... desolate and uninhabited with a checkered past
Lonely Island was well named. The island is 30 km south east of Manitoulin Island in the northwestern quadrant of Georgian Bay. It's busiest time from a human perspective was prior to 1862 when it was a summer camp for aboriginal fishing. It hasn't seen that much activity since.
In 1870 as steamers began to ply the Bay it was established as a light station. In 1907 a wood octagonal 54' lighthouse with a red lantern was built on the north side of the island somewhat in the island interior, on top of the highest point of land on the island. A path and walkway was build from the keepers house and ancillary buildings from the north cobble beach up the hill to the lighthouse. The island was (and still is) heavily covered in Cedar.
Here is a shot of the island from Google Earth.
The last light house keepers vacated the island in the mid 1980's and it is now serviced by helicopter. All of the ancillary buildings were torn down with only the lighthouse and accompanying shed left on top of the hill. A helicopter landing pad sits near the lighthouse. Officially the island is off limits and is Coast Guard controlled. There are no anchorages or even safe places to land with a boat. The island is very exposed and the north shore has a rough cobblestone beach which is not hospitable to boats. In good weather the island may see the odd boat anchor offshore and explorers come in by dinghy to the shore. Most of the visitors would be brave offshore kayakers who stop for short visits and carefully bring their kayaks up on the cobblestone beach on the north side of the island. These visitors are infrequent as it is quiet a dangerous open water paddle to get there ... and as we know, Georgian Bay weather can turn on a dime. The island provides little shelter - just and old cedar deck and some foundations. The best way to see the island is by helicopter or float plane given the right weather conditions.
The island is so remote only a handful of people visit each year and they usually don't stay long because the Massasauga Rattler thrives on this island. With plenty of gull eggs, gull chicks and rock and bush cover this is the perfect island for the protected species to thrive. It won't take long if your walking around to hear or see rattlers. Most people don't want to curl up for the night in their warm sleeping back with that many rattlers around - hence the short stays.Lighthouse keepers report having to carry a stick to scoot them off the pathway in the trek between the keepers home and the lighthouse on the hill. In fact rattle snakes used to wait at the bottom of the lighthouse for birds to fly into the structure so they could collect the dead or stunned birds as they fell to the ground.
To the many lighthouse keepers who manned the light over the years there were no doubt many fond memories of living on the isolated island. To this day there is a small pet cemetery where lighthouse keepers dogs were buried in shallow graves with a small picket fence. One could only imagine that in such conditions, the dog was probably the keepers best and only friend on the island. Many of lighthouse keepers families found the island to be too isolated and inhospitable to spend their time there. The breadth of the exposed cobble stone beach is testament to the huge waves that crash onshore during frequent Georgian Bay storms. One lighthouse keeper who decided to over winter on Lonely Island with his dog underestimated their food supply, and both were found starved to death the following spring.
The island has somewhat of a checkered history and there are several shipwrecks on the bottom in the vicinity of the island. Lighthouse keeper Rudy Payeri swore he heard and saw Mermaids frolicking along the shores on several occasions (see Mermaid story on Blog page).They would apparently call out to him in storms trying to bait him to attempt rescue in stormy conditions. Here is a well known oil painting of the steamer Ploughboy struggling in heavy weather off Lonely Island.
Over the years many people have been stranded on the island - most recently two girls who drifted there in an inflatable boat and had to spend the night before being rescued. The most famous shipwreck associated with Lonely Island was the Asia that went down stern first in heavy seas in 1882. Many wealthy people were aboard. Only 2 survivors and 125 lives lost. As the ship was foundering the crew were pushing livestock and cargo overboard to lighten the vessel. Lifeboats were overcome by waves and only one managed to stay afloat after many rollovers. The Captain died of exposure on this lifeboat along with others and only 17 year old Duncan Tinkis and 18 year old Christy Ann Morrison survived and came ashore near Pointe Au Baril where they were found by a native Indian who brought them by canoe to Parry Sound.
On Lonely Island however, it was a different story. Bodies were washing ashore. Lighthouse keeper Domonic Soloman took advantage of the situation and robbed the corpses of anything valuable. He was found out when questioned by a search party. Eventually he took them to a decomposed body of Mrs Woods who was found crudely covered by debris along the beach. They identified her from her monogrammed corset and stockings. The body was so decomposed they could not take it back so she was moved inland to a rock and covered with a board as her final resting place. Other life jackets which smelled of decomposing bodies were found in the keepers possession so it was always thought that he had robbed and hidden more bodies. He did admit to the Mrs.Woods robbery because he was confronted with so much evidence and had her personal belongings in his possession. However in the end, he went free given that his defense was he was so isolated he became confused and in any event never had the opportunity to report the body do to his isolated circumstances.
It is interesting to note that there are still places in this world that are so isolated, they defy imagination. And Lonely Island is one that is right in our own backyard ... on Georgian Bay.