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

The Canadian Lighthouse

by Edward F. Bush

The Pacific Coast

The colonization of the rugged and picturesque Pacific coast came much later in time than that along our Atlantic shores. The celebrated navigator Captain James Cook landed on Vancouver Island in 1778. It was not, however, until the year 1850 that there was sufficient settlement for the island to be proclaimed a crown colony. The Fraser River gold-rush of 1858 brought in its train the first influx of white settlement, much of it of a transient character, to the mainland. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that lighthouse development, as with the multiple other phases of colonization and settlement, followed at a much later date than was the case along the Atlantic coast, the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. At the time of her entry into Canadian federation in 1871, British Columbia's mountainous coast boasted but two lighthouses and one lightship, the latter at the mouth of the Fraser River. The Race Rocks and Fisgard lighthouses, both of which entered service in 1860, are still in use today although the latter is now property of the crown.

Fisgard Island

The Fisgard Island lighthouse at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour is a circular brick tower 56 feet high with attached dwelling. It was fitted with a dioptric apparatus of the 4th Order and a coal-oil light.1 By 1872, the tower stood in need of extensive repairs, the bricks used in construction having been of an inferior quality. The solution found for this unsatisfactory condition was the coating of the whole tower with a generous layer of Portland cement followed by three coats of "best white paint." New windows were also installed. The following season, 1873, these repairs which have stood the structure in good stead for nearly a century were well advanced.2

77 Fisgard Island lighthouse. (Canada. Department of Transport.)

Race Rocks

For a number of years, indeed until the construction of the important landfall light at Carmanah Point in 1891, the 102-foot Race Rocks lighthouse commanding the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the southern tip of Vancouver Island was considered the most important in the province. The original light burned colza oil and subsequently (1898) dog fish liver oil in conjunction with catoptric long focus apparatus — apparatus which according to the latest list of lights, is still in service employing an electric light source. This rather old-fashioned optic was not the original one used, however, for the revolving light of the 2d Order was described as dioptric in the annual report for 1871-72.3 This presumably was replaced after the installation of the Carmanah Point light at a later date.

Again, however, as with the case of the Fisgard structure, economies in initial construction were paid for in subsequent maintenance. Built of sandstone, the Race Rocks tower within 20 years gave serious cause for concern. The sandstone had been quarried, at the least cost to the contractor, from locations below high tide resulting in an inferior quality of stone. One consultant in 1878 considered the whole tower unsound and recommended that it should be demolished and re-built.4 This expedient did not prove necessary; whatever measures were taken with the Race Rocks tower were effective for the structure stands today, more than a century later.

78 Race Rocks lighthouse, Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Canada. Department of Transport.)

Point Atkinson

With only the two original lighthouses of pre-Confederation vintage on its shores in 1872 and little taken in hand in the course of the first year, the agent for British Columbia sourly concluded in his report for that year that the policy of the Department of Marine, insofar as the Pacific coast was concerned, must be one of frugal economy.5 Although the Race Rocks light had won the approbation of mariners, the same could not be said of its contemporary on Fisgard Island.

In 1875, the third lighthouse on the Pacific coast was completed at Point Atkinson at the northern entrance to Burrard Inlet on the outer approaches to Vancouver Harbour. This structure was replaced in 1912 by the present lighthouse. The contract was let to an Arthur Fenny for the sum of $4,250. The 60-foot hexagonal tower with six exterior buttresses exhibited from its circular lantern a powerful lenticular light of the 3rd Order, at an elevation of 108 feet above high water. Local authority advises that the lighthouse is still very much in its original condition.

79 Point Atkinson lighthouse. (Canada. Department of Transport.)

Berens Island and Entrance Island

The following year, 1876, two more lighthouses went into Service: Berens Island at the entrance to Victoria Harbour on 5 March and Entrance Island in the vicinity of Nanaimo on 8 June. The Berens Island lighthouse, a 30-foot, square wooden structure equipped with catoptric apparatus, exhibited a fixed blue light; the total cost of this installation, complete with dwelling, was $3,218.38.6 The Berens Island lighthouse is no longer in existence having been replaced by a pole light serving the same purpose. The Entrance Island lighthouse, on the other hand, consisting of an eight-sided lantern mounted on the roof of a square frame house,7 according to current advice still stands and is, therefore, one of a trio of lighthouses more than 90 years of age on this coast.

With the construction of the latter two, there were now, including the Fraser River lightship, a total of seven lights on the Pacific coast. With the exception of the Fisgard and Race Rocks installations, kerosene was the favourite illuminant on this coast.

