Chantry Island held up as a beacon of inspiration

As most who live in, or visit, Southampton are aware, Chantry Island Lighthouse is a major tourist attraction and volunteer mecca and is now being held up as a model of inspiration of what can be accomplished by volunteers.

        Sunset Chantry Island by Larry LePage

When a small group of retirees came up with the idea of restoring the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters and Island, many considered it a ‘hairbrained’ idea conjured up by some retired gentlemen for something to do, but the group persevered as the Propeller Club.

The Propeller Club of Southampton is a group of volunteers that never says, “Never.”

Made up primarily of seniors, the club began the mammoth task of undertaking the renovation of the historic Chantry Island Lighthouse and Keeper’s House.  A lot of work had been done by 1997 by John Weichel and others to bring back into the public’s attention, the rich marine history of the area.

 The original group felled and milled trees from the Bob Trelford farm to create giant Hemlock beams for the Keeper’s Quarter – (L) Bob McCarron, Bob Trelford, Bill Moulton, Opie and Mike Sterling after a day’s work
All that was left was a wall reduced to lathe and plaster on stone

With thousands upon thousands of man-hours, the group started at ground zero and completely restored the Island’s early historic appearance down to the Lighthouse Keepers’ Quarters which had disintegrated into ruin after many years of neglect.

So, the group had a project but, what that would entail, was at the time, a mystery.  After a few gyrations and retirements, a new Marine Heritage Board was assembled with John McArthur as chair.

The grant process is known to be long and drawn out and the group had no patience for that and so decided to move ahead by raising needed funds through donations and activities, such as fish fries and concerts with local musicians.

The group had a goal to open the restoration in 2001.  One year, they worked deep into the fall and then, in another, to December 12th when ice was forming on the lake and the group returned in darkness across the expanse of Lake Huron in a borrowed Tilbury.

A makeshift one-plank dock where Ron Seaman’s Tilbury approached with supplies, as the crew worked late into the year – the Peerless is at wet anchor in the distance

More than 50 tons of debris was scattered in the basement alone, including heavy batteries from the Lighthouse that later meant a full-scale environmental clean-up was required to purge the area of contamination.

The Marine Heritage Society, a not-for-profit organization, has been very active over the years overseeing the management and maintenance of Chantry Island, the restoration of the Lighthouse Keepers Quarters, operating summer tours to the Lighthouse Tower, where more than 125 volunteers work to create an original ambience to the buildings and gardens. From housekeepers and gardeners to tour boat captains and guides, the volunteers work tirelessly to maintain the Island.

The Island is also a Federally regulated migratory bird sanctuary and, therefore, tour numbers are strictly adhered to.  Since it’s inception however, the tours have taken thousands of visitors from around the world to the Island.

In addition, the all-volunteer Marine Heritage Society operates the Tour Base & Gift Shop at Southampton Harbour and has assumed maintenance of the Range Lights. The Society also restored The Boathouse in Southampton, restored and now maintains Pioneer Park and was active on the Southampton Beach Shipwreck Project (HMS General Hunter). Ontario’s first International Lighthouse Conference at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre in Southampton was also hosted by the group.

The Marine Heritage Society and the Town of Saugeen Shores have worked together since 2004 in the active divestiture of the Chantry Island Light and heritage buildings. The Federal Government has been very cooperative in this adventure.

The passage of an Act to Preserve Heritage Lighthouses was adopted in May 2008 and is administered by Parks Canada.

Pat Carney, the first woman Finance Critic, Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, Minister of International Trade, President of the Treasury Board, Minister for the Asia Pacific Initiative, Deputy Chair of Foreign Affairs Committee, member of Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Senator since 1990 was instrumental, with MP Larry Miller, to get the Act passed.

“To receive Heritage Designation,” said Carney at the time, “there has to be community involvement.  There also has to be a local economic impact from lighthouse development. We know that heritage tourism is the fastest growing sector of tourism, especially, with the aging population and its discretionary income. With the help of local communities, the Government of Canada hopes to protect as many examples of these important symbols of our seafaring heritage as possible.”

The first heritage lighthouses designated in Canada under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act were the St. Paul Island Southwest Lighthouse in Dingwall, Nova Scotia, and the McNab Point and Saugeen River Front and Rear Range lights in Southampton.

Recently, a story was written by Paul Wilson in the Hamilton Spectator, about his tour of the Island. According to Wilson, there is also a group of citizens that is hopeful the historic lighthouse and keeper’s cottage on the Hamilton Beach Strip can finally be restored.  The lighthouse, like Chantry Island, was also built by the Scotsman, John Brown in the 1800s.

The Hamilton group is looking at Southampton’s Chantry Island as an inspiration and how, with perseverance and commitment, volunteers can make a difference.