Today’s post comes from Kenton Otterbein, leader of the Discovery Program at Killbear Provincial Park.
In a time before instant communication, accurate weather forecasts or GPS, Great Lakes navigation lights and lighthouses helped guide ships to safe harbor through dangerous shoals and stormy seas.
Just over 100 years ago, a ship prematurely disappeared on a route that included the shores of Killbear Provincial Park.
This is the tragic story of Lambton.
The guiding lights of the Great Lakes
The Killbear Navigation Light was built in 1904 to mark the way to the busy industrial ports of Parry Sound and Depot Harbour.
100 years ago, lighthouse keepers were expected to travel alone to their stations and stay for the entire shipping season. This meant dangerous travel in mid-April and mid-December.
For lighthouse keepers at the lighthouses near Killbear (Jones Island, Snug Harbor, and Red Rock), this wasn’t usually much of an ordeal.
Red Rock Lighthouse
However, for lighthouse keepers on the remote islands of Lake Superior, this was a potentially deadly journey in the icy waters of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Launch of the Lambton
In 1921, George Penfold was appointed the new keeper of the Caribou Island Lighthouse, which is located in the middle of Lake Superior.
He complained bitterly about the dangerous situation to the Department of Marine and Fisheries (forerunner of today’s Coast Guard).
The department decided to solve the problem by sending the Lambton to drop off and pick up the lighthouse keepers.
The Lambton was stationed at the Parry Sound Marine Base.
Caribou Island (left) and Parry Sound (right)
In mid-April 1922 she left Parry Sound with a crew of 22 on board. On April 18 she picked up three lighthouse keepers and two assistants in Sault Ste Marie and set out for Caribou Island.
The disappearance of the ship
She never made it.
The Lambton encountered a severe storm on the night of 19 April., and probably sank that night.
On April 22, a freighter reported that the Caribou Island light was not operational. The next day, another ship reported seeing the wreckage of the Lambton about 13 miles east of Caribou Island.
Unfortunately, after a week of additional searching, no survivors or bodies were found, and next of kin were notified.
While any shipwreck with loss of life is tragic, this one was doubly so, because it could have been avoided.
George W. Johnston was the lighthouse keeper of Caribou Island until 1921, when he began new work at the base of Parry Sound. He was on the Lambton in December 1921 when he picked up the Lake Superior lighthouse keepers.
He wrote a scathing report warning that the Lambton was completely unsuitable for the job. Unfortunately, his supervisors ignored him and 27 men died.
Among the dead were six Parry Sounders, a blow to the small coastal community.
One hundred years later, the Lambton story has disappeared from general knowledge.
Explore the Killbear Coast
Today, you can see the Killbear Navigation Light by walking the misnamed Lighthouse Trail to the tip of Killbear Point.
During the summer you are sure to see small pleasure boats enjoying our part of the beautiful 30,000 islands.
Since Parry Sound is still an industrial port, you might get lucky and see a lake freighter bringing in road salt, a cruise ship with 200 passengers, or perhaps a Coast Guard vessel returning to base.
We hope you enjoy your visit to the light, but while you’re there, perhaps you can spare a thought for those who never returned.
To learn more about this tragedy, including the names of the lost souls, we recommend this article. The original was written by Patricia Madigan, granddaughter of the man who tried to prevent this disaster.