History

Introduction

The Metis Lighthouse has long been a familiar symbol to both its local community and the greater Gaspé region alike, having been photographed, painted, and admired countless times by visitors for generations; but few are aware of the site’s rich history and how it came to be.

The lighthouse that sits on Pointe-Métis–or Lighthouse Point–today is actually the second tower to occupy the site. Its predecessor was a much humbler, squat tower of wood-frame construction, which stood 42 feet shorter and supported a far less sophisticated lantern than its successor which we observe today.

Both towers served as crucial components to a network of maritime navigation infrastructure for 123 years, and moreover have contributed to our collective history and cultural identity.

Postcard of the Metis lighthouse, circa 1930

Early days of navigation on the St. Lawrence River

The St. Lawrence River has been a vital means of transportation for both goods and people ever since French explorer Jacques Cartier first sailed up the river in 1534. Serving as the primary avenue of transportation connecting Montreal and Quebec City to the outside world for more than 300 years.  Since Metis lies on the south shore of the river, 157 nautical miles down-river from the Port of Quebec, and 269 nautical miles from the Port of Montreal, this area served as a traditional stopping place, and has provided harbour to vessels en-route to and from these economic hubs for centuries.  In the early days of navigating the St. Lawrence, long before the introduction of radar and GPS, the voyage was nowhere near as safe as it is today,  as much of the river was inadequately charted, and with little to no navigation aids,  the voyage was considerably hazardous.

The frigid waters along the coast of Metis have claimed the lives of countless souls over the better part of two and a half centuries, as dozens of vessels of all shapes and sizes have found their end after touching ground along these shores.  With irregular currents, strong tides, hidden shoals, and numerous reefs, paired with rapidly changing weather conditions often bringing about heavy storms and fog banks, navigating these waters proved to be remarkably challenging and even treacherous at times.  Especially, during the during dark nights or through strong wind gusts, vessels without a lighted navigation aid to indicate their proximity to land, mariners could not avoid the shoreline.  As a testament to this, between April 1840 and June 1847 alone, no less than seven ships sank or ran aground off the Metis coastline: an unnamed vessel – September 1841, The Courier – May 1842, The Wellington – July 1846, The Calcutta – August 1846, The Milliner – October 1846, The Ocean – October 1846, and The Rory O’More – May 1847.

Photograph from the shore of Metis village with Lighthouse Point on the horizon
shore of Metis village
seven ships sank or ran aground off the Metis coastline

Aside from poor weather conditions, and the abundance of hazards off the shores of Metis, the appropriate marine navigation infrastructure and accurate mapping of the area was lacking.  Before the construction of the network of lighthouses along the St. Lawrence River, mariners had to rely on outdated nautical charts, that were often scattered with inaccuracies, which led to many vessels mistaking their position and course, or even coming upon hidden shoals and reefs were unmarked on the charts.  At some prominent ports along the river vessels could acquire the assistance of pilots (navigators familiar with the local waters) who would greatly improve a passing ship’s likelihood of safe travel through the often hazardous waters, but aside from this service, there was little in place to assist mariners with navigating these waters.

A call for improvements : The vital need for a lighthouse

With the number of shipwrecks and tragic loss of life growing season by season, both the civilian and the commercial communities alike pleaded for essential improvements to navigation aids on the river. There were already several other lighthouses along the St. Lawrence at other notably hazardous locations, such as; Anticosti Island, Île Bicquette, Île Verte (the very first lighthouse constructed, 1807-1809), Île Rouge, Grand Île de Kamouraska, Île de Bellchasse, and the Manicouagan Shoal, (to name a few), but Metis had yet to be granted a lighthouse.

The notion of introducing a lighthouse on the shore of Metis had been in the minds of public for some time, being often reminded of the dangers that lied off-shore of their community.  It is difficult to say for certain exactly how many wrecks did occur off the coast of Metis during the 19th through the 20th century, but from the evidence that has been collected by local historians over the years, there were enough losses to attract public attention to the concern for dangers of navigating the area. One example of this was the sinking of the three-masted Amanda off the shores of Metis, in October 1841, resulting in the loss of 45 passengers and crew members, news of the tragedy spread far and quickly, and worry grew greater.

While concern for the growing number of fatalities was important to the argument for improvements to safety on the river, there were certainly other factors that also contributed.  Shipowners argued that the loss of crew and cargo was detrimental to their business but, in addition, to this the notorious dangers of the St. Lawrence resulted in the highest marine insurance rates in the British Empire. At a time when the Port of Montreal was fiercely competing with the Port of New York to the south, this factor had considerable effect on economic interests of the nation as a whole.

