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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 9

The Canadian Lighthouse

by Edward F. Bush


From 1763 until 1805, boards of commissioners were appointed for specific public works in Lower Canada. In that year, following the British tradition, a corporate body to be known as the Quebec Trinity House was created by statute, with

full power and authority, to make, ordain and constitute such and so many Bye laws, Rules and Orders, not repugnant to the maritime laws of Great Britain or to the laws of this Province. . . . for the more convenient, safe and easy navigation of the River Saint Lawrence, from the fifth rapid, above the city of Montreal, downwards, as well by the laying down, as taking up of Buoys and Anchors, as by the erecting of Lighthouses, Beacons or Land Marks, the clearing of sands or rocks or otherwise howsoever.1

In addition to the master and his deputy, two wardens were appointed in Quebec and three in Montreal, a subordinate branch of the parent body. The same bill made provision for divers other officials as a harbour master for Quebec, and at Montreal water bailiffs, superintendent of pilots and a lighthouse keeper at Green Island "with a farm belonging to the Corporation."2 A little over a quarter-century later, a Montreal Trinity House was instituted, the enabling statute receiving royal assent on 25 February 1832.3 These two authorities were not unworthy of their namesake in London, co-operating fully with the Admiralty, the imperial boards of trade, and the various boards of lighthouse commissioners in the Atlantic provinces, to be succeeded only at Confederation by the newly created Department of Marine and Fisheries.

By the year 1824, the colony of Nova Scotia was maintaining five lighthouses along its shore solely financed by means of light dues. Apparently the Nova Scotian authorities at this time felt that they were contributing somewhat more than their share in relation to their neighbours, for in the words of a despatch from Government House dated 14 September 1824, "It may not be improper for me to observe here, that from the geographical position of Nova Scotia, the navigation to and from the Provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island derive very considerable security from its Light Houses."4 From this date, 1824, more than two decades were to pass before the first lighthouse was built on the shores of Prince Edward Island; but whether the Nova Scotia governor's implication with respect to the efforts of New Brunswick's lighthouse commissioners was well taken is perhaps debatable.

In 1834, there were 11 lighthouses in Nova Scotia, the south coast, fronting on the Atlantic and extending about 250 miles, having five by this date. In addition there was the Halifax Harbour light and one under construction at Cross Island in the vicinity of Lunenburg.5

By 1832, the New Brunswick lighthouse commissioners were well content with the lighting of the Bay of Fundy; so much so that in their report they contended that "an increase in lights would rather tend to perplex and embarrass the mariner on his voyage from seaward."6 An accurate hydrographic survey of the region, so subject to frequent and dense fog and high tides, seemed more to the point than further lighthouse construction. In 1832. New Brunswick was maintaining five lighthouses on the Fundy shore — Gannet Rock, Point Lepreau, Cape Sable (not to be confused with Sable Island), Seal Island and Partridge Island. In their report for 1840, the New Brunswick commissioners contended, on the testimony of American naval and merchant service authorities, that "The New Brunswick Lights are the best kept of any on the American coast."7

The hydrographic survey was entrusted to Captain W. F. W. Owen, R.N. He was commissioned in July 1843 to carry out the project in HMS Columbia. By 1847 a good part of the Bay of Fundy had been surveyed, greatly adding to the accuracy and detail on navigational charts.8 Similar work had been carried out on the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes at an earlier date.

In common with the other colonies, New Brunswick levied a light duty for the upkeep of her lighthouses at the rate of 2-7/10 pennies per ton on all vessels other than coasters and fishing trawlers. The lighthouse return for 1847 listed 10 establishments maintained by the province at annual costs ranging from £99 to as high as £301 (Partridge Island).9 In addition, New Brunswick contributed to the upkeep of lighthouses at Cape Sable, Seal Island and Brier Island in the neighbouring colony of Nova Scotia.10 The New Brunswick commissioners, like their contemporaries in Nova Scotia, maintained that their province had done more than its share toward the provision of lighthouses in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, for example, contributed nothing toward the establishments at Machias Seal Island, Gannet Rock, Head Harbour, Point Lepreau and Partridge Island, lights contributing as much to the safety of Nova Scotian vessels as to those of New Brunswick.11

A peculiarity until 1848 of New Brunswick lighthouse administration was the existence of two boards of lighthouse commissioners, one of which sat at Saint John and the other at St. Andrews. In 1842, on an address from the House of Assembly, the Saint John board was constituted the sole authority in the colony. This decision was resisted for a season by the St. Andrews body, which refused to sit with its associate. The Saint John board resolved on 27 April 1842, since separate appropriations had been provided, to carry on under the old system for another season while recommending the increased efficiency to be derived from a single authority. By 1848 this policy had obviously been implemented, for in the minutes of the executive council, reference is made to one board of lighthouse commissioners.12 No doubt this resulted in a saving to the colony.

