Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-10-06.
As the St. Lawrence River is the only waterway to link the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, both the governments of Canada and the United States established numerous lights to help improve its navigation. The Cole Shoal Lighthouse was one such light erected on the Canadian side of the river.
Vessels have been sailing the St. Lawrence River as early as the mid-1500s. Navigation was difficult at best due to many submerged rocks and shoals in the waterway. To remedy some shallow sections, several canals were created, including the Lachine Canal in 1825, which helped turn Montreal into a major port, thus increasing vessel traffic on the river.
Other improvements took place near Port Weller, Ontario in 1829 when the Welland Canal was excavated. The Welland Canal linked Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and is marked on one end by the Port Weller Outer Lighthouse, and the other by the Port Colborne Lighthouse. Prior to the canal, vessels had to be offloaded, travel across a portage road, and then reloaded, which was very tedious.
Each of these improvements helped increase vessel traffic along the St. Lawrence River. While the vessels were traversing the length of the river, the shipping channel would cross over the international boundary numerous times between the United States and Canada.
In a report dated November 26, 1838, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt, U.S. Navy, had expressed some thoughts about "increasing the advantage of commerce to the river." His report recommended construction of the Rock Island, Sunken Rock, and the Crossover Island Lighthouses, which would be constructed between 1847 and 1848.
By the 1850s, the advent of river steamers and their increasing role at night along the St. Lawrence called for increased lighting. Thus, a similar study was carried out on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River focusing on the areas between Kingston and Brockville.
Nine nearly identical wooden lighthouses, differing only by height, were recommended. The locations for the selected lights would be Cole's Shoal, Grenadier Island, Fiddler's Elbow, Lindloe Island, Jack Straw Shoal, Spectacle Island, Red Horse Rock, Burnt Island, and Gananoque Island. An official report compiled in 1855 boasted that that stretch of the St. Lawrence River "is now lighted as a street."
Cole's Shoal, was located just off shore from Cole's Ferry, an area five miles west of Brockville, Ontario. The area was named after loyalists (loyal to the British crown after the American Revolution) John and Adam Cole were forced to flee the United States in 1782 and settled the area.
Adam Cole would go on to marry loyalist Thankful Fulford on August 21, 1797. By 1812, their family would consist of nine sons and seven daughters. Many descendants of both the Cole and Fulford families still remain in the area today.
Standing on a set of piers on the shoal in the St. Lawrence River, the Cole Shoal Lighthouse was established in 1856. In a report, the Red Horse Rock Lighthouse was listed as a "26-foot frame tower, 12 feet to a side and with a slight taper, was lined with narrow clapboarding and capped with a plain cornice. The octagonal lantern rested on a four-foot square box. The cupola was described as ogee in configuration; that is, embodying a double continuous curve."
As each of the nine lighthouses established along the St. Lawrence River were listed as being nearly identical, it is safe to assume that the description would also hold true for the Cole Shoal Lighthouse, with the exception of the height. The Cole Shoal Lighthouse was 31 feet tall.
Richard Elliott was the station's first keeper. Elliott was forced to find his own housing until 1860 when a keeper's dwelling was constructed on the mainland. His duties would require him to row to the lighthouse as needed. He would stay on as keeper until his retirement in 1882 at the age of 74.
Darius Smith, Superintendent of Lights above Montreal, filed this report in the Tenth Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries for the year 1877:
Mr. Richard Elliot is the Keeper, who is 69 years of age. We arrived at this station on the 6th July and supplied the stores. This lighthouse is situated on a pier five miles west of Brockville, and three-quarters of a mile from the north-shore, and is a white square wooden building placed on a pier 55 x 22 feet, and shows a fixed white catoptric light, burning three No. 1 lamps with two 18-inch and one 14-inch reflectors, size of glass 28 x 36 inches. The pier requires repairs, and glass is wanted for the lantern.
The fence on the division line, the property of the Government and private parties, requires repairs. The Deputy Minister of Marine instructed the Keeper to enquire at what rate material could be procured, and the cost for a man to assist him to put it in good order.
The report states that Mr. Elliott's salary was $250 per annum, and an additional amount of $39.24 was required to paint the tower and dwelling, repair the fence and lighthouse, and for additional hardware.
After Elliott's retirement in 1882, Erastus John Rowsome took over, but only stayed for two years. Robert Philip Boyd became the keeper in 1884 and served until 1918. Keeper Boyd also served some time as a Fisheries Officer during his tenure as light keeper.
The final keeper of the Cole Shoal Lighthouse was David Hodge, serving from 1918 to 1927. Shortly after taking over duties, Hodge requested a new row boat as the old one leaked "about a pailful [sic] every time I go to the light."
In 1916, a rear range light was established on Fulford Farm, about 1,200 yards from the existing Cole Shoal Lighthouse in the channel. Starting that year, the two lights would work in unison as the Cole Shoal Range Lights.
Read more on the history of the Cole Shoal Rear Range Lighthouse.
The range lights did not satisfy mariners and the rear range light was abandoned in 1923. Four years later, the Cole Shoal Lighthouse was discontinued in favor of the newly established DeWattville Island Range Lights.
Although it was deactivated, it was left standing on the shoal at the request of local mariners who continued to use it as a daymark. Many offers to purchase the lighthouse were received, but all were declined. At some point, the lantern was removed, leaving the tower "headless."
Even after deactivation of the Cole Shoal Range Lights, accidents continued.
One foggy evening, on April 19, 1939, the steamer Valley Camp, carrying a load of coal struck the shoal. After unloading 2⁄3 of the soft coal cargo, the vessel was pulled free by the tug Salvage Prince. After being freed, it proceeded under its own power to Prescott, where it was unloaded and taken into drydock for repairs.
Another event involved the Henry C. Daryaw. Starting in 1935, the Henry C. Daryaw ran in the coal trade on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. In late 1941, it was requisitioned for wartime service along the east coast. On November 21, 1941, while on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, it struck Cole Shoal and sank. Of the nineteen on board, only one perished.
Around this same time, many began to send letters to the government regarding the poor state of the structure. In 1947, George T. Fulford, a former member of the Canadian House of Commons, wrote a letter to the Deputy Minister of the Department of Transport regarding the "deplorable condition" of the Cole Shoal Lighthouse.
His letter sparked interest in the tower, and the following year, $206.95 was spent on repairs to the aging lighthouse. After that, nothing was done until 1972 when the Ontario Heritage Foundation obtained ownership of the lighthouse from the Department of Transport.
The Ontario Heritage Foundation performed maintenance on it over the years, which included stabilizing the foundation to keep it from falling into the river. In 2001, $15,600 was spent on the tower, which was said to sustain the building for 30 to 40 years.
Today, the Ontario Heritage Foundation is known as the Ontario Heritage Trust, and continues to care for the Cole Shoal Lighthouse.
Directions: The lighthouse stands on Cole Shoal in the St. Lawrence River. You can view the lighthouse from shore at the end of Hudson Point Road, just off Highway 2.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust. Grounds and tower closed.View more Cole Shoal (Front Range) Lighthouse pictures