Government Service—and You

Heroism and hardihood play major roles in the story of our coast protection


Government Service—and You

Heroism and hardihood play major roles in the story of our coast protection


A NOR’-EASTERLY gale thundered out of the frozen solitudes of the Arctic and pounded the North Atlantic into a welter of fighting gray seas. Hard-bitten Grand Banks fishermen hove to and faced it, a thousand storm demons screaming through their ice-encased rigging, while the less seaworthy coasting steamers hugged the security of their wind-whipped harbors. Nineteen days out of Bergen, a salt-rimed Norwegian tramp ship battered her way toward the Canadian coast, feeling her way by dead reckoning, unable, for seventy-two hours, to shoot the sun. Her master, sleepless, face drawn by fatigue and worry, peered over the weather cloth, his face a target for the stinging sleet, as he drove, vainly, to make out the loom of the land, while the first and second mates conferred in low tones on a corner of the bridge. Darkness fell, and still the captain stared, with aching eyes, into the gloom, anxiety biting at his self-control.

Then he turned abruptly. “I’m going about,” he told the mate. “I can’t chance running any closer until I find out where we are. I wanted to make Quebec, and clear before the ice set in the river, but now ...”

He was turning toward the wheelhouse to give the quartermaster his orders, when a long-drawn, piping hail from the crows nest reported a light.

“Where away?” he roared, his heart jumping.

“Two points on the port bow, sir!”

Night glasses were levelled and in a moment the captain had picked up the light. For a minute or two he watched it, and when he lowered the glasses his shoulders had dropped the burden of years.

“Belle Isle light, north end,” he said curtly to the mate. “We’re all right now. Take a bearing.” He gave directions for the altering of the vessel’s course, then left the bridge for the first time in three days.

Once more, in countless thousands of times, a steadfast beacon of the Canadian Government lighthouse service had guided imperilled and storm-weary seafarers to safety.

This Belle Isle light is controlled by the Commissioner of Lights Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, as are all the other lighthouses, fog signals, and other aids to navigation which ensure the safety of shipping along the coasts and inland waterways of the Dominion. Here, obscured by a pompous, mouth-pursing title, is a government service which calls for a devotion to duty, a careless concern for personal safety, amounting at times to positive heroism, a hardiness of fibre, both mental and physical, demanded by few vocations.

The duty of the commissioner’s men is clear; their slogan simple. ‘Keep the light going. Keep the siren blowing.’ And that this may be done, men and women voluntarily condemn themselves to exile on lonely surf-beaten ocean rocks where they are utterly dependent on themselves for aid in sickness, for their own well-being and amusement, for every comfort, physical and spiritual, for every recreation whether of mind or body, which might serve to make life lovable in such a spot.

Conditions on the West Coast are different from those on the Atlantic side of the Dominion, for the more equable climate of the Pacific coast and its sheltered navigable stretches, rule out the formidable enemies to be fought on our eastern seaboard-—ice, cold,and the tremendous roaring seas that crash in on a granite coast with the unobstructed might of the Atlantic behind them.

There is fog in plenty, however, along the raggedly indented coast line of British Columbia, and it is there that ‘rule-of-ear’ rather than ‘rule-of-thumb’ navigation takes place in thick weather. In fog so dense that it is impossible to see a ship’s-length ahead, let alone pick up a lighthouse or other aid to navigation, vessels in charge of pilots familiar with the coast, steam on schedule time from Vancouver to Prince Rupert and return, along a shore line spotted with dangerous reefs and shoals, with almost as much assurance as in clear weather. The trick lies in being able to tell, by blowing the siren and counting the seconds for the echo to return, not only how far offshore the ship is, but her position, too. And fog in the straits does not tend to make the lightkeeper’s job more cheerful, particularly when he knows that foreign shipping depends for safety upon a clear view of his beacon.

Duraneau’s Mattress Signal

LANGARA LIGHT and the light on Cape St. James in the Queen Charlotte Islands, south of Alaska, are two of the most isolated posts on the British Columbia coast. They are visited but one or twice a year with supplies, and as the volume of shipping which passes is not considerable the keepers sometimes are hard put to it to find amusement and occupation other than the maintenance of the light. Occassionally, however, some of the minor dramas of life are enacted within hailing distance of such lonely outposts, and the turn of a tide may change the tranquilly monotonous day to one of a life and death struggle against the forces of nature at their wildest and most grim.

One Christmas Eve, for example, Keeper Moran, of the light on Green Island, British Columbia, while breasting a heavy north-east gale along the beach close to the station, saw a wink of flame jump up on the shore of Dundas Island, across a wide intervening stretch of storm-tossed strait. He knew it at once for a signal fire, for the coast and islands thereabout are desolate and almost uninhabited. Moran returned to the light and told his wife and son. The sea was too heavy to launch a boat, and the night was spent in anxious intervals of watching the weather and peering into the blackness for another glimpse of that faint despairing signal.

With the dawn of Christmas Day, the gale abated a bit, and after nearly swamping in the heavy surf, the Morans, father and son, managed to get their boat to sea, and rowed across to the island. Landing, they discovered a man, unconscious, and dying of hunger and exposure. They succeeded in reviving him but he was so weak that he was unable to take the warm food and drinks the Morans had brought. With great difficulty, they got him into the boat and commenced the return journey to the light. In the meantime, the gale had blown up again, and the seas were mountainous.

After hours of battling against wind and wave and exhaustion, they finally shot their tiny boat through the surf below the light, its welcome beam having been sent into the gathering night by Mrs. Moran, who was left alone at the post.

What had happened was this. The man was one of the crew of the gas boat, Violet.

The vessel had developed engine trouble and drifted ashore before the sweep of the gale. Rather than trust themselves in the wreck of the heavier craft, the man, whose name was Duranceau, and his partner, had loaded their dinghy with weapons and food and tried to put off before the Violet struck. The dinghy had capsized and the other man drowned. Duranceau was cast on the beach, without food, or weapons, and with nothing in his pocket but a cartridge or two. Amongst the wreckage of the dinghy was a mattress. Two days later, the castaway, his wits sharpened by necessity, dried some of the cotton mattress stuffing on a rock, and taking the bullet from a cartridge, used a nail from the wreck for a firing pin and managed to ignite the cotton. This was the signal fire which had puzzled the Morans. Without it, he must inevitably have died.

Another Keeper’s Heroism

ANOTHER bit of work by the tender of a British Columbia light, Keeper McNab, of Carmanah Point, while not so spectacular as the foregoing, was instrumental in saving a number of lives.

The French schooner Riata, Port Gamble for Papeete in the South Seas, while fighting a gale in Clo-cose Bay, off Vancouver Island, not far from McNab’s light, sprang a leak. For two days the vessel endured the buffeting of terrific seas, as the crew toiled incessantly at the pumps. Unable to prevent the water gaining, they decided to anchor 150 yards off shore. The anchor cable parted and the ship drifted on a reef. The crew put off in a boat and tried to make the beach.

As the Riata had not sent up distress signals, McNab’s first intimation of her plight was the sight of a life-boat filled with men, tossing in the angry water just outside the shore surf. He shouted directions for a safe course in, but the men were too weak to obey. The boat foundered and the men were engulfed in the smoking breakers. McNab plunged in as close as he dared, and, by herculean effort, managed to rescue the entire crew. He took them to the lighthouse, warmed, fed and clothed them, and they were later returned to the mainland.

For his courage and hardihood, McNab was rewarded with a medal by the French Government.

An Abomination of Desolation

PERHAPS the most lonely of all Canadian stations is the North Belle Isle light on Belle Isle, which lies fifteen miles off the north end of Newfoundland, and mounts guard over the strait leading to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Quebec and Montreal. The light is in commission only while navigation on the St. Lawrence is open, but the keeper, his assistants and their families remain there the year through. The island, a tiny patch of bush, scrub, beach grass and sand, is open to all the gales that blow. There are no amusements, no neighbors, nothing but the never-ending boom of surf and the high, piping cries of wild sea birds. Life on Belle Isle during the summer would be bearable to a layman, perhaps, but in winter with bitter storms and terrific blizzards keeping all hands within the confines of the buildings, and with no work to occupy the time, it is inexpressibly dreary and monotonous.

