When Southland was declared a separate province in 1861 one of the first items of business to which the new Provincial Council turned its attention was the safety of shipping in Foveaux Strait. There was good reason. Here there was an increasing seaborne trade in and out of Bluff, New River and Riverton, there was a twice-weekly steamer service between Dunedin and Bluff, and the latter port was also the first and last port of call for the steamers on the Dunedin-Melbourne run.
The Provincial Council resolved that there was a need for a lighthouse on Dog Island or on some other convenient place in Foveaux Strait, and in August 1861 the Provincial Superintendent, James Menzies, despatched the resolution to Alfred Dommett, the Colonial Secretary, with a plea for government assistance. Dommett replied that if the Superintendents of Southland and Otago could between them agree on a site, he would recommend to the General Assembly that its costs should be met out of central government funds.
In an attempt to resolve the question of a site Menzies consulted the Harbour Master at Invercargill and a panel of three Shipmasters experienced in the navigation of the strait. Between them these mariners made suggestions in varying priorities, for lights on Solander Island, Centre Island, Ruapuke, Bluff Heads, Dog Island and Saddle Point on Stewart Island. Faced with this wealth of conflicting advice, the province settled upon Dog Island which had in any case been recommended by Captain Johnson in his report of 1861.
Dog Island is a low-lying rocky island about five miles south and east of the entrance of Bluff Harbour and it was a sound choice for this first light in Foveaux Strait. It provided an excellent mark for ships passing through the strait and at the same time a guide to Bluff Harbour itself.
In 1863, while he was still employed by the Otago Provincial Council and busy with Taiaroa light, James Balfour was additionally commissioned to design the lighthouse for Dog Island. He appears to have been given a good deal of scope, possible because of the assurance of government financial support, a boon which at that time appears to have been unique and granted to no other province. It was perhaps as well for the low-lying island demanded a very tall light tower, and Dog Island Light, standing at 118 feet, is still the tallest light in New Zealand.
The light apparatus was also to be of the first order and that ordered for Dog Island was unique in that instead of the single burner fitted in other lights, Stevensons of Edinburgh were asked to provide an entirely different system consisting of 16 smaller lamps each with their own lenses but grouped in the same lantern. Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, when Dog Island was lit on 1 August 1865, its total cost was $10,480, an astronomic sum for the time, the average cost of other lights being from $4000 to $6000. Until the twentieth century this was the largest sum spent on the construction of a single light, yet there is no record that the central government demurred when eventually the charge was transferred to them.
In fact it shortly was to cost more. The huge light tower was built of stone quarried on the island, and in 1867 Balfour reported that Dog Island light 'having been found to oscillate more that such a tower usually does' and that much of the mortar had decayed, it became necessary to replace it so far as possible with Portland cement.
This apparently was not enough, for by 1871 the tower had developed serious cracks and the then Marine Engineer for the Colony, John Blackett, was called in. Blackett recommended that the tower be strengthened with vertically placed buttresses of heavy timber encircled with iron bands; this work took the greater part of 1871/72 to complete.
Painted in its distinguishing black and white bands, Dog Island continued to serve as a twentiety-century light but by 1916, the tower again having become unsafe because of the failure of the mortar, it was reported as 'absolutely necessary that a new light be erected on Dog Island'. Instead however, it was granted another reprieve, this time being strengthened by virtually being wrapped inside an outer skin of ferro-concrete. Thus the tower remains today, much the same in appearance as in 1865 except for a greater outside diameter.
The 16 'patent lamps' lasted until 1925 when after several failures they were reported 'antiquated, dangerous and inefficient'. They were replaced on 1 October 1925 by a lamp with a single incandescent burner which, incidentally, was the last of its type to be fitted in a New Zealand lighhouse. Later lights would be powered by electricity and indeed Dog Island was so fitted in 1954.
O'C ROSS J (1975) "The Lighthouses of New Zealand", Dunmore Press Ltd. pg 38-41