Safe Passage: Aids to Navigation on the St. Lawrence
François Cartier, McCord Museum

Quintessential symbols of the romance of the sea, lighthouses have always captured the imagination. Whether in popular art or accounts of tragic shipwrecks, they are still objects of curiosity and fascination. Yet hidden behind the idyllic images lies a more practical reality.

Lighthouses and a whole range of navigation aids are designed first and foremost to facilitate the transportation of people and goods by water. Well before the advent of the train or automobile, sailing ships, and then steamships, were the chief means of getting to a chosen destination or sending goods to potential customers. Thus it was that in the 19th century, many immigrants were packed into ships on their way to Upper Canada, while grain from the West was shipped downriver to Montreal, and from there to European markets. It was an essential route, if only from the point of view of the economic and social future of Canada.

Aware of the vital importance of the St. Lawrence in the development of the country, the authorities expended colossal efforts on opening the route to ships and marking it out. Between 1850 and 1900, lighthouses large and small were built along the banks of the St. Lawrence, and an entire infrastructure for inland waterway navigation to the Great Lakes was set up. It included commissioning supply vessels to maintain buoys and lighthouses and tugboats to assist ships arriving in the St. Lawrence. Although few artifacts of the golden age of lighthouses and navigation aids still exist today, 19th-century maritime technology has had a lasting impact on not just the development of shipping in Canada, but the economy and society as a whole.