The Light of The Great Lakes

The Significance of Lighthouses and The Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse

The Light of The Great Lakes

The Significance of Lighthouses and The Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse

Madison McInerney

Hamilton - 2022


Navigational aids, such as lighthouses were put in place to avoid tragedy. Settlement and commercial expansion would lead to an increase in shipping on the Great Lakes during the 19th century which was reflected by an increase in shipwrecks. The need to install navigational aids, in particular light stations which we now refer to as lighthouses, became imperative as the shipping industry continued to grow. The tall light house structure exhibited a rotating light to ensure ships avoided the area and would also help to inform ship captains that they were approaching a port near land at night or in other low light conditions. Lighthouses were used to warn mariners of dangerous underwater conditions but also to maintain radio communications, beacons, sounding fog alarms, and provide rescue and sanctuary for shipwrecked sailors. This essay will therefore explore the importance of well-positioned light provided to ports, by examining the structural and design features of lighthouses while characterizing the history and role of the Burlington Beach Lighthouse.

History of Canadian Lighthouses

Canada’s first lighthouse was built in Louisburg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in 1734.1 To reduce the number of shipwrecks, lighthouses were established in locations that were a high risk to ships. The Canadian Government felt it was necessary to build lighthouses along any major routes in an attempt to make them safer for trade operations. The importance of lighthouses has not changed, but their role has. Before the extensive use of electricity, lighthouses required a keeper to maintain the light and radio contact. Due to the cost of maintenance, the automatic light and “modern aids to navigation, such as lighted marine buoys and satellite-based positioning system” were introduced.2 Despite the changing roles of lighthouses, traditional lighthouses continue to be a defining part of Canada’s marine and coastal history and identity. There are still 51 staffed and operational lighthouses across Canada. Most of the lighthouses that were built between the 17th and 18th centuries are now being decommissioned, blocked, or are severely damaged. It is estimated that 500 of the original lighthouses are no longer in use and the Canadian Government has transferred these historic buildings to new owners who have intentions to capture the historic value of these structures and highlight their tourism potential. Technological advancements diminished the need for the old styles of lighthouses, but demolishing these lighthouses becomes an issue due to the potential of their historical roots being lost. Many cities have created preservation and restoration projects to prevent these historic buildings from being destroyed and attempt to keep their history alive.

Design and Structure

Canadian lighthouses have been a crucial part of history and have provided forms of safety on dangerous coastal waters. Being of historical importance, the Canadian Government sold most of the nonoperational lighthouses so that they could be converted into tourist attractions. The original construction of these lighthouses was not an easy task. The construction of a “four sweep tower,” for example, had to be done in four separate stages.3 Most lighthouse construction projects were also very expensive, so cost-effective materials were implemented, such as using concrete or masonry rather than transporting bricks. Lighthouses were often required to be constructed on unstable ground such as coral reefs and/or sand, but to combat this challenge, steel piles were used to provide a stable base. When it came to inbound and outbound shipping areas, landfall lighthouses were used. Major coastal lights are generally found around the mouths of rivers and around major shipping ports whereas secondary coastal lights are found at the end of piers and often have a more “salt and pepper shaker” look to them. Wave-sweep lighthouse towers are usually circular in nature and sit on a square base. Lighthouses could either stand-alone or if a lighthouse keeper was needed, the keeper’s quarters would be attached. Lighthouses are often known for their height which allows them to look aesthetically pleasing but also had practical uses. With added height, the light from the lighthouse can illuminate further, thus securing that the coast is seen by ships. Not all lighthouses in Canada were constructed the same, as it depended on the resources available within the area such as the use of wood due to its abundance or cast iron due to the low maintenance.4

Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse

A plane flying over a bridge Description automatically generated with low confidence

Figure 1

A picture containing outdoor, building, tower Description automatically generated