15 Early diaphone fog alarm, 1904. (Canada. Sessional Papers.)

As with the other colonies, in Newfoundland a board of lighthouse commissioners was responsible for those lighthouses which did not fall under the aegis of the Admiralty. By legislation passed in 1855 the lighthouse commissioners' authority was henceforth vested in the newly created Board of Works, made up of the surveyor general as chairman, the attorney general, the colonial secretary, the president of the legislative council, and three members from the House of Assembly.13

By the late 1830s it was obvious that Upper Canada's lighthouse service left much to be desired. In the words of Captain Sandom, master of the Niagara, whose strictures reached the Colonial Office,

The total neglect of the local government with respect to the Lighthouses, that a very important one (on Long Point) has literally been allowed to fall to ruin, the oil being carefully stored in the contractors' rooms; another (also important) upon Pelee Island, is in spite of frequent remonstrances by my officers with the keeper and contractor, kept in utter darkness. I am given to understand the "Inspector of Lighthouses" is a sinecure office, at present held by. . .in the City of Toronto.14

Notwithstanding Sandom's sharp criticism, the inspector general on his 1839 tour of inspection found the Pelee Island establishment, along with those at False Ducks Island and Nine Mile Point on Lake Ontario, in reasonable order. He observed, however, that the reflectors in most of the lights had been damaged by careless cleaning.

The few good stations notwithstanding, it was nonetheless apparent by 1840 that a closer supervision of lightkeepers was required, and that some attention should be given to apparatus designed to improve circulation of air within the lantern. The purchase of supplies by public contract became mandatory only in 1837. The inspector general recommended that lightkeepers' salaries be paid only on certification that the lights in question had been properly maintained either by ship's captains or local customs collectors.15 Shortly after the Act of Union, lighthouses in Upper Canada, or Canada West as it was to be known until Confederation, passed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Works. A uniform pay scale was introduced for lightkeepers: £65 per annum on shore stations, £85 on island locations, and a special stipend of £100 per annum for False Ducks Island.16 A stricter and more stringent selection of candidates for lightkeeping duties was instituted in March, 1844; henceforth, mariners with lake experience would be given preference.17 Clearly the lax ways of the pre-union period were a thing of the past, including the mischievous practice of hiring deputies (sub-contracting the duties to third parties) which so often had contributed to carelessness and neglect.

But not all complaints could be traced to a negligent keeper. Frequently the sperm oil lamps smoked, darkening the lantern glazing and so diminishing the effectiveness of the light. In December 1844, J. S. Mcintyre reported to the Board of Works that the trouble lay with poor combustion due to inadequate ventilation. The solution to this problem was a properly designed air vent in the roof of the lantern. He also observed that many of the burners were not set at the exact focal point of the reflectors, and to correct this fault he made all of the reflectors adjustable.18 He also recommended the standardization of all the lamps and reflectors in use on the lakes, and this was later implemented. Other improvements were made in the lamps to regulate the flow of oil to the wick and reduce oil wastage.19 Of all the lights on the lower lakes, Mcintyre found the worst attended was that at Port Burwell.

It is fortunate that this Light is not of much consequence for it is certainly the worst attended to on the Lakes. The reflectors are of very little use as the lamps are three inches outside of the focus, and there is no way of altering them, without making an entire new stand.20

Mcintyre's modifications of apparatus and reforms respecting personnel had their effect, for by 1845 he was able to report that all the lights on Lake Erie were of a new and improved design, as were those at False Ducks, Main Ducks and Point Petre on Lake Ontario.21

With the creation of the new Department of Marine, not many years were to pass before it assumed responsibility for aids to navigation from its colonial predecessors in the various provinces of British North America. In 1870, the new federal parliament enacted legislation transferring responsibility for all lighthouses and buoys between Quebec and the Strait of Belle Isle from the Quebec Trinity House to the Department of Marine. The Montreal Trinity House surrendered its jurisdiction in like manner on 1 July 1873.22

In 1867 the total number of lighthouses established and in service in the old Province of Canada (Quebec and Ontario) was tallied at 131.23

