The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse
German Traces in Toronto

The first German lighthouse keeper at Gibraltar Point

Just offshore from downtown Toronto is a chain of small islands known as the Toronto Islands. Originally a peninsula that was cut off from the mainland by a storm in the mid-1800s, the islands are a popular destination for both tourists and residents. Most visitors to the islands go for the park land or for the Centre Island amusement park, but those who walk to the southernmost tip of the islands, Gibraltar Point, can see Toronto’s oldest landmark.

The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was first conceived of in 1803, while the islands were still a peninsula, for the safety of boats sailing through Lake Ontario and docking in Toronto’s natural harbour. It was completed in 1808 and was the tallest building in the city for nearly 50 years. There are only three older buildings in Toronto still surviving, all cabins.

A painting of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse
A painting of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse | © Courtesy of Toronto Public Library
Gibraltar Point’s first lighthouse keeper, John Paul Radelmüller, was born in Bavaria, now part of Germany, in the mid-1700s. At the time, the British royal family was all German and still connected to their homeland. Many of their servants were German as well, and Radelmüller got a job working first for the younger brother of King George III, then as a porter for Prince Edward. He visited Canada for the first time in 1799 on a trip to Halifax with Prince Edward, and after leaving his job at court Radelmüller moved to Upper Canada in 1804. He originally hoped to get a land grant in Markham, slightly north of Toronto, where there was already a community of German settlers. His request was denied, but he worked as a translator and taught English to this group of settlers until he was made the first keeper of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1809. His job was especially important during the War of 1812, when Lake Ontario became a battleground for the British fleet.

A historical photograph of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse
A historical photograph of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse | © Courtesy of Toronto Public Library
Radelmüller was the lighthouse keeper until January 2nd, 1815, when he died under mysterious circumstances. There are a number of stories surrounding his death, but the most popular version is that he was killed by soldiers stationed nearby who would visit him, perhaps because they were drunk. Two soldiers were put on trial, but they were acquitted and no one was ever charged with Radelmüller’s murder. Years later, fragments of a coffin and human jawbone were found near the lighthouse, which only served to enhance the legend. We most likely will never know what happened to Radelmüller, but the story is that he haunts the lighthouse to this day.

Gibraltar Point Lighthouse
Gibraltar Point auf Toronto Island
Toronto, Ontario M5V 2X3
History of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse