Gibraltar Point Lighthouse: History & Old Pictures

July 20, 2021 | Pamela

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Did you know that Centre Island is home to one of Toronto’s oldest buildings? That building is Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, completed in 1808. Here's an overview of its history — from the geological origins of the Toronto Islands to the lighthouse's spooky lore.

This post features paintings, photos and other images from our Digital Archive, a database of historical items digitized and held by Toronto Public Library.

Formation of Toronto Islands

The lighthouse is located on Centre Island, part of the Toronto Islands. Until 1850, geologists had different theories on how the islands (really a peninsula) formed. Speculation ended due to the findings of Scottish Canadian engineer and inventor Sanford Fleming. He demonstrated that the soil on the islands was identical to the Scarborough Bluffs, a few miles east.

Over thousands of years, waves had eroded the sand and clay of what we now know as the Scarborough Bluffs. Currents carried this sediment west and deposited it in a series of hooks which eventually formed what are now the Toronto Islands.

Until 1858, a sandbar connected Centre Island to the rest of Toronto. As early as the 1830s there were proposals to dig a canal there. This eastern gap would shorten the boat trip to Niagara Falls by one day. But a violent storm in 1858 created a 300-foot opening in the sandbar. The first boat to use this new passage was the steamship Bowmanville. Within a year all vessels were sailing through the “Eastern Gap.”

Vintage map showing Toronto Island attached to the coast and the text reads reading Plan of Toronto Harbour with the Rocks Shoal and soundings
Map of Toronto Harbour, 1792. At the time, what we now call the Toronto Islands was a peninsula.

Choosing the site for the lighthouse

The general location for the lighthouse was picked by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. In 1793, he had chosen to make Toronto, then known as York, the military centre of Upper Canada (southern Ontario). Simcoe named the tip of Centre Island "Gibraltar Point". He felt that a blockhouse there, combined with Fork York on the opposite side of the water, would make York impregnable — like the Rock of Gibraltar.

Even before Simcoe set foot on the continent, the Indigenous population — namely the Mississaugas — had used this land as a place of recreation and convalescence. The islands were known as "Mnisiing" (“on the islands”) to the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg. Later they were called "Aiionwatha" or "Hiawatha’s Island".

The first building made by settlers on the Toronto Islands was the blockhouse at Gibraltar Point. It was built in 1793 by the Queen’s Rangers to overlook the western entrance to the harbour. (You can read our digitized version of Simcoe’s journal about the Queen’s Rangers.)

Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was the second building to be erected on the islands. Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore traveled to the peninsula and chose the specific construction location. It was to be situated by the southern lake shore fewer than 25 feet from the water. 

Funding the lighthouse

In 1803, Upper Canada Legislature passed an act to establish lighthouses at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Gibraltar (Toronto) and Isle de Forest (Kingston). The act included a toll on vessels using the harbours. This would fund the construction and maintenance of the lighthouses. Toronto Public Library has transcriptions of the Journals of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada for 1803. These are not yet digitized or catalogued but here's the relevant part:

Wednesday, 2nd March, 1803

Prayers were read.

Messers. Ferguson and McDonnell of York informed the House that they had carried up to the Honorable Legislative Council a Bill entitled “AN Act to explain and amend an Act passed in the forty-first year of His majesty’s Reign entitled ‘An Act for granting to his Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, to and for the use of this Province, the like duties on goods and merchandize brought into this Province form the United States of America as are now paid n Goods and Merchandize imported from Great Britain and other places; and to provide more effectively for the collection and payment of duties on Goods and Merchandize coming form the United States of America into this province; and also to provide fund for the erection and repairing of Lighthouses, --to which they request their concurrence.

(Fun fact: the other two items parliament was concerned about that year were “An Act to impose and lay a duty on Billiard Tables” and “An Act to restrain the custom of permitting horned cattle, horse, sheep and swine to run at large.")

Building the lighthouse

Sources vary on the exact date of its initial construction, but we know that the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was completed in 1808. Below is an announcement in the York Gazette (also known as The Upper Canada Gazette).

Two screenshots of old newspaper with the title Supplement to the York Gazette Wednesday March 16 1808
Snippet from Supplement to the York Gazette, March 16, 1808. Transcription: "It is with pleasure we inform the Public, that the dangers to vessels navigating Lake Ontario will, in a great measure be avoided, by the erection of a Light House on Gibraltar Point, which is to be immediately completed, in compliance with an Address of the House of Assembly to the Lieutenant Governor."

 

The original lighthouse was 52 feet high, including the lantern. The main building material was Queenston Stone. Huge stones were transported to York aboard a vessel called the Mohawk. The structure is a hexagonal shape with walls six feet thick at the base. The walls gradually decrease to four feet in thickness towards the top. 

Attached to the outside of the lantern room was a hoist to raise a flag to inform Fort York of approaching vessels.

Having a lighthouse at Gibraltar Point freed up lake navigation because vessels could now travel at night. Unfortunately, its record for protecting ships was not perfect. In the winter of 1811–1812 the schooner named Toronto was wrecked on the southern shore of the peninsula. Apparently, the skipper was confused about the light shining from the lighthouse. 

For many years the lighthouse was the best known landmark in Toronto. It was the first building that visitors could see when they approached from the lake and the last that lingered in sight when they left.

Painting of large sail boat approaching coast with lighthouse
"The Lighthouse, Gibraltar Point, Toronto, 1808." Painting by Rowley Walter Murphey, approximately 1934. From our Canadian Documentary Art Collection, part of the Baldwin Collection of  Canadiana.

The War of 1812

The lighthouse was active during the War of 1812. Before landing troops two miles west of Fort York, an American fleet idled near the peninsula where they could see the lighthouse lamp shining on the night of April 26, 1813.

The Americans stayed for several days in York. In addition to destroying obvious military targets, they burned down the parliament buildings (The Palace of Parliament) located where Front and Parliament Street is today. They also burned down the HMS Sir Isaac Brock, an uncompleted warship. The blockhouse and lighthouse on Gibraltar Point were untouched, leaving some to wonder about their significance in terms of defense.

A close inspection of the map below of York in 1816 shows the location of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and a few other sites on the peninsula. It also shows the landing spot of the Americans, the location of the rebuilt Fort York and where the HMS Sir Isaac Brock and parliament buildings burned down.

Changes to the lighthouse

Several changes were made throughout the 19th century. In 1832, the lighthouse was raised to 64 feet of stonework. The overall height from ground to vane became 82 feet. Eighty wooden steps led up the narrow spiral staircase to it’s cage-like wooden lantern and hexagonal gallery. In the same year, the lamp started using sperm whale oil. It burned about 200 gallons of oil a year. A dumb-waiter centered in the spiraling stairs lifted oil up. The light’s visibility was about seven miles. 

Sometime after 1863, coal oil replaced whale oil as the lighthouse’s illumination. While cheaper, much more was needed. In 1878, the lantern structure was replaced with steel and a lightening rod was placed on top of the tower. This was fortunate timing — lightening struck the tower in 1879. Without the rod, the tower may have been in ruins today.

More changes took place in the 20th century. In 1916 the light was electrified to display a flashing 240-degree arc and in 1945 it was modified to a fixed light. In 1958, the light was replaced by signal tower nearby. In May 23, 1958, the lighthouse operation was given to the Municipality of the Metropolitan Toronto Parks department who made modifications to it in 1961 and 1962. 

Haunted reputation

Almost every year, particularly around Halloween, a story is written about how the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse has come to be haunted. Its haunted reputation stems from two main stories. One recounts a fatal night in January, 1815. A party of soldiers visited their friend, the first lighthouse keeper John Paul Radelmüller. When the lighthouse keeper saw his guests were becoming too drunk, he refuses to produce more liquor. The enraged soldiers beat Radelmüller to death and escape along Blockhouse Bay. His body was allegedly cut into pieces and buried around the islands.

The other story says that Radelmüller simply vanished in 1815. In 1893, the lighthouse keeper at the time allegedly found parts of a human skeleton buried close to the lighthouse. Many believed it to be Radelmüller’s unfound remains, but this story remains controversial.

Regardless of how he disappeared, it is supposedly Radelmüller’s ghost that haunts the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. Some say he haunts it because of his dedication to the light. Others say he is searching for his bones for a proper burial. Theses story have engaged generations of Toronto residents and has caused many to give the lighthouse a wide berth on dark and stormy nights. 

In 1958, CBC televised a report about the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse and the legend of the ghost of Radelmüller. It interviewed DeeDee Dodds the lighthouse keeper at the time and John Durnan, nephew of George Durnan, the keeper associated with the skeletal remains believed to be Radelmüller. You can also read more about Radelmüller’s disappearance in an article from 2020.

Lighthouse keepers

The earliest keepers and their families were some the first civilian residents on the peninsula. They lived in a two-roomed shuttered pioneer-style frame cottage close to the lighthouse. Built in 1808, it was made of three-inch planks joined by nails from the blacksmith’s forge at Fort York. (The lighthouse keeper and family eventually had their lodgings upgraded — view photo of new lodgings from the 1950s.)

John Paul Radelmüller, the lighthouse's first keeper, was succeed by William Holloway who enjoyed the company of local officers. Next came James Durnan. He was there for the 1832 addition to the lighthouse tower to increase its visibility. He also lived through many historical events during his stay: the cholera epidemic in 1832, the incorporation of the City of Toronto in 1834, the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837 and Toronto’s celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.

Many others succeeded Durnan, including today's honourary keeper. View a full list of keepers.

The lighthouse today

Today, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is the oldest existing lighthouse on the Great Lakes. No longer used for its original purpose, the building occasionally opens for tours or Doors Open Toronto.

Over time, sediment deposition and land reclamation has increased the size of the islands such that the lighthouse has been moving father back from the shoreline. The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was originally about eight metres from the water. It's now 100 metres away. This increasing distance was even noticeable in 1919, as seen in the postcard below.

Vintage postcard showing aerial view with lighthouse and other landmarks and text reading Aeroplane view over lagoon from lighthouse point  Toronto Ontario Copyright canada 1919 by Cnadian Post Card Company Toronto
Postcard of Centre Island, 1919. The lighthouse (bottom-right) was already more inland at this point. From our Baldwin Collection of Canadiana.

 

The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was never presented as tourist attraction like others of its kind. It was part of the city’s infrastructure and did its job throughout the years without seeking praise or thanks. It is well worth a trip to pay homage to this unassuming structure that has seen so much of Toronto’s history.

White lighthouse with dirt path during daytime
The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in present day. Author's photo.

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