Figure 2

Narrowing the focus to Hamilton, the first lighthouse coincided with Hamilton’s development as a major lake port. The Burlington Bay Canal officially opened in 1832 and the first lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling was constructed in 1837. Figure 1 shows where the lighthouse is located in relation to the two bridges that cross the canal, as highlighted by the small circle.5 The original lighthouse was destroyed by a fire in 1856 but was later replaced with the brick and stone lighthouse that is currently still standing (see Figure 2).6 Pleasure crafts and cargo ships relied on this lighthouse as a major navigational aid until 1961 when its service ended. Although the keeper's dwelling is no longer in its original location, it was still occupied continuously until 1991. In fact, “the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling are the oldest surviving buildings on the Beach strip and together with the canal itself form the only remaining pre-confederation link with Hamilton's early shipping trade in this area.”7 The location of this lighthouse is on a strip of land just south of the Burlington Canal, which separates Hamilton Harbour and Lake Ontario. As a recognized federal heritage building, the lighthouse ensures safe entry into the protected waters of the harbour. The lighthouse was a prominent landmark standing at 55 feet tall when it was in use. Now in its retired age, the building is overshadowed by the steel tower of a vertical lift bridge that is responsible for providing the light that the lighthouse used to. The pillars of the Skyway Bridge are also a contributor to blocking this structure.

The combination of the keeper’s dwelling and the lighthouse are one of the few existing historic light stations in Ontario. On the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, there are only seven surviving lighthouses. Of these seven lighthouses, Burlington Canal is the only one that still retains its original lightkeeper’s residence. Along Lake Ontario, very few lighthouses that predate confederation were constructed from stone. Of the original 8 lighthouses, the Burlington Canal light is one of the 4 still in existence. With squared limestone blocks as the building material for this lighthouse, some key features include “slit windows with cut stone sills, a round-arched doorway and a 12-sided iron-framed lantern.”8 These features only date back to 1891 due to the fire that burnt down the one erected in 1837. As for the keeper's dwelling, the corbel detail of the raised parapets was a key design feature of Hamilton’s 19th-century housing for workers. The large windows in this dwelling were accented with stone sills and lintels. Although there have been minor alterations to this lighthouse, it has kept its beauty.9

Since the Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse is a historic structure, those who maintained the light in them must also be recognized. The last light keeper for the Burlington Beach Canal Light House was Pete Coletti, a man who could be described to have a pirate aura and who spoke like a Maritimer.10 Coletti began his 23-year job at the lighthouse in the early 70s and was a self-taught builder and fixer. He spent most of his early days at the lighthouse maintaining the equipment and occasionally watched over the water and flipped the foghorn to alert incoming ships. In the late 1980’s, Hamilton had put automatic lights in the lighthouse, so Coletti travelled to Long Point on Lake Erie and became the light keeper there. By 1991, Coletti had moved out of the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling at the Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse. The light keepers played a crucial role in ensuring that the lighthouse and its features functioned properly and kept mariners safe on the water.11

The Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse was recognized as a federal historic building because of its historic associations, architectural, and environmental values. The historical value indicates that this lighthouse was crucially important to the port’s economy in the 19th century. In terms of adding to the business center towards the west end of Lake Ontario, the construction of the Burlington Canal was a monumental event for the development of Hamilton.12 The lighthouse provided a safe passage through the canal to the Port of Hamilton and supported the growing shipping industry within Hamilton. For the architectural value, this lighthouse provides a sample of the types of lighthouses that could be seen on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in the 1850s. The lighthouse’s sturdy structure demonstrates it’s “functional design” and the “excellent workmanship that can be seen in the high-quality stonework.”13 This architecture allows for the average tourist to understand what a historic lighthouse looked like, as it can be recognized by those who frequently travel by the Burlington Canal entrance and drive along the highway. In connection to its environmental value, the lighthouse uses stone instead of steel and/or wood which were common materials used for the construction of lighthouses across Ontario and Canada.

As this paper has briefly discussed, the Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse not only provided a safe passage for the canal and allowed safe access to the Port of Hamilton, but it also had additional benefits. In the Annual Report for the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1883, it was noted that fishing on the lake was scarce in some spots compared to the previous year. The report highlighted that “Herring were plentiful on Burlington Beach and large hauls were made” which demonstrates that navigational aids to support the herring fishery would have been important, both to the safety of these mariners, but also to the economic advancement of fishing within Canada.14 The ability to fish at the Port of Hamilton and surrounding area provided business and revenue from the fish being sold.

