Mohawk Island Lighthouse, Picture and History from Grand Heritage, Pages 289, 290,292. ISBN 1-55056-084-0. Available at the Dunnville Library
After the completion of the first Welland Canal and the Feeder Canal, eastern Lake Erie and the Grand River gained significant navigational importance. To mark the harbor at Port Maitland and its treacherous reef, a beacon was built on Mohawk Island, a small, rocky bit of land, about two acres in all, three miles east of the harbor.
In 1846, John L. Brown was awarded the Mohawk Island Lighthouse contract. Two years later the lighthouse and keeper’s house were completed. The stone tower was 60 feet high with walls 3 to 4 feet thick.
John Burgess, a farmer from Burgess Point [Rock Point Provincial Park] was the first person hired to man the light around 1848, at £65 per season. At the time, the light was run on chains and weights, much like a grandfather clock, and had to be wound every morning.
One day, the mechanism failed. Unless that light turned as it was supposed to, captains of ships on Lake Erie might wreck their vessels on the reef. So, all night long, the lighthouse keeper and his son waved a blanket in front of the light, “making and breaking the flashes every few seconds as recorded on the charts.” Afterwards, when the mechanism was working again, they were commended for their efforts.
Since time immemorial, ships and things associated with them have been the center of legends and superstitions. W.M. Rowe recorded one tale related to Gull Island in the years before the light was installed:
… a farmer noticed a ship anchored near the island. In the morning it was gone, no one knew where. Curious, he rowed over in his boat, only two miles. After searching for some time, he found a place where the earth had been moved. He started to dig, but instead of finding “Blackbeard’s Gold”, he unearthed a dead female body. He reburied it, went and told the Reeve of the township, who had it removed and interred in the local cemetery. They never knew whether she was murdered, died or was buried alive. But she was dead when he found her. Another unsolved mystery of the sea.
In 1921, Richard Foster was appointed light¬house keeper. An Englishman, Foster emigrated to Canada in April 1911. After living in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, he moved his family to Dunnville in 1915. A short time later, he enlisted with the 114th Haldimand Battalion, and eventually served overseas.
After more than 11 years as lighthouse keeper, Foster had a definite routine. Every December, at the end of the shipping season, he shut off the revolving light, turned on the stationary light and returned home till spring. In December 1932, his son James rowed over to the lighthouse to help close up for the season.
At 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, December 14, Richard Foster wrote in the lighthouse log, ” … summer light put out and winter light left burning.” The two men threw the remaining food supplies outside for birds and wild animals, locked up and started the mile-and-a-half boat journey back to shore .
A heavy wind was blowing out of the south¬west, and the lake was filling with slush ice. It was hard going, and slowly the pair realized they were not making any progress. The slush ice was solidifying, making control impossible. No matter how hard they pulled on the oars, the Fosters could make no headway. They drifted wherever wind, water, and the pressure of the ice carried them. And through it all, they were never out of sight of the shore and safe harbor.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family was waiting for the men. When they did not return on schedule, Richard Foster Jr., notified Constable Hayes of the Ontario Provincial Police, who in turn contacted the Coast Guard and the Welland detachment of the OPP. Police officers, fishermen and others searched the shoreline between Port Colborne and Port Maitland, but the ice piling onto the shore made it difficult to see any distance into the lake.
When conditions improved, Richard Foster, Jr., rowed out to the island, only to find his father and brother had already gone.
Exhausted, starving and numb from cold, the two men were losing their battle for survival. On Friday, two miles east of Port Colborne, the boat came close to land. A contemporary newspaper report described what likely happened next:
… the boat hit ice close enough for Jim, in whom a final spark of life was still burning, to crawl slowly, painfully over the ice hummocks towards safety. He probably shout¬ed feebly, trying to attract attention from a farmhouse faintly visible in the gathering dusk.
Frantically he fought to make the top of a sand bank, its sides showing the signs of the terrific struggle, only to collapse at last, and die, face down in the sand, with a happy Canadian home, with welcome and warmth, less than two minutes’ walk away.
Jim’s body was found Saturday afternoon. On Monday, the boat and his father’s body were found 100 yards away. Following a double funeral on Tuesday afternoon, they were buried in Riverside Cemetery.
After the tragedy, it was decided that the lighthouse should be unmanned but kept operable by use of a battery-powered light. In 1969 the authorities replaced the light with a floating reef buoy.
In 1977, the Department of Transport announced plans to demolish the lighthouse. Officials were concerned that people exploring the island and the abandoned building might be injured. According to Canadian Coast Guard marine supervisor Hugh Jones, the lighthouse would probably be dynamited, since this method was quick and would not create any long-term disturbance for the gulls that make the island their home.
Boaters, commercial fishermen and lake shore residents protested the plans. Aside from the historical significance of the lighthouse, many still used it as a landmark, a useful reference point in navigating the reefs around Mohawk Island. Furthermore, the Department of Transportation discovered it did not own the property, and so had no legal authority to demolish the building.
Abandoned by man, Mohawk Island became home to hundreds of ring-bill and herring gulls, cormorants and rock doves, and the local folk began to call it Gull Island. Today, the public is discouraged from visiting the island during the nesting period because the Ministry of the Environment, through its Canada Wildlife Service, considers it an important wildlife area.
The lighthouse remains, however, and a group of concerned citizens, including Mike Walker of Lowbanks, are making plans to restore the building. MOHAWK LIGHTHOUSE PRESERVATION ASSOCIATION accepts donations for this cause, call 905-774-2590