The story of a Toronto landmark with a mysterious past.
Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.
The Toronto Islands weren’t always islands. As our friends at BlogTO recently pointed out, they used to be a long and sandy spit until a violent storm fragmented them in the 1850s. But the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was already there, serving as a beacon for the vessels that passed through York Harbour, from Lake Ontario into the Niagara River. Built in 1808, the structure is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Toronto. Oh, and it might also be haunted.
Thanks to the passage of time, the beacon’s origin story is a little unclear. While legal documents show that the decision to build a lighthouse on Gibraltar was made in March 1803, the exact date of the tower’s completion is unknown. The following excerpt from the Upper Canada Gazette, which refers to an address that took place on March 9, 1808, contains some clues:
It is a pleasure to inform the public that the dangers to vessels navigating Lake Ontario will in a great measure be avoided by the erection of a lighthouse on Gibraltar Point which is to be completed in compliance with an address in the House of Assembly to the Lieutenant Governor.
Originally built 16 metres tall—it would be extended to 25 metres in 1832—the lighthouse was made from stone quarried from nearby Queenston (now part of Niagara-on-the-Lake) and the slightly-further-away Kingston. The tower’s mighty lantern burned whale oil, its flame monitored by the first of ten lighthouse keepers, John Paul Radan Muller. Radan Muller’s tenure was, however, cut short on January 2, 1815—as was his life.
Muller’s story straddles the line between fact and legend, but this much is known: he disappeared without a trace (though his obituary in the York Gazette would allude to “moral proof of his having been murdered”). Over 75 years later, in 1893, then-lighthouse keeper George Durnan claimed to have found pieces of Muller’s coffin and jawbone buried in the sand about 150 metres west of the tower. The story goes that Muller had a side hustle brewing bootleg beer and was killed by a group of soldiers upon refusing to dole out additional servings to the already well-lubricated crew. Fans of the paranormal believe the slain lighthouse keeper’s ghost haunts the beacon to this day, and the tower now bears a plaque that tells his story.
Possible grisly history aside, the lighthouse itself remained in operation until 1958, when it was replaced by the federal Department of Transport with a modern, fully automated tower and absorbed into the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Department. The original lighthouse now remains a fully integrated landmark of Toronto Island Park.