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Lost Arrow Lakes lighthouses

Updated: May 12

In looking into the origins of the stores at the Robson ferry landing, I checked the civic directory for 1932 and made a curious discovery among the listings:


Irwin Jos A lighthse kpr Wilson Pt


A lighthouse on Lower Arrow Lake? Never heard of it. And never heard of Wilson Point either. But I went backward and forward in the directories to fill in the picture.

(Nathan Wilkinson/@nathancomics)


There was no listing for Irwin in Robson in 1915 and no local directory in 1916 or 1917. But thereafter: 


1918, 1919, 1920, 1921

Irwin Jos A pigs fruit and poultry

Irwin Jos lightkeeper Wilson Point


1922, 1923

Irwin Jos A pigs fruit and poultry and tel opr

Irwin Jos lightkeeper Wilson Point


1924, 1925

Irwin Jos A fruit and tel opr (Irwins Landing)

Irwin Jos lightkpr Wilson Pt


1926

Irwin Jos A fruit and tel opr (Irwins Landing)

Irwin Jos lightkpr Wilson Pt

Irwin Miss M farming


1927, 1928, 1929

Irwin John ranching

Irwin Jos ranching

Irwin Jos A lighthse kpr Wilson Pt


1930, 1931

Irwin Jos ranching

Irwin Jos A lighthse kpr Wilson Pt


1932

Irwin Jos A lighthse kpr Wilson Pt

Irwin Miss M


1934

Irwin Jos A lighthse kpr Wilson Pt

Irwin Miss M


1935, 1936

Irwin Jos A farming

Irwin Miss M farming

Irwin R F farming


So we have a lighthouse in business from at least 1918 to 1934 and another place name I’ve never heard of, Irwins Landing.


Neither Wilson Point nor Irwins Landing was ever an official name, but the latter was described in the 1921 directory as “a steamer landing on the Arrow Lakes, reached by the CPR Columbia River steamers. It is 5 miles north of Robson, the post office … Has Dominion Government Long Distance Telephone office.” The sole resident listed was “Irwin J A rancher and tel agt.” 


Inland lighthouses are unusual but not unheard of. A surviving one at Pilot Bay on Kootenay Lake, built in 1904 (and pictured below), is a wonderful heritage attraction and the subject of a book by Susan Hulland. Another at Procter was more modest and obscure, but still a Google search quickly turns up a couple of old pictures of it. Plus there were other lights and navigational aids that were not actually lighthouses, although the term was sometimes used loosely, even by officialdom.



But searches for “Arrow Lakes lighthouse” or “Irwins Landing lighthouse” or “Robson lighthouse” turn up nothing while “Wilson Point lighthouse” only brings up an unrelated lighthouse in Port Townsend, Wash. 


Historian Michael Cone, who wrote an extensive story on the navigational aids of Kootenay Lake, pointed me to the annual Department of Marine reports at archive.org, which included information prepared by a bureaucrat with the greatest title I’ve ever heard: the commissioner of lights. 


Wilson Point lighthouse first shows up in the report of 1915, covering activities of 1913-14. J.A. Irwin was listed as the lightkeeper, but the government seemed to be in the dark about his exact appointment date.  


But here’s the amazing part: at that time, there were two other Arrow Lakes lighthouses! They appear to have all been built around the same time as part of a program of new navigational aids, but while the annual reports usually included details on construction of new light stations and repairs to old ones, unfortunately that was not the case for any of these. 


One was close by, at McCormick Point (Syringa Creek) and was initially operated by O.B. Ballard. By 1916, it had been taken over by Abraham Hirst, who was listed in the 1918 civic directory as the lightkeeper. Subsequent years omitted this occupation but included several others that Hirst held: mixed farmer, school board secretary, postmaster, justice of the peace, and telephone operator. 


However, it appears he continued to look after the lighthouse until his death in 1925, whereupon his widow Clara took over the job. She kept it up until 1933 or 1934 when Harold Hett was appointed to the position and maintained the station until he moved to Rossland in 1940. No lightkeeper was listed thereafter. 


At Needles Point, a station was initially manned by F.B. Lucas. Subsequently two lightkeepers were listed: G.E. Smedley and A.W. Lift as of 1916-17 and G.E. Smedley and Reuben Buerge as of 1923. In the latter year we also see a light station at Arrowhead, with J.B. McGaghran in charge. McGaghran was also postmaster and looked after the telephone exchange. 


The Needles and Arrowhead stations were never mentioned in the civic directories, unlike Wilson Point and McCormick Point. Marine department reports are only available online up until 1923, so I don’t know how long those stations might have been in business.


All of these lights would have primarily benefitted the CPR’s steamer service, but again, we don’t know anything about what they looked like or how they operated. However, we can deduce something from the amount their respective keepers were paid. J.A. Irwin received $120 per year at Wilson Point (about $3,100 today), later increased to $180; Abraham Hirst $216 at McCormick Point, later reduced to $144; Reuben Buerge and G.E. Smedley $177 and $38 respectively at Needles Point; and J.B. McGaghran $54 at Arrowhead. By contrast, at Pilot Bay, Eugene Montreuill received $570 ($15,000 today). So it’s a fair bet none of the Arrow Lakes stations were as elaborate as the one at Pilot Bay.


Newspaper searches don’t turn up mentions of any of these lighthouses. Nor does the Arrow Lakes Historical Society have any photos of them online.


I was surprised that the marine reports also indicated from at least 1914-23, Denver Light & Power was paid $24 per year to look after a light at Silverton. It’s the only mention of a navigational aid on Slocan Lake. 


A further surprise came in a riveting 1992 tome called The Directory of Federal Real Property, which listed then-current and former navigational aid sites. (The government did not seem to be in any hurry to dispose of properties it no longer required.) It listed 11 light stations on the Arrow Lakes! 


They were or are at Smith Point, Alwen Creek, Cape Horn, Upper Whatshan, Lower Whatshan, Burton West, Caribou Point, Mosquito Creek North, West Demars, Grassy Point, and Whiskey Point. But no Wilson Point, McCormack Point, Needles, or Arrowhead. These were just the ones described as “light stations” although no information was provided on what they consisted of or whether they were still operating. There were other “marine navigation lights” (including one at McCormick Creek) and “marine navigation aids.”


As Michael Cone notes, most of these were probably shore masts that had more to do with the tug and log boom operations serving sawmills at Castlegar and Nakusp than with the CPR’s steamer service. Five of the sites mentioned above were listed on a 1980s Nakusp brochure, seen below. (Thanks to Kyle Kusch for pointing this out, and also see his comment at bottom.)


• 

Back to Wilson Point and the Irwin family, who started me on this path of illumination, and about whom we know a bit. For starters, the Joseph Irwin, rancher, and Joseph Irwin, lighthouse keeper, listed separately in the civic directory were in fact the same guy.


The family came from Priceville, Ont. to the West Kootenay around 1908. First to arrive was Robert Ferguson (Bob) Irwin, a foreman at the Nelson Iron Works.


Next was brother Austin H. Irwin, and then widowed brother Joseph Alexander Irwin, sister Margaret Elizabeth Irwin, and their widowed father, John Irwin. Austin later moved to Calgary, where he worked for Eaton’s, while Bob mostly stayed in Nelson, so for the most part it was John, Joe, and Margaret at the Arrow Lakes fruit ranch. 



The Irwin farm, looking south. (Martin collection/Courtesy Bruce Rohn)


The first mention of the property is in the Nelson Daily News of June 6, 1911: “Road work under foreman M. McDaniel is making good progress and settlers can now drive from Castlegar to Mr. Irwin’s ranch west of Westley and next year all being well will continue right through to Harry Gibson’s at Syringa creek.”


This is a little puzzling because Westley, the site of a series of sawmills, is on the south side of the lake, about where Interfor is now, while Syringa Creek is on the north side. The Daily News of Jan. 6, 1913, also discussing Westley, referred to “settlers here with large holdings. Austin Irwin has 160 acres which he took up about three years ago.” 


Later references describe the Irwins living “about six miles out from Castlegar on the Syringa Creek road” and “at a point several miles north of Robson.” But there are also other references to the Irwins being at Westley, so I can only conclude the place name applied to both sides of the lake for a time. 


The first mention of Irwins Landing in the Daily News is on Dec. 20, 1916 when the federal government was building the Robson-Renata telephone line: “Until spring only four offices will be installed at Castlegar, Robson, Irwins landing and Syringa creek.” Presumably the fact Irwins Landing was home to a lighthouse influenced the decision to put an office there.



The Irwin farm, looking toward the hillside. (Martin collection/Courtesy Bruce Rohn)

The Irwins’ closest neighbours were the Websters, about a mile away. One evening in September 1929, Edgar Webster, in his early 20s, was keeping an eye out for a bear that had been destroying trees in local orchards. He had permission to enter the Irwin property if needed.


In the twilight, Webster spotted what he thought was a bear on the Irwin ranch, a couple of hundred yards from the house. He pulled the trigger, hit his target, and went to check the body. It was no bear. Instead John Irwin, 84, lay mortally wounded. He had been stooped over weeding his garden when Webster mistook him. Webster brought Irwin into his house and telephoned Dr. T.J. Norman of Robson, who drove to the scene. Irwin died while his son Bob was still en route from Nelson by train.


