The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is located on the Toronto Islands in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Begun in 1808 and first lit in 1809, it is the oldest existing lighthouse on the Great Lakes, the second oldest in Canada and one of Toronto’s oldest buildings.
When completed in August 1809, the lighthouse was located 7.6 m from the shore. Since then, sand has built up over time so that it now stands about 100 metres inland.
When opened, it was accompanied by a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, a two-stories squared-log house clad in clapboard. When ships approached, the lighthouse keeper would run up a flag to notify the Toronto harbour master. The cottage no longer exists.
It was named Gibraltar, after the famous British-owned point at the edge of the Mediterranean, by John Graves Simcoe, Ontario’s first lieutenant-governor and the founder of the town of York. The tower is built from limestone quarried near Queenston and the light on the top changed a few times over the years. It started off running on whale oil and became electric in the winter of 1916/17. The light was turned off for the last time by lighthouse keeper Dedie Dodds in 1957.
Since the decommissioning of the lighthouse, smaller automated lighthouses (two located at Humber Bay Park in the west and Bluffer’s Park to the east), Toronto Harbour Light, as well as floating bell or light buoys, navigational masts have been used to replace the lighthouse to provide navigational aid along Toronto’s waterfront and Toronto Harbour.
And, of course, any building that old has its secrets.
The lighthouse is perhaps best known for the demise of its first keeper, John Paul Radelmüller (sometimes spelled Raden Muller, Radelmuller, or Radelmüller), a German immigrant to Upper Canada, whose 1815 murder forms the basis of Toronto’s most enduring ghost story. Anyone who grew up in Toronto remembers this story, and a local legend is that the lighthouse is haunted by his ghost.
Historically, the lighthouse was there during the Battle of York in 1813, when American ships invaded the town of York. The battle culminated with the burning of the Parliament Buildings, and the British retaliated later in the War of 1812, by burning the White House down. During the war J.P. Rademuller kept watch at Gibraltar Point for enemy ships and friendly vessels returning to a safe harbour.
But he didn’t live to see the end of the war.
The keeper disappeared under mysterious circumstances on January 2, 1815, and the story goes that he was murdered by two soldiers who had been enjoying his bootlegged home-brewed beer.
However, they had too much to drink and a dispute broke out, culminating in the keeper’s murder.
Versions of the story differ slightly (one version told in the mid-2000s was that Rademuller was killed after the soldiers bought the beer, but saw it freeze on the cold winter night and assumed that the alcohol content was so low that the lighthouse keeper was trying to rip them off), but most agree that the inebriated soldiers tried to conceal their crime by chopping apart the corpse and hiding the remains.
As story goes, in 1893, then-keeper George Durnan searched for the corpse and found part of a jawbone and coffin fragments near the lighthouse, though it was impossible to definitively prove they were linked to Radelmüller.
In any case, The veracity of the legend of the murder has long been questioned.
Recent researches has revealed more about keeper’s life and death. Born circa 1763 in Anspach, Germany, he worked as a servant of royalty for twenty years, in the households of the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent, accompanying the latter to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1799. Arriving at York in 1804, he was appointed as keeper of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on July 14, 1809.
Radelmüller actually suffered a violent death on January 2, 1815, aged approximately fifty-two.
Studies also identified the two soldiers charged with (but acquitted of) Radelmüller’s murder as John Henry and John Blueman, both Irishmen of the Glengarry Light Infantry, a regiment that saw heavy action in the War of 1812.
While research has verified much of the traditional tale, contrary to claims that the keeper’s corpse was hacked to pieces and hidden, contemporary evidence suggests that Radelmüller’s body was not mutilated, but was found after his death by 4th lighthouse keeper George Durnan and his Uncle Joe while he was a young man, and his father was the keeper.
He related that he and his uncle had discovered bone fragments, most notably a jawbone, and fragments of a coffin close to the lighthouse, and he believed they belonged to the late Radelmüller.
In any case, the 10 keepers of the lighthouse, including George Durnan and his father, James, who kept watch there from 1832 to 1908, saw many changes from Gibraltar Point.
The city grew, new immigrants arrived in ships, the peninsula became the Islands when a storm fully separated the sand bar in 1858, families moved from the mainland, and, in more recent years, the Islands became a park and a popular summer destination.
The lighthouse keepers saw it all, and as a 2008 Heritage Toronto plaque at the site points out, “the keepers and their families formed the nucleus of a growing island community.”
Although the lighthouse is no longer in use and is usually locked, it still has a keeper.
Manuel Cappel, also from Germany, has been the honorary keeper since 1999, when he volunteered to keep the lighthouse tidy.
Images from web – Google Research