passing Welcome, Trowbridge, and landing at Porphyry lights for a tour, with a return stop at the Silver Islet General Store. What better way to see what a beautiful lake we live on and how fortunate we are to have these gems to share. Tours leave Saturday June 29, July 13 & 27, Aug. 17 & 31 and can be booked online with Sail Superior or the popular tour with Archie’s Fishing Charters & Lighthouse Tours from Silver Islet on Thursdays and Sundays. Book with Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior whose mandate is to connect the public to lighthouse history, ecology and beauty of Superior. Happy Anniversary Trowbridge!

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