LIVING

The fading sentinels

Lighthouse keepers give way to high tech

JOHN DeMONT December 16 1991
LIVING

The fading sentinels

Lighthouse keepers give way to high tech

JOHN DeMONT December 16 1991

The fading sentinels

Lighthouse keepers give way to high tech

LIVING

Ingram Wolfe finds the lure impossible to resist. On Sept. 28, Wolfe finished his last day as keeper of the lighthouse on Moshers Island, 14 miles southeast of Bridgewater, N.S. Two weeks later, he and his wife, Lynne, left the 600-acre island where they lived for 25 years to move to West Dublin, a tiny village on the Nova Scotia mainland. But in the two months since then,

Wolfe, 53, has found a reason almost every day to take his 35-foot Cape Island fishing boat and make the 20-minute trip back to Moshers Island.

There, he walks on the grounds outside his former home, now boarded up, and looks up at the 35-foot fibreglass structure housing the light that he tended since June 4, 1966—and that is now fully automated. For Wolfe, who has been tending lighthouses since he was 16, the regular visits are a bittersweet reminder of a part of his life that is gone forever.

“We had a good life here,” said Wolfe, who is now a parttime fisherman. “We never really wanted to leave.”

It is a common lament among the men and women who once operated the lighthouses dotting Canada’s East Coast. Indeed, because of federal cost-cutting measures and technological advances, lighthouse keepers are a fast-vanishing breed.

The Canadian Coast Guard estimates that as recently as 1975, there were 82 manned lighthouses along the waters of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Now, all but five of those lighthouses are unmanned. And the 20 remaining full-time lightkeepers may well be the last to ply their romantic trade in the Maritime provinces. In Newfoundland, of the 56 lighthouses in operation, 11 are already automated. Declared Ernest Irwin, a lighthouse enthusiast who lives in Bible Hill, N.S.: “We are witnessing the sad end to an important chapter of Canada’s marine history.”

That chapter began in 1734, when French colonists lit their first lighthouse at the fortress

of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. By the time of Confederation in 1867, the beams from 67 lighthouses were helping ships navigate along Nova Scotia’s treacherous coastline. Over the years, the kerosene-burning lights gave way to rotating airport beacons. And eventually, electronic horns replaced the bells and cannons that guided ships through the Atlantic fog.

Still, the personality traits of the people who chose the lonely occupation remained almost unchanged. Most, said Irwin, tended to be solitary, independent-minded people who were able to endure long periods of isolation, except for the company of family and a few coworkers. At the same time, they had to be able to handle a wide range of duties, which included operating, fixing and maintaining lights and foghorns, as well as dispensing weather information by radio to fishermen and passing

ships. Many showed extraordinary dedication to their jobs. When fights broke, keepers—and sometimes their families—spent entire nights rotating the beacon by hand to guide ships safely. They frequently used their own boats to rescue small craft that were lost or in trouble.

Life on a lighthouse island clearly has its hazards. James Smith, now the head keeper at the station on Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy, grew up at a lighthouse kept by his father on Cape Sable, off the south coast of Nova Scotia. In 1950, a gale struck Cape Sable, flooded their living quarters and forced the family into the engine room, where they lived for three days on oatmeal and macaroni. Recalled Smith, 57: “I have never been able to go near Kraft Dinner again.”

Sometimes, the job presented greater risks. John Fairservice, who retired in 1989 after 25 years as the keeper of the fight on Sambro Island, located about 15 miles south of Halifax Harbor, was heading back from the mainland with his wife, Maijorie, in 1978 when their motor broke down and 35-m.p.h. winds smashed their boat onto a nearby rock. The couple were stranded on the rock for 4V2 hours. Then, Fairservice swam 100 feet through the cold water to Sambro Island, where he radioed the coast guard. They rescued his wife, who could not swim. Said Fairservice: “I guess you have to be a certain type of person to five on a lighthouse.”

Still, Atlantic lighthouse keepers’ fives began to change irrevocably in 1969, when the federal government started to automate lighthouses in order to update equipment and cut costs. And now, the duties of the remaining full-time lighthouse keepers’ are restricted to monitoring the automated lighthouses, keeping the grounds and machinery in working order and maintaining records of weather and g slfip movements.

Like Ingram Wolfe, many of the oldtime lighthouse keepers did not leave their posts willingly. And they maintain that they could still play an important role at the stations—by providing information to fishermen and even helping to rescue vessels in trouble. “We can do things that machines simply could never do,” said Wolfe. But Wolfe and the others will have to be content with those defiant words—and their memories of a time when people still kept the fights that shone over the North Atlantic waters.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax