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Gibraltar Point Lighthouse – The historic lighthouse on Toronto Island

August 2020

Lighthouses have served as essential navigational aids for shipping for centuries. Although its light was extinguished long ago, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on Toronto Island is the oldest lighthouse still standing on the shore of the Great Lakes, and one of the oldest buildings in Toronto.

Built in 1808 using stone quarried in Queenston (today’s Niagara-on-the Lake), it originally stood 52 feet high, with a base of 23 feet in diameter and 7 feet diameter at the top. Its light was raised another 32 feet in 1832, this time using stone quarried in Kingston.

The land the lighthouse stood on was named Gibraltar Point, after the British-controlled Straits of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea, by the John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant -Governor of Upper Canada and the founder of the Town of York, as Ontario and Toronto were called back then.

The lighthouse was originally located 25 feet from the water, but the build up of sand on this area of the Toronto Islands, themselves actually a huge sandbar that was once connected to the mainland, over the next two centuries have extended the distance to around 330 feet. With no attempts to remove this sand build-up, it explains why the lighthouse is now so far away from the water.

Although all modern lighthouses are electrically powered and automated, early lighthouses like the one at Gibraltar Point frequently used candles, or fuels like whale oil or coal, to power their light. This required a lighthouse keeper to be present, and frequently live, in or near the lighthouse.

The lighthouse keeper’s cottage, located near the lighthouse, was a squared-log clapboard clad, consisting of two-stories. It has long-since been demolished.

The light was originally contained in an oak and glass case, illuminated by candles, switching to whale oil in 1832, then coal in 1863. An electric lamp was installed in 1916, contained in a steel box that had replaced the wooden one in 1878.

The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was deactivated in 1957 by the last time by lighthouse keeper Dedie Dodds and turned over to Metro Toronto Parks the following year.

The lighthouse is closed to the public, but is occasionally opened for special public tours. Manuel Cappel, a German immigrant like Radelmüller, has been the honourary lighthouse keeper since 1999.

A 2008 Heritage Toronto plaque near the lighthouse pays tribute to the lighthouse keepers, noting that, “…the keepers and their families formed the nucleus of a growing island community,” a community that while greatly diminished, still includes some permanent residents on Algonquin and Ward’s Islands

Ghost Stories

The first keeper of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, German-born John Paul Radelmüller, is the subject of one of Toronto’s most enduring ghost story and unsolved murder cases.

In fact local legend says the lighthouse is haunted by Radelmüller.

The story goes that on 2 January 1815, soldiers from nearby Fort York visited the 52-year-old Radelmüller at the lighthouse, hoping to get some of his bootlegged beer. In a drunken dispute, two soldiers are alleged to have murdered Radelmüller, and buried his body nearby, where bone fragments and a decomposed coffin were found by then-lighthouse keeper George Durnan in 1893. Although positive identification was never made, many suspected, even to this day, that it was Radelmüller’s remains.

Two soldiers were reportedly charged with the murder, John Henry and John Blueman, both Irishmen with the Glengarry Light Infantry, a regiment that saw action during the War of 1812. Both were ultimately acquitted of the crime, and it remains unsolved today.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibraltar_Point_Lighthouse, https://torontoist.com/2017/08/spooky-story-behind-gibraltar-point-lighthouse, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/203-years-ago-a-toronto-lighthouse-keeper-disappeared-today-the-mystery-endures-1.4470748.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/gibraltar-point-lighthouse-the-historic-lighthouse-on-toronto-island/

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