80 Entrance Island lighthouse. (Canada. Department of Transport.)

Cape Beale

The outer coast of Vancouver Island fronting on the open Pacific had not been neglected. On the eighth anniversary of Dominion Day, 1874, the Cape Beale lighthouse went into service showing a revolving catoptric light atop a square tower. The focal plane of this light was 160 feet above the sea and it was visible at a range of 19 miles in good weather. The first Cape Beale lightkeeper, Robert Westmoreland, received $700 per annum.8 The department's engineers contended that the Cape Beale light, about 100 miles north of Victoria, was superior to the important American landfall light at Cape Flattery, installed in 18579 at the southern entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The original Cape Beale lighthouse has been replaced with an open-work steel tower.

The landing of materials, supplies and apparatus on the rugged outer coast, often through pounding surf, posed a hazardous operation frequently entrusted, as at Cape Beale, to the traditional skill of the local Indians. These boatmen exacted a good price for their services, and rightly so! The Victoria agent, in his report for 1874, reveals both the high cost of construction and labour on the coast, but still more his, and no doubt the current, attitude toward the Indians.

I apprehend that the custom of this country and the emoluments paid to individuals for their services contrast more strangely with that of similar services in the Eastern Provinces. Even the natives are imbued with a notion of their own value, and as this paragraph more particularly refers to Cape Beale . . . I must beg permission to relate a circumstance that actually transpired in Barclay Sound in the month of June, 1874. The landing at the lighthouse is nearly always bad, and sometimes dangerous, but the sea-coast Indians are very expert in handling their canoes, and it is considered safer to entrust property or life to the care and management of the natives than to risk the same in frequently very inferior boats. . . . The Indian trader being on board, I requested him to find out what they expected for the service, and he informed me that each man in either of the two canoes must be paid six dollars, and three dollars for each canoe. This appeared to me simply extortionate, and in an angry moment I threatened to take the schooner through the surf and land it myself. This they knew to be almost a physical impossibility, and quietly retorted that they thought I could not do that but I might try if I liked. I remonstrated, and tried to reason with them but all to no purpose; they knew that I was more or less dependent on them, and were sharp enough to know how to make me pay for it. . . . I also explained to them that the Government would be writing angrily to me for paying such exorbitant sums. Well, they replied, can't you write back and ask them how could you help it? I ultimately agreed to pay them each $4.50 and $3.00 each for the two canoes, and after some considerable time had passed they consented to my terms.10

Sand Heads

By 1879, the hull of the Fraser River lightship had been damaged beyond repair by dry rot, whereupon the decision was taken to replace the vessel with an offshore lighthouse set on an iron-screw pile foundation. The tender was awarded to a Thomas McKay of New Westminster for $9,500. Slow progress was made because of the difficulty in securing a firm foundation. Begun in 1882, the project was finally completed and the light in service by May 1884. The six-sided frame shingled tower 49 feet in height, was fitted with a dioptric light of the 3rd Order and a fog alarm bell to be rung in thick weather.11 This curiously shaped lighthouse, one of the earlier offshore installations and the first on the Pacific coast, did not survive 1956. In that year a rectangular aluminum building on a steel pile pier replaced the earlier structure.

By the year 1890, 11 lighthouses had been installed on the Pacific coast and steam fog alarms were supplied at Race Rocks, Discovery Island and Point Atkinson.12

Carmanah Point

An important landfall light for vessels inbound from the Orient was projected for Carmanah Point on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, to be completed under contract by December 1890. The 46-foot wooden or frame tower with an attached dwelling built on a high headland first showed a light on 15 September 1891, 173 feet above the sea. This light station included a ship-to-shore wireless installation (commonly known as a "coast station"), with telephone connection with Cape Beale further up the coast. The total cost of the project came to $15,220.89.13 The original lighthouse has been replaced.

At the turn of the century, with new installations at Pointer Island, Fitz Hugh Sound and Dryad Point late in 1899, the Pacific coast establishment numbered 26 lighthouses and six steam fog-alarms.14 Wooden towers with attached dwellings were a common type along the Pacific coast, no doubt because of the abundance of lumber and the proliferation of sawmills along those heavily wooded shores.

Brockton Point

The Brockton Point lighthouse in Vancouver Harbour, a 42-foot square tower which was built in 1890, is of interest more from the personal than the technical aspect. The first keeper, Captain W. D. Jones, was faithful to his trust but still managed to conduct a considerable business of his own on the property. This was quite permissible, provided the keeper's tendance of his light was in no way affected. Jones' successor, John H. Walsh, in an effort to have this humble harbour light upgraded (and hence his pay increased), carried on a protracted feud by post with his immediate superior in Victoria in which the keeper did not scruple to go over the head of local authority. In a letter addressed to the Civil Service Commission in 1926 appears a detailed description of the enterprise displayed by his predecessor.

Capt. Jones was mostly concerned with his farm, a good parcel of land in Stanley Park which was always a perquisite of his office. At one time he kept horses, cattle and goats; at another he bred rabbits, chickens, ducks, pheasants, pidgeons etc. In recent time he cultivated roses and various kinds of flowers, and his income from this source was up to $1500 a year. He also had trees, canes, bushes and brambles which produced a great variety of fruit, including apples, pears, cherries, plums and six different sorts of berries and currants.

