SCOTCH BONNET ISLAND
By Robert B. Townsend
From WHEN CANVAS WAS KING, a soon to be published book by Robert B. Townsend
The schooners and steamers travelling down the lake from Toronto to Kingston used to skirt the north shore, breaking off at Cobourg and circumnavigating the “island county” by the lights of the Scotch Bonnet, Wicked Point (now called Salmon Point), Point Peter, and the Red Onion at South Bay, and the Ducks, Falseand Main. The two acre reef is about two miles from the mainland, where Huyck’s Point juts out and the shore gallops away east into Big Sandy Bay, and catches its breath to turn south again at Wellington. Across a short mile of shoal lies Nicholson’s Island.
The Public Works report of 1852-53 stated “In Lake Ontario a lighthouse is being built on the Scotch Bonnet or Egg Island, a small low island lying southeast of Presqu’ile and in the direct line of the Mail and other vessels running down the lake from Cobourg.” The Scotch Bonnet light was set on a 54 foot high stone tower. It was burning brightly by 1856 and was finally blown out July 1st l942.
The area has been a famous corner of Lake Ontario for wrecks since the loss of the government schooner Speedy in 1804. Since then it has witnessed many other shipwrecks: the Ida Walker’s and the Queen of the Lakes, and Belle Sheridan’s loss above it at Weller’s Bay; the International’s and Jessie’ and Henry Folger’s at Wicked Point below it.
In its own vicinity, the schooner Blanche was lost, with Capt. Johnny Henderson and all his Cat Hollow crew in 1889. It was near here that the Ellen of Hamilton perished, drowning all hands. Back of the reef, on Huyck’s Point, the Sarah Ann Marsh frapped in chains to hold her together, drove in a December snowstorm. Her crew were cared for by the farmer’s wife on nearby Nicholson’s Island.
The island is quite uninhabitable and awash in high spring water. In low water, it makes a good nesting ground for gulls. They like to hatch their eggs by the radiated heat of the sun-baked rocks. The keeper had to live on canned goods and hardtack or use a house on Nicholson’s Island, a mile away, rowing across night and morning to attend his light. There was a great succession of keepers up until 1919 when the light became an unwatched beacon and was maintained as required.
It was a fixed white light in 1877 and was so for 56 years. In 1907 it was changed to “vapour lights” acetylene gas, with oil used in emergencies which sometimes occurred. A hand horn, worked by the keeper when he considered it necessary, was part of the equipment and in the days of the schooners it was a grand assistance by day and by night.
The Scotch Bonnet light flashed a welcome gleam to many an anxious mariner in the old days of sail for that narrow mile of water between Nicholson’s Island and the mainland offered shelter for schooners and even for steamers against westerly gales if they had good ground tackle and were bold enough to wade through the welter of seas piling over the Bonnet light itself and back-surging from the western face of the island to leeward of it. Probably light keeper Pye’s record of using up eleven lamps in one season was due to seas and gales breaking the lighthouse windows.
The Scotch Bonnet reef was too tiny and Nicholson’s was not big enough to make much of a lee but combined they broke the sea somewhat, and the man or the ship nimble enough to round up sharply in the comparative smooth of the strait between island and mainland had a chance for life if his anchors held and the wind did not shift and come too hard from the north or the south.
The Scotch Bonnet light remains in service for modern mariners and those that sail in proximity will see the remnants of the crumbling stone tower on the island.