A community group, formally unified five years ago, continues their work to help an iconic local lighthouse shine again.
The Nottawasaga Lighthouse, constructed in 1856-58, is one of the few remaining symbols of the region’s marine heritage. First lit in 1858 — the same year the Town of Collingwood was incorporated — the lighthouse served as an aid to navigation in and out of Nottawasaga Bay, remaining operational for almost 125 years.
In 2004, the lighthouse was struck by lightning, rendering it inoperable and severely damaging the limestone bricks on the outside of the structure — and giving it a rather decrepit appearance. The Canadian Coast Guard installed metal bands to its exterior in 2006 in an attempt to prevent any further damage until the future of the tower was determined.
Now, 15 years later, the life of the lighthouse itself is endangered; but one local group has dedicated its time to saving the structure for good.
“It certainly is a major, major part of Collingwood that should be preserved and protected,” said Robert Square, vice-chair of the Nottawasaga Lighthouse Preservation Society (NLPS).
Founded in 2015, the NLPS is a volunteer-run, not for profit corporation and registered charity that is dedicated to the restoration, preservation and protection of the iconic lighthouse.
While their traditional role in guiding ships to safety is no longer required, the society believes there is still a purpose for towers like the one off Collingwood's coast.
Lighthouses play an integral role in Canada’s maritime history and in particular, Collingwood’s shipbuilding past. Although no longer lit, the Nottawasaga Lighthouse is an iconic piece of Collingwood’s waterfront and still assists recreational boaters in visually navigating their way safely back to the harbour.
“If people don’t step up to restore them and take care of them, they will just fall down. And a major part of our history will be lost,” said Square. “And if we don’t know our history… then our future will be clouded.”
Shortly after its inception, the NLPS sought to further protect the tower from degradation and in 2016, wrapped its exterior in a weather-resistant material. The exterior wrap prevents snow, rain and other moisture from penetrating the lighthouse’s interior while the society takes steps to obtain ownership of the structure and raise funds for its restoration.
However, the transfer of ownership involving a property which is owned by the Queen is a lengthy process, and one that has kept the society busy for the past several years. Square had been cooperating with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on the land transfer before his liaison took a position elsewhere in the government, with no one to replace him.
“We wound up in government purgatory,” Square said.
So, last fall the NLPS decided to “light a fire under them.”
“We managed to get the file moving again,” said Square. “Everything is kind of coming together, and depending on how fast the government wants to move on the transfer then we can start making plans to start the restoration.”
The society has also been working with the Chippewas of Nawash consulting the land transfer. Square said they have developed a “good rapport” and is hopeful they will come to an agreement at the end of February.
“It’s been a long haul. A lot of times we just pull our hair out with frustration, but we just keep moving on and doing the best we can,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, the society held several fundraisers to raise money for the tower’s eventual restoration. This year, the focus has been on raising awareness instead, but members hope to hold their annual barbecue and other community events again soon.
“What I like best about our lighthouse is its resiliency. Through tests of time, it still stands, proudly, every nook of character can be seen,” said Kevin Johnston, owner and operator of Collingwood Adventure Voyages.
In the summer months, Johnston runs Collingwood heritage and lighthouse tours by boat, taking locals and tourists alike by the Nottawasaga Lighthouse, describing its rich history and significance in the community.
“The Nottawasaga Lighthouse has stood for over 160 years, a watchful eye over the bay and it still has much to teach us,” said Johnston. “Preserving it is important to not only Collingwood's heritage, but its economic growth as well.”
Once restored, the society has discussed the possibility of allowing escorted tours to the island to visit the lighthouse, while still being mindful of the migratory birds that nest on Nottawasaga Island.
For now, they are focused on doing whatever they can to keep the ball rolling on its restoration.
“These lighthouses are a story of Canada. They were the guiding light for people coming to settle here and they are something we need to protect,” said Square. “It’s a story of Canada and a story of the average Canadian that bind all of these lights together.”