The Southampton Heritage Society has petitioned Parks Canada to designate four local lighhouses, including the imperial tower on Chantry Island, shown here. The society has been taking care of the lighthouse property for the Coast Guard since 1998. It also operates tours on behalf of the Town of Saugeen Shores, which is expected to step up and claim ownership of the beloved local icon. 'The community is very passionate about their lighthouses,' says Mike Myatt, the director of community services for the Town of Saugeen Shores, which includes Southampton and Port Elgin on the Lake Huron waterfront. (Photo courtesy Jason Fowler)

Always wanted to own your very own heritage lighthouse? Find out how a piece of Canadian history can be yours

If you love lighthouses, now is your chance to own a piece of Canadian history. Under the new Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, individuals, groups and municipalities have until May 29, 2012 to petition Parks Canada to designate lighthouses on the government’s surplus list so they can be transferred into public hands and transformed into money-making ventures.

While the government expects the majority of its lighthouses to be claimed by municipalities and heritage groups, individuals who submit an acceptable business plan showing how their heritage-designated lighthouse of choice will be properly maintained in perpetuity will also have the opportunity to acquire one of Canada’s prized maritime symbols.

There are almost 1,000 lighthouses on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) surplus list up for grabs, including hundreds of operating lighthouses. For now, only the operating lighthouses staffed by lightkeepers have been spared the “surplus” tag.

The move to include operating lighthouses on the surplus list has prompted the Heritage Canada Foundation to place the nation’s lighthouses on its 2010 Top Ten Endangered Places list.

“This action effectively emasculates the (Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act) and shifts the responsibility for lighthouse protection entirely onto local communities,” the foundation said in releasing its list on Aug. 11.

Eventually, the lighthouses operated by the Canadian Coast Guard for the DFO will be replaced “with simpler structures whose operation and maintenance would be more cost-effective.” Until these “lights on sticks” are installed, the new public owner of any operating lighthouse will have to enter into an agreement with the Coast Guard regarding maintenance of the navigational aid and access to it.

Chantry Island lighthouse among surplus maritime treasures

The daunting task of taking on the responsibility of a lighthouse — for life — hasn’t scared off the Southampton Marine Heritage Society, which has been taking care of local lighthouses for years.

The society’s chairman, Rick Smith, has already received word from Parks Canada that nominations to designate three operating lighthouses — the imperial tower at Chantry Island and the Range Lights of Southampton (front range and back range) — and the inactive McNab Range Lighthouse have been received and will proceed to the next step.

“Our file numbers are 6, 7, 8 and 9, so it appears we were among the very early applicants,” said Smith, who collected the 25 names needed with each petition request and sent everything in soon after the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act came into force on May 29.

While Smith only recently moved to Southampton from Elora, north of Kitchener-Waterloo, his personal connection with the Chantry Island lighthouse makes him a local at heart: his great-great-grandfather once owned the lighthouse, having sold it to the federal government in 1869 for $2,000.

Today, Smith and other volunteers take tourists by boat to the island, where guided tours of the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage help to raise money for upkeep. “We’ve run about 1,300 tourists out there this season,” said Smith, who said Americans who come to the area specifically for the Bruce Coast Lighthouse Tour are among the visitors.

With the potential for 1,980 tourists each season — that’s 220 tours weather permitting, with nine visitors in the boat — pulling off this tourism success story isn’t easy. But each year, more than 100 volunteers are ready to help — from captains to tour guides to gardeners — all happy to do their part to spread the word about their region’s rich maritime past.

“You come to Southampton and every store has a lighthouse in it,” says Smith. “It’s really an icon around here.”

Open a lighthouse restaurant, government suggests

On Aug. 11, 2011, it will be 10 years since the heritage society began conducting tours on behalf of the Town of Saugeen Shores, which leases the Chantry Island lighthouse from the Coast Guard and, until recently interrupted by the introduction of the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, had been in negotiations with the government to take ownership of the property. Along with the light tower, the property boasts a keeper’s cottage that has been lovingly restored by volunteers, with furniture on loan from the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre to show it off. There’s also a renovated boathouse, new docks and beautiful historic gardens —  all the work of volunteers, who even restored the privy.

For individuals or groups wondering whether they have what it takes to claim ownership of one of the lighthouses on the surplus list — and take on the responsibility of maintaining it as a heritage property — a look at the financial statements of the Southampton Marine Heritage Society, and the number of volunteer hours put in, might be enough to think twice. The group has raised more than $660,000 through tours, donations and fundraising, with the money spent on the Chantry Island property and on upkeep at the three local range lighthouses, all owned by the government. One estimate puts the number of volunteer hours dedicated to the lighthouses at “a couple hundred thousand."

"The community is very passionate about their lighthouses,” says Mike Myatt, the director of community services for the Town of Saugeen Shores, which includes the Lake Huron communities of Port Elgin and Southampton.

The story of how, in 1989, the Southampton Back Range Light was surrounded by picketing citizens determined not to let the Coast Guard replace cedar shingles with aluminum siding tells just how deep those passions run.

The government backed down after a three-day vigil that saw citizens stand guard around the lighthouse 24 hours a day. New cedar shingles were installed and painted white.

Then there’s the story, 20 years later, of the Herculean effort that saw the Stokes Bay Rear Range Lighttower moved from its perch on stilts high above Lake Huron on the Northern Bruce Peninsula to safety down the coast in Southampton.When the Coast Guard let word out in late 2009 that it planned to replace the 24-metre-tall Stokes Bay Range Light because it was no longer needed, Bruce County decided there was no way it would let one of its lighthouses disappear forever.