Strait of Belle Isle to Quebec24

Quebec to Montreal27

above Montreal69

above Montreal (privately run)11

Although this may have seemed at the time an impressive total, with the rapid development of steam navigation the new department early in its career recognized the urgency for both expansion and improvement in quality. The minister, in his fifth annual report (1872) stated,

I was under the necessity of asking for moderate sums, and erecting a cheap description of strong wooden-framed buildings, taking care, however, to use nothing but high-class powerful lighting apparatus: . . . this Department has succeeded in erecting ninety-three new lighthouses and has established four new lightships, and ten new steam fog alarms on the coasts of Canada, besides having under contract forty-three lighthouses, eight steam fog alarms, and two new light ships, all of which has been done within five or six years. The Canadian petroleum oil used for these lights, being a powerful illuminant, and being procured at a very small cost, has enabled this Department to maintain not only brilliant and powerful lights, but to do so at, probably, a cheaper rate than any other country in the world.24

In the summer of 1872, a visiting committee of the imperial Trinity House toured both Canada and the United States in order to observe the quality and efficiency of their respective lighthouse services. The visitors found the Canadian lights superior to the American, although the latter service comprised a greater number of solidly built masonry and brick structures. The Canadian service, they pointed out, had to operate on a much slimmer budget and so was one of simplicity and economy, well-suited to the needs of a new country. Lightkeepers were not highly trained as they were in England, nor were they well paid; most Canadian keepers considered their lightkeeping wages subsidiary to other sources of income. According to the visiting Brethren,

Their buildings appear to be easily and quickly erected at small cost; the mineral oil is a powerful illuminant requiring little care in management in catoptric lights, and is inexpensive; moreover, as our experiments show, a higher ratio of illuminating power is obtained from mineral oil in catoptric lights than in any other arrangement. Such a system seems admirably adapted for a young country.25

The Department of Marine handled lighthouse construction estimated at under $10,000—Bird Rocks, Cape Norman, Ferolle Point and Cape Ray. Projects on a bigger scale fell to the Department of Public Works.26

16 Drawing of the Louisbourg lighthouse, the first built in Canada. (Public Archives of Canada.)

The Canadian lighthouse service, in these early post-Confederation years, scarcely compared with that in the British Isles. In Britain, the equivalent of $100,000 was not considered unusual for the construction of an ordinary coastal lighthouse consisting of a stone or masonry tower fitted with dioptric apparatus. A comparable lighthouse in Canada, frequently of frame construction and fitted with catoptric apparatus, could be had for only $8,000. The normal staff for a light station in Britain consisted of three or four uniformed keepers, each of whom had been thoroughly trained; in Canada, by contrast, frequently there was but one keeper per light, assisted by his family. Lightkeeping was not considered a skilled occupation in Canada, hence the preference for simple apparatus in these early years. In the seventies and eighties, the British lighthouse service still used whale oil, costing the equivalent in Canadian currency of 80 or 90 cents per gallon, whereas in Canada coal oil, a superior illuminant for use with catoptric lights, cost but 19 cents per gallon.

In like manner the American system reflected a more costly service, stone towers with several keepers being the rule rather than the exception. Likewise, American lard oil was considerably more expensive than Canadian coal oil. The one disadvantage of coal oil was its inflammable nature. Apart from a score or so of superior lighthouses of masonry construction fitted with lenticular apparatus, the usual Canadian facility was of frame construction with simple reflector apparatus.27 The very length of the Canadian shore line, both tidewater and inland, particularly with the addition of the Pacific coast on the entry of British Columbia into Confederation in 1871, dictated a measure of economy.

By 1876, the Department of Marine had established six regional agencies responsible for lighthouses, buoys and lightships within their designated limits:

Prince Edward Island Division
Nova Scotia Division
New Brunswick Division
Quebec Division (St. Lawrence below Montreal and Gulf)
Ontario Division (above Montreal)
British Columbia Division

Germane to these enterprising developments in lighting equipment was the institution of the Dominion Lighthouse Depot in a former Prescott starch factory in 1903. Still active in its original premises, the depot by its inventive enterprise has largely rendered Canada independent of overseas suppliers. It has carried out both experimental and manufacturing processes with all types of burners, lanterns, illuminants and lenses tested exhaustively to determine which combinations were best suited to Canadian conditions.

