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History Of Gibraltar Point Lighthouse

Gibraltar Lighthouse - Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Gibraltar Point lighthouse was built on what is now known as Toronto Island in 1808. After 99 years of service it was decommissioned in 1907, but remains as the oldest existing lighthouse on the Great Lakes, since the one built in 1804 on Mississauga Point at the mouth of the Niagara River was demolished to make room for fortifications during the War of 1812.

The Island Lighthouse is the oldest landmark in Toronto. From its site on Gibraltar Point, it has watched most of Toronto's history unfold; its light beam has, for more than 150 years, been a welcome guide for the mariner into the Harbour of Toronto.

At a very early date, it was realized that a lighthouse on the peninsula (now Toronto Island) was essential to the safety of the vessels sailing Lake Ontario. In March, 1803, the following Act was passed: Section 7 - "and whereas it will be necessary and essential to the safety of vessels, boats, rafts and other craft passing from Lake Ontario into the River Niagara and passing by the island called Isle Forest and likewise into the port of York that there should be a lighthouse erected near each of the said last mentioned places.... One to be erected and build upon the.... and the other upon Gibraltar Point."

There appears to be no direct evidence of the actual date when the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was started but in 1808 the Upper Canada Gazette printed the following: "It is a pleasure to inform the public that the dangers to vessels navigating Lake Ontario will in a great measure be avoided by the erection of a lighthouse on Gibraltar Point which is to be completed in compliance with an address in the House of Assembly to the Lieutenant Governor." The address referred to above was dated March 9, 1808, and on April 6th the Lieutenant Governor visited the peninsula and chose a site for the lighthouse.

The original structure was 16m high including a lantern and built of Queenstown stone. The building and its base, which is packed with stone to keep it in place, are hexagonal. The diameter of the base is 6.7m and the circumference is 20.7m. The walls at the base are 1.8m thick, gradually decreasing in size to 1.2m thick at the top. The structure was heightened by 3.6m in 1832 using Kingston stone. The total height of the stonework today is 19.5m the height from the stonework to vane is 5.5m and the overall height from ground to the vane of the lantern is 25m.

The first light was a fixed white lamp that burned sperm oil. When the tower was raised in 1832, an improved white light was also installed and, after 1863, coal oil was used instead of sperm (about 900 gallons of oil were burned annually).

In 1878, a new white revolving light was installed. This was one of the best and most powerful in North American waters. The light revolved once every minute and 48 seconds. The power to revolve the light itself was provided by simple and very efficient means. A cable with a heavy weight on one end was wound around a drum every 14 hours by the lighthouse keeper. The weight, travelling down a tower in the centre of the lighthouse, caused the cable to unwind which, being geared to a shaft, revolved the light. The light was projected by powerful reflectors.

Also in 1878, the balcony around the lamp room, which was originally built with wood, was reconstructed using iron. This proved to be a very wise measure because the following year, the weather vane was reportedly struck by lightning which travelled down the walls, cleaning off all the whitewash and damaging the steps.

In the winter of 1916-1917, the first electric light appeared. This was a fixed white light which flashed on and off. It had powerful reflectors and covered an angle of 240 degrees or more. In the spring of 1945, the present light was installed. A fixed green light is in use to distinguish it from the mass of white light emanating from the Island and the city beyond.

On May 23rd, 1958, the lighthouse was transferred to The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto's Parks Department and was renovated during the Winter Works Incentive Program in 1961-1962. On January 1, 1998, Metro and the six municipalities within it were amalgamated into the new City of Toronto.

Like most other historical buildings, the lighthouse has had its days of tragedy giving rise to tales of the macabre. Such a day was January 2nd, 1815. On this day, the lighthouse keeper, Radan Muller, died in circumstances which have left forever two unanswered questions: How did he die? and by whose hands?

Time has drawn its mantle over this period and we are left with but few facts and more supposition. The facts are these: The York Gazette of January 14th, 1815, printed the following obituary column:

"Died on the evening of the 2nd of January, J.P. Radan Muller, keeper of the lighthouse on Gibraltar Point. From circumstances there is moral proof of his having been murdered. If the horrid crime admits of aggravation when the inoffensive and benevolent character of the unfortunate sufferer are considered, his murder will be pronounced most barbarous and inhuman. The parties lost with him are the proposed perpetrators and are in prison."

On April 15th, 1815, the York Gazette printed the following: "No conviction of the supposed murderers of the late J.P. Radan Muller."

The following is an extract from J.Ross Robertson's "Landmark Of Toronto":
"But Mr. George Durnan, the lighthouse keeper, states that he heard the story from his father and that he, his son, with his uncle, Joe Durnan, found in 1893, bits of a coffin and parts of the jaw bone of a man, 1m beneath the sand and about 150m west of the present keeper's house." It was always claimed that Muller was buried west of the lighthouse near the lagoon at the base of the south side of Blockhouse Bay and, in order to certify the story, Mr. Durnan undertook a search and discovered the buried remains.

The usual tale told is that Muller was murdered by either two or three soldiers from the Fort at York. They evidently called on him late in the evening and asked him to produce his beer keg. This he did, but when he saw his friends were having more than was good for them, he refused a further supply. The refusal ended in a fight and the fight ended in the death of Muller.

This tale has been further garnished by others who say that Muller was a smuggler who brought whiskey from the United States. There is no record to be found of a court martial or trial for this crime ever having been held, so we are left then with the two extracts from the York Gazette. The editor seems certain that Muller was murdered, but his description of Muller's character is hardly that of a whiskey smuggler. The second extract from the York Gazette seems to indicate that there was a trial held and the prisoners were released but, as was pointed out before, there are no records in existence of such a trial ever being held.

Gibraltar Point Lighthouse LIGHTKEEPERS:
  • J. P. Radan Muller  1809-1815
  • William Halloway  1816-1831
  • James Durnan  1832-1853
  • George Durnan  1853-1908
  • Captain P. J. McSherry  1905-1912
  • B. Matthews  1912-1917
  • G. F. Eaton  1917-1918
  • F. C. Allan  1918-1944
  • Mrs. Ladder  1944-1955
  • Mrs. Dodds  1955-1958

This octagonal brick tower is located on Centre Island in Toronto's Inner Harbor. At one time, the island was home to a baseball field from which Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run ... into the lake. Today the island is home to a beautiful park.