Many of the lighthouses on Lake Superior see frequent visitors but Trowbridge Light is one where visits are few. Western Lake Superior sailors, kayakers and other boaters pass this lighthouse on almost every extended Lake Superior cruise, almost never going ashore. The light is located high above the steep cliffs that form the island shoreline, just off Thunder Cape. Shoreline cliffs make the island difficult to approach, let alone leave a boat alone long enough to go ashore. On occasion, boats drop passengers ashore at the small slab of concrete serving as a dock, then circle the island to pick up visitors again. There is no protected harbour and unattended boats risk bouncing against the steep rock, even in calmer water. In former times, the helicopter pad on the island was used frequently as staff and supplies came ashore by air.
In a November 1906 blizzard, the 255′ Canadian steamship Theano wrecked on Trowbridge. The Captain and crew took to lifeboats in large seas and made an extremely cold, difficult passage around Thunder Cape to Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay. Trowbridge Light was constructed 17 years later in 1923.
On August 20th, Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior (CLLS), in conjunction with the Thunder Bay Yacht Club, held a bar-b-que on the shore of nearby Tee Harbour, some 3 km. north of Trowbridge Island in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. The bar-b-que was followed by guided tours of Trowbridge Island Light conducted by Paul Moralee, CLLS Managing Director. The photos included in this post were taken during this tour and because the island is seldom visited, represent a rare snapshot of this light station. CLLS is a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation, protection and promotion of Lake Superior heritage, specifically lighthouses like Trowbridge.
Coming in close to the north side of the island, a derrick high on a cliff comes into view. Trowbridge is now unmanned and solar powered but for decades fuel was the island’s lifeblood, powering the diesel generators that ran the light and provided all power on the island. Fuel barrels were hoisted up and ashore on slings from vessels which lay alongside the cliffs and concrete pier. Off-loading operations were intimately tied to lake conditions which often dictated stops and delays.
On the island, a series of narrow concrete walkways and staircases winds visitors higher and higher on the island. After proceeding up from the pier, a huge house, once used for the lighthouse keeper and his assistant, is the first building visitors see. While many of the lighthouses on Lake Superior have two dwellings, one for the keeper and a separate residence for the assistant, this lighthouse has only one house, doubly large. The house has interior divisions to provide some degree of separation and privacy for those who manned the light. These people were often in close proximity to one another for long periods of time.
The exterior of the house appears to be in good condition, as if it was lived in only yesterday. CLLS points out however, that the home needs much work, although the metal roof appears to be in excellent condition. The last keeper on Trowbridge was Orton Rumley, who left the island in 1988 when the light was automated. In 1994 Maureen Robertson made arrangements with the Canadian Coast Guard to live at the light. She stayed there 14 summers and officials were pleased to have someone care for the place. Maureen decorated the main house with paintings, nick-nacks and other eclectic treasures she’d found at yard sales, even decorating rooms in various “themes.” She was well-known to residents of nearby Silver Islet who visited the island occasionally. Maureen left the island by helicopter at the conclusion of her stay in 2010.
After a walk of a hundred meters or so from the house, the next building to see is the huge workshop building, also housing banks of batteries once charged by large diesel generators. The workshop is in excellent condition, again, just as if someone was working there yesterday. Rows of tools neatly line the walls. The shop has a metal roof and concrete floor and is perched high above Lake Superior. The building has the feel of the ultimate workshop, a large open space with plenty of work benches, tools and light. A first class place for work and repairs, by any standards.
From the workshop, a steep series of wooden staircases leads to the highest point on the island and up to the light tower. The tower is only 11 m./37 ft. in height but is situated at the highest point on the island, some 35 m./114 ft above the lake. Inside the top of the light tower, a new, modern, solar-powered light is in use but the huge original lens is still in place and rotates very freely on its base with just a slight push. The view from the tower is fantastic, especially to the east down a long string of islands towards Black Bay and Porphyry Island lighhouse, the next light eastward and some 17 km./10 mi. distant.
Lake conditions calm enough to allow for going ashore at the island are rare enough but a guided tour through all of the Trowbridge Island facilities is rarer still. Infosuperior wishes to thank Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior for this opportunity to view Lake Superior heritage up close, and for their work in preserving Canadian lighthouses. Future plans of this non-profit group include work to ensure preservation of the buildings on the island and also changes to the concrete pier which will allow boats to more safely and easily lay alongside the island.
View more pictures of Trowbridge Light here.
Thunder Bay Yacht Club has partnered with CLLS to provide improved docking at Porphry Island light, putting forward substantial funds and manpower in the process. Parks Canada and the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area have also contributed to CLLS efforts to improve docking.
Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior offers annual memberships to support the organization as well as lighthouse visits. More information is available here.