Establishing a continuous network of a lighthouses along the river, particularly at the most dangerous locations, would not only assist navigators of passing vessels to avoid these hazards, but it would also allow them to confirm their position and course day or night. Thus, allowing captains to confidently remain in safe waters and clearly track their progression along the river, this in turn would reduce travel times and insurance rates but also increase efficiency and safety of transportation along the St. Lawrence. Greater efficiency and speed of marine transportation in Canada meant a stronger ability to compete with the seaports of our southern neighbours, allowing for a firmer grip on ports of entry for trade in the West.

The first Metis Lighthouse

Finally, at the beginning of the 1870s, after decades of active public pursuit paired with strong pressures from the commercial side, the authorities in charge of navigation safety, the newly formed Ministry of Marine and Fisheries announced the definitive establishment of a lighthouse at Metis. Since there was already a lighthouse commissioned for Matane, and another at Pointe-au-Père since 1859, each on either side of Metis, it was necessary to fill the gap between these two locations in efforts to finalize the network of beacons along this section of the river, so that navigators could constantly see, if conditions permitted, the light emitted by a particular lighthouse as they traveled along the river. A few years later, in 1874, Metis would see the completion of its very own lighthouse.

The very tip of Pointe-Metis, later to be known by locals as Lighthouse Point, was chosen as the site for the new lighthouse because the rocky point protruded conveniently out from the coast, extending northward into the St. Lawrence, allowing for easy visibility from both eastward and westward travelling ships on the river, but also because just offshore from this spot lie a complex of reefs and islands, that have long been perilous to mariners.         

The very tip of Pointe-Metis, later to be known by locals as Lighthouse Point, was chosen as the site for the new lighthouse because the rocky point protruded conveniently out from the coast, extending northward into the St. Lawrence, allowing for easy visibility from both eastward and westward travelling ships on the river, but also because just offshore from this spot lie a complex of reefs and islands, that have long been perilous to mariners.         

In terms of form, the tower itself was 40 feet in height from the base to the top of the lantern, square in plan and 30 feet wide at its base, with slightly sloping sides, all built of wood with the exception of its iron lantern that crowned the top. Attached to the tower’s side was the keeper’s residence, which was home to Jules Martin the first of many keepers to serve the position at Pointe-Métis.  Similar to the pattern we see today, the entire building was painted white, except for the dome of the lighthouse and the roof of the adjoining house which were painted bright red.  The rationale for using wood to build the first lighthouse was mainly for reasons of economy, and secondly, for the great ease of obtaining this raw material close to site.  However, several years later, authorities would come to realize that the money saved by this decision would be reduced to almost nothing, as they would have to pay considerable sums in maintenance and repairs of the wooden structure over its lifetime.

This mechanism reportedly required winding every two hours, one of the many tasks given to the lighthouse keeper.

Additionally, the lantern itself is worth noting, as it employed what is called a ‘catoptric’ system, this design perfected in France circa 1819. The light was produced by two wick burners, based on the principle of the Argand lamp, named after its inventor Aimé Argand, of Geneva, developed in 1780. The first burner was relatively small, fitted with a round wick, while the second burner was much larger, a so-called ‘mammoth’ lamp with a flat wick. The light produced by each burner was then amplified by two parabolic reflectors, arranged on either side of each burner. These concave copper reflectors, silvered to better reflect light, worked to focus the light emitted by wick burners into a well-defined plane, which was said to be seen in clear weather at a distance of fifteen miles.  The energy source used to supply the burners was refined white petroleum oil, which needed to be of the highest quality in order to produce a bright, uniform and ‘clean’ flame, so as not to obscure the burner chimney nor produce a deposit form on the wick. Finally, the rotating apparatus consisted of a central shaft supporting a horizontal table, on which the burners and reflectors rested. A gear system, propelled by a gravity-driven mechanism, would carry the device to a complete revolution every two minutes.

Engraving of the first Metis lighthouse after a drawing by Tomas Fenwick

The second Metis Lighthouse

At the turn of the century, maritime traffic on the St. Lawrence increased dramatically; with a growth in trade, immigration, passenger ships, and mail.  There were repeated requests from shipping companies, and a promise made to the Canadian Navy in the winter of 1900-1901, that pressured the Department of Marine and Fisheries to pursue the advancement of their navigation aid technology and improve the efficiency of their lighthouses.  In 1903, the Department made efforts to realize these improvements, beginning with a study to determine the feasibility of replacing the catoptric lighting system with a more effective method.  The catoptric system was an impressive mechanism at one time, but was eventually superseded by the far superior, modern alternative.  The ‘dioptric’ system, which employed an arrangement of precisely assembled facets (prisms) to precisely reflect the light in a specific direction. This design proved to be more efficient on fuel and could produce a far brighter, longer-range, and better quality light than the original system.  As a result of this study, in 1904, the amount of $184,073 (with the large portion going towards the purchase of the expensive new dioptric lenses and their accessories) was approved to fund the substantial improvement of certain important lighthouses in the Gulf and the St. Lawrence, the Pointe- Métis lighthouse was one of these chosen.

In addition, the study conducted by the government also concluded that in order for many of their lighthouses to receive this new equipment, considerable structural improvements had to be made to the existing towers, as the dioptric lenses themselves weighed several tones, far more that what the aging, wooden towers where intended to support.  It was decided that the new age of lighthouses on the St. Lawrence would employ the relatively new technology of ferro-cement­­, the precursor to what is now known as reinforced concrete. Which was deemed a superior construction to bear the enormous weight of the new equipment, as well as being a far more solid, and durable construction compared to wood, requiring little maintenance and costing less in the long-run.  Taking advantage of the obligation to build a new lighthouse at Pointe-Métis, the authorities would take the opportunity to establish a structure much higher than the first one, allowing the light, already reinforced by superior optical equipment, to be detected from a far greater distance.

In 1906, the government declared that construction of the second lighthouse at Pointe-Métis had begun, with the contract awarded to Steel Concrete Co., of Montreal.  Two years later, once installation of the optical equipment was finished and the project complete, the first Metis lighthouse was officially decommissioned and its fire extinguished forever, the new lantern took its place, and was lit at the beginning of the navigation season, in the spring of 1909. 

New lighthouse awaiting iron lantern
Construction of the second Lighthouse
Construction of the second Lighthouse

Upon completion the tower stood 82 feet in height, from the base to the tip of the vane perched on the very top, and was 10 feet in diameter and was cylindrical in form. The iron lantern, housing mechanical, optical and lighting equipment spanned wider, at 12 feet in diameter.  In 1923-1924, the tower underwent major repairs costing $2,500, when the concrete structure was nearly doubled in size. Apparently 112 ½ barrels of cement were used to significantly reinforce the tower’s exterior walls, and the lantern itself was subsequently altered, creating the hexagonal form we observe today.

The light on the second Metis lighthouse was produced by a single, large, incandescent sleeve kerosene burner. Combined with a third-order diopter lens, the brightness could reach an intensity of about 55,000 candles. Compared to the oil wick burners and parabolic reflectors that equipped the first Pointe-Métis lighthouse the dioptric system produced a light with an intensity nearly five times more powerful.  In addition, it appears that the light produced by this new system was not only more powerful than its predecessor, but also much whiter. The diopter lens was purchased from the renowned firm Chance Brothers and Co. of Spon Lane near Birmingham, England, for the grand sum of $16,079. The heavy lens revolved through a system of counterweights in a low friction environment produced by ball bearings lubricated with liquid mercury. This allowed the Metis lighthouse to produce its signature signal that identified itself to passing vessels. Three flashes, at one second intervals between each, followed by a 4.75-second eclipse. The burner at the Metis lighthouse was reported to consume 14 pints (6.6L) of fuel every hour, demanding the keeper to climb the stairs of the tower regularly to refill the supply.  Kerosene was eventually replaced as the fuel source by electricity in 1962, when a 1000-watt incandescent bulb was installed in place of the oil burner, but this was short-lived, only to be replaced by a brighter, and more robust mercury vapour bulb in 1966.

Bringing an end to 88 years of service, the second Metis lighthouse was officially decommissioned as an aid to navigation by the Coast Guard in 1997.

The foghorn house

At a time before the invention of GPS, or even radar, fog posed one of the greatest dangers to marine navigation. When a vessel found itself caught in a thick fog, even during day, navigators had no hope of spotting coastal landmarks to determine their position then track their course, and during night not even the bright beam of a lighthouse could be located through a heavy fog, leaving ships hopeless and disoriented out in the water. At the very best they would simply lose time and delay their progress, but at worst they could veer off-course and run aground or even collide with another ship.  

Exterior of foghorn house – with the trumpet protruding from the northern wall

As lighthouses proved mostly useless during fog, many lighthouses were equipped with auditory signals, diaphones–or ‘foghorns’ as people commonly know them–which much like lighthouse lanterns, each had a designated, distinct signal, allowing navigators to distinguish them, and so determine their position.  Fog being a phenomena that occurs when warm air encounters cold water, it occurs commonly in this region, where freshwater rivers meet the cool salt water of the St. Lawrence.  Metis itself has long known the plight of fog, causing an essential need for a means of auditory signal to aid navigation. 

The lighthouse was equipped with a diaphone in May 1918, which required its own building to house and operate it. Built 40 feet to the north of the tower was a wood-frame building specifically for this purpose. 

Construction of the house and the installation of the diaphone, along with the combustion engine-powered air compressor serving the device cost $9,212.  The distinct call of the Metis diaphone was two short cries followed by a longer, low howl.

The telegraph and semaphore signalling

On November 17, 1879, a semaphore and telegraph station were officially established and ready for operation at the Metis lighthouse.   

Contributing to a network of stations along the St. Lawrence, the semaphore–in accordance with an international code developed in England in 1856–allowed an operator to communicate messages via signal flags to passing vessels, containing various messages, but most importantly general weather conditions the navigator should encounter on the river.  At the same time, the telegraph (owned by Great North Western Telegraph Co.) was also operating, but it was not until 1885 that all the lighthouses along the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula were connected by a telegraph line, allowing stations to quickly pass messages between one another.

Semaphores flying at the first Metis lighthouse
Sempaphore with second Lighthouse

The introduction of the wireless telegraph led to the eventual abandonment of the semaphores in mid-20th century, in favour of the more efficient and precise communication system.    

The lighthouse keepers

The vital role of the former keepers of the Metis lighthouses should not be ignored.  Renowned for their legendary hospitality and efficiency, lighthouse keepers have long provided mariners with a reliable and consistent service for the greater benefit of safe transportation along the river.  Contrary to popular belief, the occupation of a lighthouse keeper was not an idle one, keepers had a lengthy list of responsibilities, and were constantly kept busy and expected to remain ever vigilant.

Their duties, among the most essential, consist of, in rain or shine; repeatedly ascending to the top of the lighthouse throughout the night :

  • supply fuel to the burner(s);
  • lighting them at sundown and extinguishing them once the daylight arrived;
  • continuously winding the lantern’s rotating mechanism;
  • operating the diaphone when fog arrived;
  • and most importantly, maintaining the lighthouse’s lighting, optical or mechanical equipment, to a standard of pristine condition.
Winter delivery water

Furthermore, the keepers had the heavy responsibility to act as first responders to ships that wrecked off their coast, voyaging out to assist the crews in peril.  Pointe-Métis saw nine lighthouse keepers during a period of ninety-eight years, each one worked diligently at their post and contributed a vital service to the safety of navigation on the St. Lawrence River, and their contributions should not be forgotten.

Octave Family 1939-1940
J. Jules Martin 1874 - 1879 Georges Fafard 1954 - 1958
Jules-Gabriel Martin 1879 - 1906 Émile Chouinard 1958 - 1959
Élisée Caron 1906 - 1931 Évariste Fergusson 1959 - 1970
Antonio Laudry 1931 - 1936 Marcel Ouellet 1965 - 1972
Octave Gendron 1936 - 1954

Nineteen seventy-two marked the departure of the last keeper from the Metis lighthouse, with the removal of the diaphone and full automation of the lantern, there were no longer any duties to be fulfilled by a keeper.        

In recent years

While the lighthouse was officially decommissioned as a navigation aid in 1997, the light continued to operate for many years, thanks to tremendous support from the local community who assumed responsibility for its operating costs, and has come together on several occasions to raise funds for the maintenance and repair of the tower and adjacent buildings. In November 2016, the municipality of Métis-Sur-Mer, purchased the property from the federal government, and has leased the site to Association des Résidents de la Pointe du Phare (a non-profit group consisted of the residents of Lighthouse Point), who assumed responsibility for the conservation of the lighthouse and its properties.  

Journée Québécoise des Phares

Due to the presence of mercury in the rotation mechanism at the base of the lantern, it posed considerable health risks to anyone who was exposed to it for an extended period of time, as so it was decided to have the mercury professionally and safely removed. Unfortunately, without the bath of mercury to support the enormous weight of the lens, the rotation mechanism cannot function, and in turn the entire lantern was left inoperable.  Greatly missing its familiar presence, the local community and the Associations des Résidents de la Pointe du Phare, have been working for the past several years towards restoring their beloved light.