PORT BURWELL – In 1940 when the Royal Canadian Air Force commissioned its first Canadian-built Harvard training aircraft, the beacon in Port Burwell’s Lighthouse had already been shining out into Lake Erie for an entire century.
This is the oldest wooden lighthouse on the north shore of the lake, and one of the oldest in Canada. As the highlight of its 2015 Canada Day festivities, the Municipality of Bayham will celebrate the 175th anniversary of its most famous landmark with a four-plane formation flypast by the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association.
The Harvard flypast was made possible by four generous local donors, including Dowler-Karn Fuels’ spontaneous gesture of two planes to round out the quartet. Four local residents have boldly taken first crack at the passenger seats on this historic occasion. One is Mary Lee Ens, wife of Bayham Mayor and Elgin Warden, Paul Ens. The formation’s lead pilot is Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason!
According to the official Register of Canada’s Historic Places, Port Burwell’s Lighthouse is an octagonal, tapered, wooden tower, 45 feet in height, painted white and topped with a red lantern. It sits on the embankment overlooking the Big Otter as it enters Lake Erie, where it is a significant remnant of the national network of lighthouses erected to protect shipping and navigation on the lakes during the 19th century. In 1840, the port at Port Burwell played an important role in the export trade of local timber. It would continue to be a significant player in commercial shipping, fishing and ship-building through most of the 20th century.
In its early years, whale oil fuelled a reflective lighting apparatus atop the lighthouse. As lighting technology evolved, modifications allowed for the use of coal oil and, later, electricity, as well as the installation of a Fresnel dioptric lens around the turn of the 20th century.
The first lighthouse keeper was James Peel Bellairs, eldest son of a significant family of English gentry and nephew of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. He had come to Upper Canada on a youthful adventure and returned to England 20 years later when he inherited his family estates. For the ensuing century, the lighthouse was tended by four generations of the Sutherland family. The homes of both the Bellairs and Sutherlands sit a block from the lighthouse on Erieus Street.
In 1986, the Port Burwell community rallied to restore the lighthouse, a mammoth undertaking carried out by Leroy Eicher, an Amish craftsman, working with hand tools similar to those used in its original construction. Eicher will be guest of honour on July 1st, along with MP Joe Preston, MPP Jeff Yurek, Elgin County Warden and Bayham Mayor Paul Ens, and Elgin County Town Crier David Phillips. The ceremonies will be introduced by Port Burwell theatre personality Jeff Rogers in the role of Colonel Burwell.