For a long time the Vancouver Board of Park Commissioners coveted this parcel of lighthouse ground—the perquisite of the lightkeeper who was getting a small salary; and about 8 years ago the Government of the day actually agreed to give it to the city, together with $15,000 to pull down all the out-buildings and put the place in shape. However, Capt. Jones protested so effectively that the transfer of the property was cancelled and he continued in possession.15

Jones seems also to have been an amateur winemaker of note. Finally Jones secured the office of park commissioner, and thereafter had the benefit of the park horticulturist's service, not to mention an increased variety of shrubs and plants. His successor concluded, "Capt. Jones was an oldtimer, a very good sort, and he was able to take a great many liberties which would not be tolerated in my case."16

The first keeper of the Brockton Point light must not, however, be taken as a mere colourful eccentric. By 1907 he was credited with having saved the lives of no fewer than 16 persons, including the engineer of the steamer Chehalis which collided with the CPR Princess Victoria. On retirement, Captain Jones received the Imperial Service Medal from the hands of the king in 1925.17 In his courage and devotion to duty, Jones was typical of many lightkeepers.

Cape St. James

Early in 1913 the Department of Marine undertook a difficult project at Cape St. James, at the southern extremity of the Queen Charlotte Islands. As this was a remote location several hundred miles from settlements, the department decided early in 1913 to undertake the project itself rather than by contract. The cost was not to exceed $26,500. In addition to the 44-foot octagonal reinforced concrete tower at an elevation of 279 feet above high water, the station was to include a wooden or frame dwelling with out-buildings, an oil storage shed and a boathouse.18 The 3rd Order dioptric light of 100,000 candlepower had a range of 24 miles and was scheduled to go into service on or about 15 February 1914.19

Triple Island

The Triple Island lighthouse (Fig. 81) in the vicinity of Prince Rupert was surely the most hazardous construction site ever attempted in Canada, rivaling in over-all difficulty that of Bird Rocks. The first contractor, Snider Brothers and Brethour of Vancouver, gave up the contract, convinced that the project was impractical. J. H. Hildritch of Prince Rupert then submitted a tender for $33,500 in the summer of 1919, which was accepted by the Department of Marine. On closer acquaintance with the site the contractor charged the department with ignorance concerning the perils attending a construction crew on this exposed and tiny islet. Whenever a strong westerly wind coincided with spring and fall flood tides, the sea inundated the rock, carrying all before it. In the contractor's words, "the two westerly islands are so fiercely swept that nothing of a temporary nature could stand against it."20 Continuing his letter to the department's marine agent at Victoria, he said,

Had the storms of 1919 been of the same nature and direction as were the storms of November, 1920, seventeen men and myself would have been swept off the rock without even a lighting chance for our lives. Three times in October and November the seas broke in the end of the cook house, once while we were eating breakfast; pouring in about eighteen inches above the height of the table, sweeping everything before it and drenching the men.21

The savage weather in October 1919 swept away 19,000 board feet of lumber, and at the end of the month a scow loaded with provisions, hardware and gravel was lost. In addition to the rising cost of labour, endemic along the Pacific coast, the contractor understandably had difficulty in keeping men at any price under such conditions. Many of the men he employed at Triple Island were recently repatriated veterans from the trenches of France, some of whom rated the Triple Island project as the greater ordeal. Be that as it may, it is to the contractor's lasting credit that he lost not a single life on the job, begun on 4 August 1919 and completed two days before Christmas 1920. The 76-foot reinforced concrete tower, rising from a corner of the rectangular building which housed the fog alarm and keeper's quarters, exhibited a dioptric light of the 3rd Order. Rated at 400,000 candlepower, the beam of this powerful light swept the horizon 97 feet above high water. The 55 millimeter oil vapour light was scheduled to be lit for the first time on New Year's Day 1921.22

81 Triple Island lighthouse. a modern structure built in a most difficult location. (Canada, Department of Transport.)

Hildritch lost money on the contract, although he was partially reimbursed at a later date. He had the satisfaction, however, of having completed successfully a hazardous feat in which he felt justifiable pride.

But what seemed at one time an almost impossible job is completed, and from reports I have received from sea-going men who visited it the work will compare favorably with any light station on the Pacific Ocean. It is a structure worthy of your Department and a monument to myself and employees.23

In latitude 54° N., the Triple Island lighthouse is one of the most northerly in Canada, other than open-work steel and aluminum towers found in higher latitudes in Hudson Strait and along the Mackenzie River system. These installations serve the same function, but are not lighthouses in the true sense of the word.

82 Brockton Point lighthouse, Vancouver Harbour. (Canada. Department of Transport.)

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