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History and Mystery: Gull Island

Now inhabited only by birds, Mohawk Island Lighthouse houses a faint memory of danger, isolation and promise.

Source: Live Small Town Magazine

By Lacie Williamson, Artist & Art Educator LVW Creative Barracks

Mohawk Island Lighthouse (formerly called Gull Island)

If you walk to the end of Port Maitland’s Pier and look west on a clear day, you may see, what I call, the ghost of Lake Erie: Mohawk Island Lighthouse. Towering 64 feet above a small exposed rock shelf, 4km off the Erie shores of Dunnville’s high banks; only the shell of the old lighthouse remains to tell its stories.

It is the only existing, stone-built, integrated light tower and residence in all of Canada, and was the first lighthouse to be built on an island in Lake Erie.

Constructed in 1846 the Lighthouse was a navigational aid from the southern end of the Welland Canal. Scottish immigrant John Brown, built the Lighthouse, having never built one before, and was soon hired to build another ten across Ontario’s Great Lakes. During their construction 4 supply boats full of limestone crashed and sank.

Of the proposed ten, only six were built, located on Chantry Island and Point Clark on Lake Huron; Cove Island, Griffith Island, Nottawasaga Island, and Christian Island in Georgian Bay. Unfortunately, Mohawk Island Lighthouse is the only Lighthouse of the seven, to be decommissioned.

In its early days, the light mechanism operated with weights and chains, it had to be wound once a day, which required a lighthouse keeper to live on the island.

In 1933, Richard Foster, the lighthouse keeper of 11 years, turned on the stationary winter lamp, as he waited for his son’s arrival, to take him back to shore until the spring. A drop in temperatures and the fierce Lake Erie winds overpowered their little boat. Two days later, their boat washed ashore, near Port Colborne, both men had lost their lives to the elements.

Mohawk Island Lighthouse (formerly known as Gull Island) Photo: Mike Walker

Richard Foster would be the last Lighthouse Keeper on Mohawk Island.

After the tragedy, a battery system was installed to power and operate the Lighthouse. Unfortunately, the Lighthouse was gutted when vandals set fire to the structure, which led to its decommission in 1969. Nowadays, you can get closer with a canoe or kayak, but be wary of larger watercraft.

The underwater terrain surrounding the island is full of rocky channels and shelves, which makes navigating close to the island rather tricky. The location has been monitored since the ’70s as a Canadian National Wildlife Reserve. Access to Mohawk Island is restricted seasonally, prohibited from April 1st through July 31st each year to accommodate the nesting migratory birds.

Read more articles in Live Small Town Magazine.