In 1904, a twin development augured well for the future of the Canadian lighthouse service. The Lighthouse Board of Canada, made up of the deputy minister of Marine, the department's chief engineer, the commissioner of lights, the president of the Pilots' Corporation, and a representative of the shipping interests, was instituted by statute with broad terms of reference

to inquire into and report to him [Minister of Marine and Fisheries] from time to time, upon all questions relating to the selection of lighthouse sites, the construction and maintenance of lighthouses, fog alarms and all other matters assigned to the Minister of Marine and Fisheries by Section 2 of Chapter 70 of the Revised Statutes of Canada.29

In 1911, the Lighthouse Board was re-organized on a regional basis: the Atlantic division comprising the east coast, Hudson Strait and as far inland as the head of ocean navigation: the Eastern Inland division embracing the region from Montreal to Port Arthur at the head of the lakes, and the Pacific division, including all inland waterways west of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and the Pacific coast.30 The Lighthouse Board was active until the creation of the Department of Transport in 1936, and indeed has never been officially disbanded.

In 1908, the Department of Marine introduced an elaborate and detailed classification of lighthouses and aids to navigation under no fewer than 19 categories. Devices in the first six categories were fitted with fog alarms and the first of these included a rescue service. Categories 7 to 11 comprised lighthouses without fog alarms, and the final 8 categories were classed as minor stations "where the exclusive services of the keeper are not expected." Of these the last two (18 and 19) consisted of wharf lights and lights attended under contract.31 Lights in the first category, complete with fog alarms and a rescue service, were Pelee Passage (western end of Lake Erie), Bird Rocks (Gulf of St. Lawrence northeast of the Magdalens), Belle Isle (northeast and southwest ends) and Cape Race.32 The second category (main seacoast lights with fog alarms) comprised another 14 lighthouses, including such well-known establishments as Point Amour (Labrador coast, western end, Strait of Belle Isle), Scatarie Island (eastern tip of Cape Breton Island), and Machias Seal Island and Gannet Rock in the Bay of Fundy.33

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the total number of lights, principally lighthouses, along the Canadian sea coast and inland waterways (especially the Great Lakes), stood at 1,461 of which 105 were equipped with fog alarms.34

By the spring of 1917, the proliferation of lights along our shores led the department to discontinue a number of minor ones and to improve others by means of superior illuminants and better optics. Based on a 1911 recommendation submitted by the Lighthouse Board, agency boundaries were adjusted to conform more closely to geographical regions. For example, the lighthouses at Belle Isle, Shippegan (northern New Brunswick) and Bird Rocks were placed under the jurisdiction of the Charlottetown agency, whereas Cape Race and Sable Island became the responsibility of Halifax.35 It should be noted that the principal lighthouses on Newfoundland's shores were a Canadian responsibility, and in earlier times, British. The majority of Newfoundland's lighthouses fell under the jurisdiction, as one would expect, of that colony's Board of Works.

In November 1936, a new federal department fell heir to the Department of Marine dating from Confederation, and to that of Railways and Canals, established in 1879, so combining the function of both. The new Department of Transport assumed responsibility for all marine aids to navigation, embracing the functions of the former commissioner of lights, the chief engineer, and the supervisor of harbour commissions, hitherto within the purlieu of the old Department of Marine. The Navigational Aids Branch terms of reference were broadly defined.

This branch has charge of the construction, repairs, and maintenance of all lighthouses, fog alarms, and other aids to navigation such as lightships, buoys and beacons, and the Sable Island Humane Establishment; the surveying, for registration, and recording of all lands acquired for lighthouse sites; the . . . publications of "List of Lights", three volumes; the issuing of Notices to . . . and the administration of all agency shops and the Dominion Lighthouse Depot at Prescott.36

Regional agencies, in general continuing the organization of the old Department of Marine, were established at Halifax, Charlottetown, Saint John, Quebec, Montreal, Prescott, Parry Sound, Victoria and Prince Rupert, with subsidiaries at Port Arthur, Kenora and Amherstburg, each of which operated its own supply depot.37 In his first annual report, the minister stated that the Canadian Lighthouse Service extended over 52.800 miles of coast line and inland waterways.

With the addition of Canada's tenth province to confederation in 1949, all the lighthouses along the Newfoundland coast came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transport; hitherto, it will be recalled, only landfall and major coastal lights had been under Canadian operation. Top priority was given to the modernization of the Newfoundland facilities to bring them up to the standard pertaining in the rest of the country. To this end, a comprehensive survey of all Newfoundland's lights and fog alarms was at once conducted by department engineers and technicians. St. John's became the scene of a new regional agency serving the same function as those in the rest of Canada.

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