In a description of the Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse in the 4th edition of Thompson’s Coast Pilot Upper Lakes, Thompson indicates that the Burlington Canal had a “light [that] was fixed and visible 12 miles, on the middle of the south pier, at the entrance of the Burlington Bay, Hamilton.”15 Although this first-hand account describes the lighthouse and its ability to enhance visibility on the waters, the port was still dangerous. For example, C.H.J. Snider discusses a shipwreck that occurred with the Aggie which was about “60 or 65 feet long” and attempted to fit through the narrow space at the port between the two bridges that crossed the canal.16 The account goes further to say that “the entrance to Burlington Bay is one of the most difficult and dangerous in the Great Lakes, for in spite of the thousands spent on it, it is badly lighted, and it is crossed by two hurdles, a swing bridge for the railway and a jackknife bridge for the highway.”17 Although the port is illuminated well with white, green, and red guide lights to newcomers, it can be difficult to sort out the channel and the piers. The major suggestion was to add floodlighting on the end of the pier to save lives. Ports like the Burlington Beach Canal were very tricky to those who have never traveled it before even with a lighthouse there to warn captains of the dangerous conditions.


Through briefly exploring the history, design, and build of lighthouses in Canada, this paper investigated the importance of the Burlington Beach Canal Lighthouse and its significance to the Port of Hamilton. The importance of this specific lighthouse for the safety of ships during the increase in shipping during the nineteenth century is underestimated. In addition, analyzing the story and passion of the last keeper of the light at the Burlington Beach Lighthouse allows for an appreciation for the role that lightkeepers served. Although the lighthouse was useful in terms of keeping ships safe, there were still shipwrecks that occurred after the lighthouse was implemented which acknowledges that although the port was marked by a lighthouse, it did not necessarily mean that it would be an accident-free port. The Port of Hamilton was still a very complicated and dangerous port that was challenging for mariners to navigate. Although this lighthouse is no longer operational, it remains a significant heritage monument for the people of Hamilton and lasting legacy within Great Lakes maritime history.

  1. Government of Canada, “Lighthouses in Canada,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada, last modified October 3, 2017,

  2. Government of Canada, “Lighthouses in Canada.” 

  3. Edward F. Bush, “The Canadian Lighthouse,” Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 9, Parks Canada, last modified October 24th, 2006,

  4. Bush, “The Canadian Lighthouse.” 

  5. Figure 1: Government of Canada, “Recognized Federal Heritage Building,” Lighthouse, Parks Canada, accessed March 24th, 2022,

  6. City of Hamilton Planning and Development Department, Development and Real Estate Division, Community Planning and Design Section, Hamilton's Heritage Volume 5: Reasons for Designation under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (June 2005),; Figure 2: Government of Canada, “Recognized Federal Heritage Building,” Lighthouse, Parks Canada, accessed March 24th, 2022,

  7. City of Hamilton, Hamilton's Heritage Volume 5

  8. City of Hamilton, Hamilton's Heritage Volume 5

  9. City of Hamilton, Hamilton's Heritage Volume 5

  10. Jon Wells, “Arr, mateys! pull up a chair and hear the legend of Hamilton's last lighthouse keeper, pirate Pete Coletti,” The Hamilton Spectator, May 21st, 2020, 

  11. Wells, “Arr, mateys!” 

  12. Bush, “The Canadian Lighthouse.” 

  13. Government of Canada, “Lighthouses in Canada.” 

  14. Government of Canada, Sixteenth Annual Report of the Department Of Marine and Fisheries Being for the Fiscal Year Ended 30th June, 1883 (Ottawa: Maclean, Roger & Co., 1883),

  15. Thomas S. Thompson, Thompson's Coast Pilot for the Upper Lakes, on Both Shores, from Chicago to Buffalo, Green Bay, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior, Including the Rivers of Detroit, St. Clair and Ste. Marie With the Courses and Distances on Lake Ontario, and Other Information, 4th ed. (Detroit, MI: Detroit Free Press, 1865). 

  16. C. H. J. Snider, “Goodbye, Old Timer Schooner Days Dccxii (712),” Toronto Telegram, October 6th, 1945. 

  17. Snider, “Goodbye, Old Timer Schooner Days.”