140th anniversary of iconic Janet Head Lighthouse celebrated in grand style

October 15 marked the 140th anniversary of the light being turned on for the first time at the Janet Head Lighthouse. A celebration of the milestone was held this past Tuesday on the day of the anniversary

GORDON-BARRIE ISLAND – It was very appropriate that on the exact date of the 140th anniversary of the Janet Head Lighthouse being turned on for the first time, a celebration would take place for the iconic structure. And it is also very fitting that relatives of the first and last light keeper were in attendance. 

“It is a credit to the community that they have done all this here today,” stated Gerald Bartley, who along with his wife Dorothy were among the many people, including students from two classes (Grades 2 and 3) at Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay, who took part in the 140th anniversary celebrations this past Tuesday. He is the great grandson of the first light keeper, Robert Boyter (1879-1895). “This is special, especially since the children are here today from the school learning about and taking part in a piece of history of the lighthouse and the municipality. With the efforts of the municipality the lighthouse will be a place that future generations will be able to enjoy as well.”
Mr. Bartley and his wife are from Markdale and had made a special trip up to the Island for the celebration, which included tours of the lighthouse and a barbecue and cake. “My great grandfather was originally from Scotland,” he explained. I was in the light years ago with my uncle Frank from Saskatchewan. And we visited the lighthouse again two years ago.”

“It is pretty amazing what has been done to the lighthouse building the past couple of years; it has been cleaned up and enhanced both inside and outside,” said Mr. Bartley. 

Ina Rutherford and Jean Tetz are the granddaughters of George Thorburn, the lightkeeper from 1936-1955). The sisters are from Orilllia. Cheryl Seabrook, his granddaughter, and Elaine Thorburn, daughter-in-law of Mr. Thorburn, were also in attendance. 

“We just came up for this celebration,” said Ms. Rutherford, “because of the memories we have of our grandparents as kids here.”
“Our grandfather used to take us up to see the light and let us blow the foghorn,” said Ms. Tetz. “We used to come up here to see our grandparents. I’m really happy to be here today.”

Janet Head Lighthouse was opened to the public this year after having been closed to visitor traffic the past couple of years. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) owns the lighthouse and it is leased to Gordon/Barrie Island.

The people who came to celebrate the Janet Head Lighthouse’s 140th anniversary included, left, Gerald Bartley, the great grandson of the first lightkeeper (Robert Boyter); his wife Dorothy, right, and Marian Hester, a Gordon-Barrie Island councillor. In the background is a photograph of Robert Boyter.

“The functionality of the light as a navigational aid is long gone,” said Lee Hayden, reeve of Gordon/Barrie Island. “However, its history lives on and reminds people of the hazards and perils of navigation on the Great Lakes.”

“It is a struggle to keep lighthouses open,” said Reeve Hayden. “One of the main reasons this lighthouse has continued to live on and been so successful is because of one person who went above and beyond council duties to see this become a tourist attraction, and a place locals know as well, and that person is councillor Marian Hester. She has spent countless hours of her own time painting, training staff and ensuring the facility has been updated. And of course the municipal staff has been very involved throughout the process. I would like to thank everyone who has been involved, as well as other volunteers for all their efforts.”
Two years ago, DFO initiated a restoration project of the facility, which included restoration of the foundation of the building and lighting.

Ms. Hester told the Recorder that as part of the contract the municipality has with DFO, the lighthouse has to be used for recreation, tourism and attraction purposes.

As well as funding being provided for the restoration project, there was also funding provided for a student, Austin Purvis, to work at the lighthouse this summer, said Ms. Hester, who indicated he did an excellent job. The lighthouse was open three days per week in July-August.

Jean Tetz, left, and Ina Rutherford are the granddaughters of George Thorburn, the Janet Head Lighthouse keeper from 1936-1955. A 140th anniversary of the light’s first illumination was held this past Tuesday.

“The municipal staff have been just fantastic in all the work they have done this year,” stated Ms. Hester. “Terri-Lynn Leighton, Melanie Chatwell and Carrie Lewis need to be acknowledged for all the cleaning, decorating and the donations they have made of some furniture items for the lighthouse. And Arran Campbell, Wayne Fogal and Morgan Yeates for all the landscaping work they have done.”

Ms. Hester said there is still more work to be done in the near future such as carpeting, a portion of the basement need work on the stairs so that visitors can view it, and more landscaping to be done.

Ms. Hester said the number of visitors to the lighthouse this summer, “was fantastic. We had a lot more people visit than we had ever imagined.”

As well as being a lighthouse, the building has also been a store, campground and an art gallery over the years. The lighthouse was leased out to the Fletcher family for about 40 years as well. Drew Fletcher, who held the lease until the lighthouse was closed for renovations several years ago, and his daughter Kayla, who used to give tours of the building, were on hand from Cambridge, Ontario for the celebrations. 

Janet Head Lighthouse was contracted out by the federal government to be built in 1878 and construction was completed in August 1879 with operations beginning October 15, 1879. The budget for the construction was $2,000 and the builders were Mr. Carmichael, who hired Mr. Jones (a Gore Bay mason) to do the actual construction.

Janet Head Lighthouse is said to be named after a daughter of Lieutenant Henry Wolsey Bayfield, who surveyed Lake Huron between 1817 and 1822.

Initially the light was lit only during the shipping season but it quickly became apparent that the light was needed in the off-season as well. Mail to Gore Bay and the surrounding areas was delivered from the North Shore by boat and across the ice with teams of horses. The small developing communities of Spanish, Massey and Thessalon did not have a doctor and the doctor from Gore Bay travelled by boat and across the ice.

The foundation of the Lighthouse is made of stone and sand from Julia Bay. The light tower is the second oldest standing lighthouse on Manitoulin Island and is a recognized federal heritage building.