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

The Canadian Lighthouse

by Edward F. Bush

Sub-Arctic Waters: Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay

Commercial navigation came late to the lonely sub-Arctic waters of Hudson Bay and Strait, so long the preserve of the exploratory and the company supply vessel. For this reason, visual aids to navigation have assumed a secondary role to electronic ones.

The lighthouse per se—a solid stone, masonry or wooden tower or simply a house with lantern mounted thereon—has not made its appearance in these northerly latitudes. The transportation of stone or lumber to these remote locations would be uneconomical and in any case, the presence of permafrost poses a major foundation problem. In the place of the conventional lighthouse first pole lights, then open-work steel and aluminum towers have performed the function in subpolar regions. Although these visual aids are of scant, if any, historical interest, a brief account is required to complete a descriptive survey across Canada.

Initial Aids in Hudson Strait

The opening of commercial navigation by this northerly route, longer by about 200 miles than the traditional St. Lawrence, hung upon the long-deferred completion of the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill, a project undertaken in 1911 and completed only in 1931. From this port wheat grown on the Canadian prairies could be shipped to the British Isles during the short two-month navigation season. In premature anticipation of the railway's completion across more than 500 miles of muskeg and rock, the Department of Marine, during the season 1913-14, installed ten AGA-type acetylene pole lights along the shores of Hudson Strait at a cost little short of $69,000. These lights could be left untended during the short navigational season.1 Although these beacons were mounted only five or six feet above the ground, many were swept away by the frequent gales which ravaged the region. This initial attempt to facilitate passage in the Hudson Strait was not considered a success.

Radio Aids

As mentioned in an earlier context, radio assumed a role of major importance between the two world wars. Radio beacons and direction-finding stations won an early preference over the traditional visual aids in these northern waters. This was in part due to the considerable distances to be covered initially in the Hudson Strait region, and in part because of the few specialized supply vessels using the route, all of which were adequately equipped with radio. In line with this policy, a department memorandum drawn up in January 1928 recommended that the provision of lights and fog signals should await the advent of commercial navigation.2 The priority given radio aids was illustrated in a departmental letter of the following summer in which the point is made that the installation of a radio direction-finding station at the terminal port of Churchill rendered the employment of a lightkeeper superfluous.3

This policy was confirmed by the lighthouse board at a meeting held in December 1929, at which the trend for the future was clearly enunciated by the chief engineer.

I am of opinion that any lights which may be established in Hudson Strait should be electric, and suggest the use of steel towers with lanterns to enclose apparatus and a hut below to contain the machinery which should be in duplicate. I think we should have in mind a visibility of thirty miles.4

Herewith was formulated the policy for the future which was carried out over the course of the next four decades with little variation; electric lights powered by diesel generators were to become the order of the day in the far north, as part of the electrification program which followed hard on the Second World War. Most of the earlier lights in the northern regions had been acetylene.

In December 1929 Resolution Island, lying off the southeastern tip of Baffin Island, was chosen as a site for a landfall light to guide shipping in bound to the Hudson Strait. A similar light at the opposite end of the strait was recommended for Carys Swan Nest on Coats Island.5 Three years later, in 1932, a powerful light was established on Resolution Island on Hatton Headland, 200 feet above the sea, in latitude 61°N.6 A frame skeleton base supported a square frame lantern.

During the 1932 season, seven lights were established in Hudson Strait; those at Resolution Island and at Cape Hopes Advance were electric, in association with radio stations. In addition, lights were installed at the eastern end of Wales Island and at both ends of Charles Island, lying along the southern shore of the strait. Other lights appeared on the south shore of Nottingham Island, at the western entrance to Hudson Strait and on Coate's Island, in the northernmost reaches of Hudson Bay. With the exception of the electric lights installed on Resolution Island and Cape Hopes Advance, all these initial light stations employed acetylene lights. The commentary of ships' captains was mixed, some contending that the lights should be of greater power; a range of from 15 to 18 miles was claimed for some.7

Experience indicated that steel and aluminum open-work towers of the type installed at Cape Pembroke in 1964 were best suited to the region. At some stations, care of the light devolved upon the radio operators, but at many, the lights were entirely automatic—a trend now becoming rapidly general throughout Canada.

To a considerable degree, this northerly region, bypassing the colourful era of the lighthouse, moved directly into that of electronics.

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