Building the First Metis Beach Lighthouse
In 1873, R. Cameron of Lancaster, Ontario, was given the contract to build a lighthouse at Metis. Cameron had already built several lighthouses along the St. Lawrence near the Thousand Islands. The construction cost $3518 of which the lighting and accessories accounted for $1425. The lighthouse was built of wood and was 40 feet high. The Light tower was made of iron and 7 1/2 feet in diameter.
The lighthouse was opened on October 20, 1874. The first lighthouse keeper, J. Jules Martin, lived in quarters at the base of the tower. Then, as now, the lighthouse was painted red and white, the building in white and the tower and lantern both red. The lighthouse changed little in appearance over the next three decades. The 1906 edition of The St. Lawrence Pilot described it for passing mariners:
"A square lighthouse, 40 feet [12.2 m] high, and painted entirely bright red, on Metis point, exhibits, at 56 feet [17 m] high above water, an alternating light showing red and white alternately every minute, which should be seen from a distance of 13 miles in clear weather. The keeper's dwelling is attached to the lighthouse...there is a telegraph and sign station at this lighthouse."
For a time, it appeared that Metis might turn into a major port facility with the notable increase in boat traffic to the region. According to the reminiscences of John H. Ferguson (David's brother), "Metis was difficult of access in those days - one had to travel by schooner – old bluff tubs – with small ill-smelling cabins. Of steamers, only a couple of government tugs existed, and no railway this side of Montreal." When Metis became increasingly popular as a summer resort, ships began to arrive with increased regularity. The Gulf Port Steam Ship Company, of which Ferguson was the local agent, initiated a weekly service from Quebec and once a fortnight from Montreal. The ships anchored off the coast at Metis and passengers were rowed ashore. Enthusiasm was so high that in 1878 the Canadian Illustrated News reported that "Mr. J.C. Grant, late of Rimosuki, is building a hotel at the Point, not far from the landing place steamers.'
The excitement was short-lived, however. The completion of the Intercolonial Railway to Little Meits in 1876 and the opening of a station there led to a decline in the fortunes of Metis as a port facility. The regular train service from Montreal to Halifax made the area easily accessible and quicker to reach by rail than by ship. On occasion, the idea would return and garner the community's enthusiastic support. In 1896, Montreal shipping agent and Metis summer resident, Robert Reford, was among those who petitioned the government to build a wharf at Lighthouse Point to create a safe harbour for vessels in distress. The initiative was partly a response to the near sinking of the SS Canadia which was beached in the bay of Little Metis after striking a rock near Matane. But the project was also intended to discourage the government from spending additional money on the wharf in Rimouski, which Montreal shippers considered a waste since no large vessel could dock there. Their efforts were in vain – Metis failed to get its wharf, while the ones in Rimouski was expanded and improved.
The Second Lighthouse
In 1909, the original wooden lighthouse was replaced with a new concrete tower, one of a new generation of lighthouses built across Canada and designed to more durable and exacting standards. Using an up-to-date ferro-concrete construction technique – essentially reinforced concrete –the tower was built to support the weight of a heavier and more powerful light. The tower reached 82 feet (25m) in height, topped by an iron lantern 12 feet (3.6m) in diameter. In 1923–1924, the cement structure was doubled in size, transforming the circular lighthouse into an octagonal one. With slight modifications, the tower stands virtually unchanged today
WIth the focal plane at 69 feet (21m) in height, the lighthouse is similar in height to others of the same vintage. It was equipped with a much more powerful light than its predecessor. Using a dioptric lens, the light produced by the combustion of kerosene was both stronger and more precise than the parabolic lens it replaced. The optical lens measures 4 feet 8 inches (1.4m) and weighs several tons. The Metis light was manufactured in England. It produces three flashes, with 1 second between each flash, followed by an eclipse of 4 3/4 seconds. This sequence was designed to assist mariners as they went up or down the St. Lawrence; Cap-Chat having two flashes, Metis three and Point-au-Pere, four. The Metis light, like all others of a similar vintage, used a system of counterweights in order to turn, revolving in a low friction environment provided by ball-bearings lubricated by liquid mercury.
The greatest danger to shipping on the Lower St.Lawrence was not the high seas, rocks and shoals, but the fog. The collision of cold water and warm air naturally produces fog. Where freshwater rivers meet the St. Lawrence, the phenomenon is amplified. In Metis, fog brought poor visibility an average of 1000 hours every year. This at least was the figure used to justify the installation of a foghorn. A diaphone was erected in a new building constructed in 1918 to the north of the lighthouse. The trumpet of the diaphone was pointed northward and located 28 feet (8.5m) above the high water mark. A gasoline engine powered a compressed-air foghorn that warned passing ships of the poor visibility and urged them to stay offshore. Like the light, each foghorn was distinctive. The cry of the Metis foghorn descended at the end of its long note, allowing passing vessels to recognize where they were in spite of the fog. The Metis foghorn was last heard on April 1, 1971 when it was permanently silenced. The equipment was dismantled and removed. The building has since been converted for use as a laboratory by researchers of the Canadian Forestry Service and, latterly, LavalUniversity.
More details on the history of the Lighthouse are available in the book "The Metis Lighthouse".
Engraving of the Metis Lighthouse after a drawing by Thomas Fenwick, 1877
New lighthouse awaiting iron lantern, 1908