So it hatched a daring plan that would see the lighthouse, built in 1903, moved to the museum, where it could be incorporated into the Bruce Coast Marine Gallery there.

'You don't sit around waiting for grants — you get started'

The problem: the range light was only accessible by water or air. It was decided a special helicopter would be hired to lift the 8,500-pound structure, which would then be loaded onto a transport float and trucked to Southampton, where it would be put in storage for the winter before a new foundation was built in the spring.

“Saving heritage sites amounts to work,” says Michael Sterling, who worked on the range light’s foundation at its new museum home. “I worked on it for five months.”It was the same attitude that got the work done on Chantry Island, said Sterling. “You don’t sit around waiting for grants — you get started.”

Volunteers launched the renovation of the Chantry Island lighthouse in 1998, showing a dedication that eventually rubbed off on the government, which later put in its own restoration dollars, spending about $300,000 over five years.

That same spirit and dedication will be needed for whatever groups come forward to take responsibility for the DFO’s surplus lighthouses.At the Town of Saugeen Shores, Myatt says council will have to decide whether it wants to add the two active range lights in Southampton and the inactive McNab range to its list of must-have lighthouses, along with the Chantry Island prize.

While the local heritage society made the application for protection, the group is counting on the town to step up and claim ownership of the four properties. “The Town of Saugeen Shores is very protective of our lighthouses,” says Myatt. “They are an important part of the heritage and culture of this community.”

That said, taking on the four lighthouses and taking care of them “in perpetuity” is not a decision to be taken lightly. First, the town will wait to see if the government historian assigned to study the four nominated lighthouses will recommend that they be designated under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. Then council will be given a report on the matter.

On the Chantry Island property, which has now been refurbished, Myatt admits the town is in a good position. “The timing was right,” he said, of local interest in acquiring the local icon. “We were very fortunate to receive funding. Now, it’s more difficult.”

Indeed, DFO points out that “there is no source of supplementary funding identified in the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act to restore the condition of designated lighthouses.” 

However, the department “may consider applications on a case-by-case basis for minor site and building improvements during the transfer process for surplus lighthouses.”

Repair bill a staggering $1.3 million in Fort Erie

For small, restored lighthouses, maintenance would be minimal. For example, the McNab Point range would require a coat of paint every five years. But for larger structures, such as the iconic tower lighthouses, the cost of ongoing maintenance could be prohibitive.

The Town of Fort Erie learned that lesson when it took ownership in 2003 of the historic Point Abino lighthouse, designated a National Historic Site of Canada, and the neighbouring keeper’s cottage, which is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The stately light tower, which was decommissioned in 1995, was in sad shape when the town acquired it, with the weather further adding to the deterioration since then. The repair bill is about $1.3 million, with the federal government announcing in 2009 that it would contribute $425,000.

That leaves the town short about $875,000, money it says it doesn’t have. As a result, council has put the 1918 keeper’s cottage up for sale for $899,000 to fund the lighthouse’s restoration, a move that has created an uproar in the heritage community.

It’s the kind of horror story that has the Heritage Canada Foundation fearing that many of the lighthouses on the DFO’s surplus list will eventually fall victim to “abandonment and demolition by neglect” if no one steps forward to take them over.While municipalities and groups might dearly want to own their beloved local lighthouse, the reality is that the cost of maintaining it, especially if it is located on an isolated island, may not be feasible. And that’s on top of the money needed to restore it, where necessary.

In Ontario, the DFO has declared 45 inactive lighthouses and 125 operating lighthouses to be surplus and eligible to be petitioned for designation and purchase under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, and then transferred to public ownership. If no one steps forward to claim ownership — which carries with it a pledge to maintain the lighthouse “to a standard in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Act” — the lighthouse cannot be designated.

Unprotected, the lighthouse would remain in the DFO’s real estate holdings, where it could simply be abandoned onsite after it is no longer operational, or sold on the open market. Once sold outside the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, there would be nothing stopping the new owner from abandoning the structure, or demolishing it, in the future.

Almost 1,000 lighthouses to choose from

If you know a lighthouse you think is worth preserving, check out the surplus list to see if it’s on it. Then collect 25 signatures and send in your nomination to Parks Canada. You don’t have to take ownership of the lighthouse to nominate it for protection. However, the minister cannot proclaim a lighthouse protected under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act until someone steps forward to claim ownership, and submits a business plan for future maintenance, so a willing buyer should be on board.

Wondering how an individual or group can turn a lighthouse into a self-sustaining structure that is maintained to a standard expected under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act? Parks Canada suggests that a restaurant or museum would be compatible uses that would raise revenue for upkeep. Or how about a gift shop selling lighthouse souvenirs? Or your very own art studio?

With almost 1,000 surplus lighthouses across Canada, and 170 of those in Ontario, there’s lots to choose from. The public has until May 29, 2012 to nominate lighthouses for protection, which can only occur after a historian has researched the nominated lighthouse and compiled a report for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, which will make a recommendation for designation to the minister, who has until May 29, 2015 to announce a decision.

As of Aug. 25, 22 nominations had been received from across Canada, with 19 of those lighthouses in Ontario, Parks Canada said. Four research papers were already under way.

Getting in on the nomination process quickly has obvious benefits. According to a Parks Canada spokesman, those who get their nominations in early could hear an announcement from the minister within the next 12 months. — September 2010