Dr. Norman reported the accident to the provincial police who came to investigate. A coroner’s inquest a couple of days later in Trail under Dr. J.B. Thom heard testimony from Edgar Webster, Joe Irwin, and Allen Almquist, whose involvement is unclear. The jury found John Irwin’s death accidental and recommended anyone shooting on a neighbour’s property first determine where the residents were.


John Irwin was buried in the Robson cemetery. While it didn’t at first appear his death would result in any criminal repercussions, that assessment proved premature, for in April 1930, the attorney general ordered Edgar Webster charged with manslaughter. Pending trial, he was released on $2,000 bail, a portion of which was supplied by Joe Irwin, suggesting he didn’t agree with the charge.


Neither did a grand jury. In those days, Canada still used a grand jury system to decide if there was enough evidence to send cases to trial. It has since been replaced by preliminary inquiries before judges alone. In this instance, the jury refused to approve the charge, ending the tragic case.



Irwin family on log looking down river with the Westley Lumber Co. mill in the distance across the river. Unfortunately, no names are available. (Courtesy Bruce Rohn)

• 

Joe and Margaret continued to live at Irwins Landing, which only made the news on one other occasion, in 1948, during the great Columbia River flood. The BC Forest Service dispatched tents to residents whose homes were under water. 


Bob Irwin died at the ranch in 1949, age 75. Joe Irwin died in Trail the following year, age 74. Joe’s obituary in the Nelson Daily News said he was the namesake of Irwins Landing but mentioned nothing about a lighthouse. That was also the last time the name was ever used. Bob and Joe were both buried in Robson and have a shared gravemarker.


Around this time brother Austin reappeared at Irwins Landing and seems to have lived there part-time with Margaret until about 1955, when she entered Mount St. Francis. She died in 1965, age 87, and was noted as a charter member of the Robson Women’s Institute, formed in 1913. 


Austin’s wife Florence died in Calgary in 1956, where they had an apartment, and Austin died in 1965 in Castlegar, age 83. Margaret, Austin, and Florence were all buried in Robson. It doesn’t appear any of the four Irwin siblings had children.


Their deaths spared them from witnessing the loss of their family home and ranch, for construction of the Keenleyside dam, completed in 1968, obliterated it. By that time, the lighthouse at Wilson Point, which was presumably decommissioned more than 30 years earlier, wasn’t even a memory. 



A view from the Westley Lumber Co. to the point (Wilson Point?) where the Irwin ranch was located. The whole bay on this side of the point was filled in when the Keenleyside dam was built. (Courtesy Bruce Rohn)

One postscript: I figured out Wilson Point’s namesake. According to Kate Johnson in Pioneer Days of Nakusp and Arrow Lakes, John Wilson was the first owner of the Yarrow ranch, whose name was in turn explained by the Nelson Daily News of Jan. 6, 1913: “Yarrows, the famous shipbuilders in the old country, have a 320-acre ranch here. It has been partly developed under the management of H. Batchelor.” 


Yarrow Shipbuilders Ltd. was a major firm in Glasgow from 1865-1977. In later years scout camps were often held at the Yarrow ranch.


UPDATE: I finally located a newspaper reference to the lighthouses, from the Nelson Daily News, Dec. 29, 1913: “O.B. Ballard of Syringa creek spent Christmas in Robson. Mr. Ballard and J. Irwin have the contract to look after the government lights at Westley and vicinity.” 

— With thanks to Bruce Rohn and Michael Cone


Updated on April 8, 2024 to add the image from the 1980s Nakusp brochure and on May 12, 2024 to add1913 newspaper item.

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The marine navigation lights are certainly in operation today (at least some of them, anyway). Anyone standing on the public beach at Nakusp at night time will see the light across the lake at Smith Point blinking away. You should have mentioned that part of the story to me, Greg (I thought you were going be strict on lighthouses, LOL!); I could have pointed you toward the ALHS copies of the 1980s and 1990s Nakusp tourism brochures/maps which had complete lists (and a dedicated map!) of all navigational aids on the lakes on the reverse.


The Buerge family and descendants are still very much present and prominent in the Arrow Lakes. The 'Buerge' road at Burton is not a public…

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Found that brochure/map in my own collection! Will scan it and add it to the post.

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I see "Reuben Buerge" mentioned as one of the "lighthouse keepers" in 1923. Perhaps he is the selfsame Mr Buerge who had a Ford dealership in Nelson in the 50's or earlier. Do also recall a Mel Buerge whom I believe continued that business under his name. Your stories so often provide stimuli to recollections of people, places and times. I thank you.

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There is also a road named "Buerge" which winds off into the woods from the road leading to the boat launch at the Burton Historical Society campsite on the Arrow Lakes about 60 km south of Nakusp

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