The official City Of Ottawa Coat of Arms and logo that’s featured on Ottawa police and emergency vehicles show a shield with wavy blue and white lines. These lines represent the Ottawa River running from left to right, and the Rideau and Gatineau rivers represented above and below. The Nation’s Capital is surrounded by waterways, but despite our aquatic surroundings, we have no lighthouses. A feature of most shorelines surrounded by water, the City Of Ottawa curiously lacks any surviving lighthouses from the first decades of its existence, even though it was originally solely serviced by steamships. Sure, we have some modern navigational lights dotting the Ottawa River, but no classic old “LIGHTHOUSES”.
As a fan of the old fashioned lighthouses and their symbolism of isolation and safety, I was glad to discover we did once have one across from Beacon Hill, of which I wrote about earlier, but it has been long demolished. Then I was recently contacted about one still in existence, a hidden relic of a bygone era on the Rideau River canal system. After some research proved the tip was true, it was successfully located. This is the tale of Ottawa’s LAST LIGHTHOUSE.
The Rideau Canal system stretches from Kingston to Ottawa across 202 kilometres of waterways, its largest stretch of interrupted water being called “The Long Reach” which extends 40km from the lock at Burritt’s Rapids, to the locks at Long Island near Manotick. It is along this stretch of the canal system the last lighthouse resides, hiding behind some trees amidst modern homes, a shadow of its former self.
Between Kars and Osgoode, there is an island called James Island, and on the eastern shore of the river, Doug Wallace and Harry Boyd decided to build a lighthouse in 1915.
The Lighthouse was a wooden clapboard beacon situated on a rectangular main building base and it is not known if it was an actual functioning government funded navigational aid, or simply a lighthouse built for fun. Nevertheless, The Lighthouse became the most popular landmark on the Long Reach between 1935 and 1967 as a Big Band Dance Hall.
The Lighthouse’s resident orchestra during the 1950s was “The Cliff Wilkes Orchestra”, featuring Cliff, a barber from Vernon. In its heyday, the Lighthouse would be jammed with 400 people trying to dance the night away in the small Lighthouse dance hall. It was “THE” place to be on a Saturday night in the South Ottawa region, with food, drinks, swimming, boat races and regattas happening all summer long.
Canada Day, or “Dominion Day” as it would’ve been called back then, would feature a hydroplane boat race on the Rideau River which drew thousands of visitors to the Lighthouse to wacth these high speed river races during the day, and to dance and drink to the sounds of the Big Band Orchestra playing throughout the evening.
The Lighthouse became such a hotspot for raucous activity that it drew the ire of the local clergy who tried to shut its partying down, but to no avail. I can only imagine the scene on a warm summer Saturday night at the Lighthouse, roaring wooden boats pulling up to the dock, big band music blaring, couples dancing and drinking and enjoying the “river life” at this bustling beacon. As with most good things, they must always seem to come to and end, and in 1967 the Lighthouse was closed for good as teenagers found new things to do an a Saturday summer night, and the aging, older crowd just stopped attending.
Doug Wallace, co-founder of the Lighthouse would later start up a tour boat company taking passengers up and down the Rideau Canal, that would later be sold and be known as “Paul’s Boat Lines”.
THE LIGHT GOES OUT
After it closed in 1967, the lighthouse would be disassembled and modified. The pyramidal beacon would be placed off to the side of the property, with the main dance hall being converted into a residence. It is now an operating business, “Modern Living Realty Inc. Brokerage” whose office is in the historic old Long Reach landmark.
I noticed the little lighthouse on a summer boating excursion, now painted grey and red, and snapped a photo of it, not knowing it would turn out to be such a historical landmark. Now at over 100 years old, the Lighthouse remains a quiet reminder of the bygone days of river life, literally a beacon of fun and memories for so many of those that were lucky enough to have visited it over the decades.
The beacon part of the Lighthouse has been maintained and sits quietly hiding behind some trees on the shore, still gazing out at the waters of the Rideau River, its light long extinguished, but its soul and 100 year old history intact for those of us that know it’s still there.
Andrew King, January 2021
“On a Sunday Afternoon” Classic Boats On The Rideau Canal, Manotick Classic Boat Club, Turner, Douglas. 1989. The Boston Mills Press, Page 32.