William Spears has spent a lifetime keeping the light lit at lighthouses around the Great Lakes. He was only six months old when his father William, moved to Flowerpot Island to assume the position of lightkeeper.
In his 22 seasons as lightkeeper on Cove Island, William Spears has seen many changes. The work on Cove Island was varied and difficult but never boring. Twice each night, Spears used to climb the 109 grey steps made of pine three inches thick, up to the lantern room at the top of the tower.
Spears recalls his nightly routine.
“You put the light out at sunrise, and lit it at sunset. So it was idle all through the day. You cranked the thing up in the morning when you put the light out, cranked it up and put a block under the weight. And then you went out at night and took the weight out and started it revolving. And there were curtains all the way around the windows. The sun shining through the lamps to the other side would break the glass on the other side. Oh it was hot. When the lens was stopped, if the sun got to a certain position and focused through the lens on both sides. Oh, it would burn a hole in the curtain on the other side in nothing flat if you didn’t start on the right side to take the curtains down. It was just when the sun was on the horizon; it had to be on a certain level.”
Once a week, the 36 panes of window glass around the light had to be cleaned. Warm water, and a touch of coal oil to erase the smoky film that the lamps spread over the glass. Then a polish with newspapers to make everything shine. In late fall, when a cold snap frosts the windows, Spears brushes them with methylated spirits twice a night to keep them clear. Sometimes, the sudden cold would drape frost over the lighthouse and tree on the island, and the sun rose next morning on a silvery fairyland.
Spears and his assistants were also responsible for giving regular weather reports to the Department of Transport offices in Wiarton, and for making sure that the fog horn is turned on if there is even a small amount of fog.
He also reported in by radio to the Coast Guard three times a day. Then all communication was by Morse code. During the reports, he would mention any sign of trouble such as bonfires on the tiny islands in the vicinity. The fires might be distress signals from boaters stranded on the islands. Weather permitting; Spears would often row over to rescue the boaters himself.
The life of a lightkeeper is not for everybody especially the isolation. When asked if he would do it all over again, Spears replied,
“Thirty years, that’s quite a long time but I’d do the same thing over again.”