One the oldest buildings in the city is home to eerie local lore about a murdered 19th-century lighthouse keeper.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
Anyone who grew up in Toronto remembers the lighthouse ghost story. It was a highlight of student field trips to the Island School, and could give you shivers even on the warmest summer day. And now that the Island Park is open again for the summer, a new generation of Toronto kids can learn the spooky story (and the rest of its not-so-spooky history) behind the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is the oldest one left on the Great Lakes and the second oldest in Canada. It was built in 1808 and guided ships to Toronto’s harbour from what was then a sandy peninsula until it was decommissioned in 1958. And any building that old has its secrets.
The lighthouse was there during the Battle of York in 1813, when American ships invaded the town of York, which culminated with the burning of the Parliament Buildings. The British retaliated later in the War of 1812 and burned the White House down. During the war, the first lighthouse keeper, J.P. Rademuller (sometimes spelled Raden Muller, Radelmuller, or Radelmüller), a German immigrant to Upper Canada, 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.
Rademuller disappeared under mysterious circumstances on January 2, 1815. The story goes that he was murdered by two soldiers who had been enjoying his home-brewed beer. 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 Rademuller was killed that night and dismembered by his killers, who buried his body in a few graves near the lighthouse. His ghost is said to still haunt the site.
The story was recorded by John Ross Robertson in 1908 in Landmarks of Toronto and has become a staple of spooky local lore ever since. Even in his telling, Robertson raises skepticism that the murder ever occurred, but he writes that he heard the story from the current lighthouse keeper, George Durnan, who had apparently gone looking for a body and had dug up a coffin with a jawbone. The plaque at the lighthouse mentions the ghost story and the jawbone, although this was a somewhat controversial decision.
The lighthouse has a non-ghostly history as well. It sits on Gibraltar Point, although silt buildup means that the the tower is now slightly inland from the shore (although the flooding on the Islands may change the coastline yet again). 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, who also chose it as the site for one of the new lighthouses he was planning along the Great Lakes. 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.
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 favourite 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.