Canadian Flying Buttress Lighthouses

Among all Canadian lighthouses, the "flying buttress" towers are perhaps the most striking. There were originally nine of these towers, all built from a set of plans drawn by William P. Anderson, Chief Engineer and Superintendent of Lighthouses for the Department of Marine and Fisheries, and all built in a few years around 1910. Six of the nine survive. They are:

  • Belle Isle Northeast, Newfoundland
  • Escarpement Bagot (Bagot Bluff), Île d'Anticosti, Québec
  • Pointe-au-Père, St. Lawrence River, Québec
  • Caribou Island, Lake Superior, Ontario
  • Michipicoten Island, Lake Superior, Ontario
  • Estevan Point, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Three additional examples were demolished during the 1960s. They are:

  • Cape Norman, Newfoundland
  • Cape Bauld, Newfoundland
  • Cape Anguille, Newfoundland

The photo at right is of the Caribou Island Light as it appeared a few years ago, before the last of the light station buildings was removed. It shows the basic plan of the lighthouses clearly: a square central column with six graceful flying buttresses, supporting a large circular lantern room.

Caribou Island Light
Caribou Island Light, Lake Superior
Canadian Coast Guard photo provided by Ron Walker

Estevan Island Light

There is some disagreement between references as to the height of the Caribou Island Light, but older references give the height as 104 ft (about 32 m). The tallest of the flying-buttressed towers, at 33 meters (108 ft), is apparently the Phare Pointe-au-Père near Rimouski, Québec. Although Point-au-Père has been inactive since 1975, it is preserved as a National Historic Site, and the light station buildings now house a popular maritime museum, the Musée de la Mer. The lighthouse is completely restored and carries its original third-order Fresnel lens in the lantern. The museum and lighthouse are open daily from early June through mid October.

Point-au-Père Light
Phare Pointe-au-Père, Québec
Photo copyright Michel Forand; used by permission


Cape Norman Light
Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans photo
provided by Michel Forand

Anderson made the first test of his flying buttress design in 1907 at Cape Norman, in northernmost Newfoundland, on the south side of the entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle. (Newfoundland didn't become a province of Canada until 1949, but Canada built and maintained the lighthouses along the Strait of Belle Isle, the shortest route for ships sailing to Canada from Europe.) The lighthouse was 17 meters tall (about 55 ft). It was replaced by a rather ordinary concrete lighthouse in 1964.

Belle Isle Northeast Light
Belle Isle Northeast Light, Newfoundland
Canadian Coast Guard photo from Lighthouse Explorer Database

The nearby Belle Isle Northeast Light was built as a cylindrical cast iron tower in 1905. Three years later, Anderson encased the tower in an octagonal concrete tower and added eight flying buttresses. This substantial upgrade made it possible for the lighthouse to support a much larger lantern and lens.

Estevan Island Light
Canadian Coast Guard photo provided by Michel Forand

The flying buttress design was the ultimate development of what Anderson called "ferro-concrete" lighthouse design, a marriage of steel and concrete to produce unusually sturdy towers. The central column has steel pillars at the corners, and each of the six buttresses is steel clad in concrete. The resulting lighthouses are durable through the most ferocious weather and relatively easy to maintain.

Belle Isle Northeast Light remains in service, and the light station buildings were intact at last report. Neither of the Québec towers is active today, and there is much concern about preservation of the Escarpement Bagot tower on the remote Île d'Anticosti. The two Lake Superior towers are both active, but no longer staffed; the buildings other than the light towers have been demolished at both stations. Estevan Point, on the wild Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, remains an active and staffed Coast Guard light station.

The photos below show the Caribou Island Light under construction in 1910. These photos were taken by Col. Anderson himself, according to David Baird in Northern Lights: Lighthouses of Canada (p. 197). Special thanks to Ron Walker of the Canadian Coast Guard, Parry Sound, Ontario, for making these historic images available from the Coast Guard's files, and to Michel Forand for providing historical background.

Caribou Island Light
Construction of Caribou Island Light, 1910; Canadian Coast Guard photos provided by Ron Walker

 

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Updated January 15, 2004; Cape Norman photo added December 20, 2006. Checked and revised August 11, 2012. Site copyright 2012 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.