Newcomers to Prescott – like me – may not know the story behind the Prescott Rotary lighthouse and its association with another great institution, the former Dominion Lighthouse Depot.
Described as the Prescott Harbour Inner Light by St. Lawrence mariners, this replica lighthouse was built in 1989, in memory of late Rotary member G. Judson Newell. Newell’s father founded Newell Brands in Ogdensburg (a large company headquartered in Atlanta now with many brands: Rubbermaid, Sharpie, PaperMate, Graco, Calphalon, and more).
The Rotary Light’s lantern – originally mounted atop the Dominion Lighthouse Depot that once stood just east of today’s Canadian Coast Guard Base – features a Fresnel lens and other aids, used for more than half-a-century at the old DLD to train lighthouse keepers from across Canada.
Responsibility for navigational aids in Canada was transferred, in the 1870s, from the Department of Public Works to the Department of Marine and Fisheries. In the early 1900s, when a newly developed network of lighted buoys in the Montreal to Kingston Division was transferred to Marine and Fisheries, the need arose for a repair site within easy reach. A permanent Depot was established, in 1903, when the buildings of Prescott’s former Labatt brewery and later the former Imperial Starch Company were bought by Marine and Fisheries.
From 1903-85, the DLD produced and shipped aids to navigation from coast to coast, greatly reducing Canada’s former dependence on foreign suppliers. Items such as headlight lanterns, metal lamp changers, and brass burners – all bearing “Dominion Lighthouse Depot” and “Made in Prescott, Ontario” markings – can be found in lighthouse museums across the country.
An early task for the Depot involved modernizing the optical devices of lighthouses in Canada, and replacing the catoptric or reflecting apparatus of the 1870s, by a more powerful system which employed dioptric lenses and reflectors. These lenses, developed by the great French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, in 1823, had been used for years in European lighthouses.
In addition, better sound-signal producers were being developed to replace the old steam foghorns and their heavy boilers. A modification of the Hope-Jones’ diaphone was patented, in Canada, by John Pell Northey. He was able to produce a more powerful sound by adding a secondary compressed air supply to the piston in order to power it during both its forward and reverse strokes. The Diaphone Signal Co. was established in Toronto, in 1903, and its large “Type F” foghorn, which created a tone of about 250 Hz, became the go to fog-signal for lighthouses around the world. The DLD would later assemble timing devices to control the beeps of foghorns.
By the early 20th century, reinforced concrete and steel skeleton towers were becoming the preferred construction approach and in 1906, a cast-iron cylindrical tower was designed and built at the DLD with lantern and optical apparatus, to replace the wooden structure at Cape Norman in the Strait of Belle Isle. Cape Bauld, in the same region on the northern coast of Newfoundland, was also outfitted at about the same time.
Automation of lighthouses began as early as 1912, when Swedish engineer, Gutaf Dalen, won a Nobel Prize for his work on the first automatic beacon lighting using acetylene. Dalen is also credited with the invention of the first sun valve, a photometric device activated by light, switching the light off once dawn had broken and on with gathering dusk. With the passing of the years, more and more sites were electrified and automated, and lights could be left untended.
From 1940 to 1945, the Depot manufactured war materials used during WW II.
During its last decades, the DLD experimented with the use of cellophane to impart colour characteristics, explored safety devices for the protection of optics, and tested early use of the mercury vapour lamp, a feature of modern lighthouse service.
In 1962, the DLD became the Prescott Base for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). The CCG moved into a modern facility in 1985, and the old Depot was demolished shortly afterwards. Until 1990, when automation of the Upper St. Lawrence/Great Lakes service was completed, Prescott’s senior lightkeeper was responsible for about 350 lights, 22 major lights and a team of two dozen keepers.
Prescott’s connection to the St. Lawrence River and 20th century lighthouse technology has had a dramatic impact on the architecture of the Town. The recently built Mariners Club displays an interesting lighthouse feature at the front entrance, and many century homes still have widow’s watches, said to come from the wives of mariners who would watch for their spouses’ return. In fact, North American widow’s watches were never regularly used to observe shipping. They are a variation of the Italianate cupola (or belvedere) popular in 19th century coastal architecture.