In July and the latter part of October, each year, the island is visited by a Government steamer from Charlottetown, which takes out food and other supplies. But, from October, on, through the long dark winter months, the station is cut off from all physical communication with the mainland until July of the following year. On one occasion the winter was so terrible that the island became uninhabitable. The station ran out of food. For months, great storms had swept along the coast, with blizzards and freezing sleet. The inmates almost were encased in a house of ice and there was no prospect of a cessation of the hard weather. Wireless messages to the mainland told of their plight, and the Aranmore, a government steamer, was sent to take off the lightkeepers and their families. Battling through ice and storm and blinding snow, the Aranmore lost her way and was wrecked, but her mission was taken up by another steamer which was on ice patrol in the North Atlantic, and after great difficulty, because of the gigantic seas, the lighthouse people were taken off and brought to Charlottetown where they remained until the weather abated. They then returned to their posts.

The light on Bird Rocks in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is another isolated station at which its people remain the year round. The lighthouse rises from the top of a jagged spur of rock one hundred feet high. The island looms straight from the sea with no beach and is about the area of a city block. The light is maintained until the end of December, and commences again for the sealing fleet about the middle of March. Supplies are taken off the supply steamer by a derrick direct from the vessel’s deck to the cliff top, and the light keepers are landed and taken off from a precarious perpendicular ladder. Quite frequently bad seas prevent landing on the rock for two to three weeks at a stretch, for no vessel would dare risk entering the suction drop of the waves as they spout and recede along that grim cliff wall.

The Light Keepers’ Life

THE light-keepers of the Atlantic coast are a simple people. They, and their assistants, are allowed to have their families with them, even in the most isolated stations, and there they live, in a tiny world of their own, with all its possibilities of joy and bitter sorrow. When the children become old enough they are sent to the mainland, generally to relatives, for schooling. Their parents are perfectly satisfied with their lot. They seldom feel any oppressive sense of isolation nor do they long for the color and excitement of the cities. In the majority of cases, they have known no other life than the one they live, and with it they are content.

In a fishing community, and in most villages along the coast, the light-keeper is a sort of leader. Small as his pay may be, it is steady, and usually a trifle more than sufficient to supply the things necesssary for subsistence in moderate comfort. He is frugal and saving, and, in comparison with his neighbors, a man of substance, to be looked up to as such, and respected.

Along the Gaspe coast most of the keepers are simple, devout Catholics, and in the majority of lighthouse cottages, a room is set aside as a chapel, wherein is held a daily religious observance. The children are brought ashore for baptism, or this function is performed by a ‘padre’ who travels constantly along the storm-beaten coast, ministering to his flock.

Illness, child-birth, death—the eternal trinity of human happenings, which we in our superior knowledge have surrounded with ceremony and detail—are quietly faced and achieved by these simple, self-sufficing folk. One keeper who recently lost his two small children on a lonely station, buried them and carried on. Many a little life has been ushered in to the accompaniment of a wild Atlantic gale, and with no medical assistance beyond the primitive knowledge* of the lighthouse staff. If it is absolutely necessary, however, expert medical assistance can be given, as in the case where a mother and her newborn baby were in imminent danger of death at the light station on St. Paul’s Island, between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. A signal for help was broadcasted and immediately responded to. A full gale was blowing with snow and sleet, and the first vessel to respond became fast in the ice. Nothing daunted, an ice-breaker came out from Charlottetown, with a doctor on board, and the woman and child taken off the station and landed safe in port after three days. The warmth with which this succor was welcomed may be imagined.

Faithful Unto Death

THERE is that about the sea which seems to stiffen the courage of those who are dependent upon it for their daily bread, whether as seamen or watchers of the coasts. Some years ago, on a lonely light station on the British Columbia coast, the light-keeper and his wife, the only occupants of the post, were expecting a first recruit to their family. The approach of the woman’s confinement was marked by a series of gales which cut off all communication from sea and land, and which increased in violence as her time grew imminent. The child arrived without assistance of any kind other than that afforded by the distracted husband, but the woman went mad. Cooped up, with a new-born child, a terribly ill and insane wife and the necessity for keeping the light going, this man still carried on, the light never once failing, until the gale blew itself out some days later, and help arrived. When it did, the man, too, had partially lost his reason. The eventual recovery of this brave little family—for the baby lived —sent a wave of relief along the coast.

Nor is this the only form of courage exhibited by these keepers of lonely lights. Some years ago, the beacon on Pie Island, Thunder Bay, Lake Superior, was in charge of a solitary keeper. The lighthouse and keeper’s home stood in a clearing on the shore. Behind stretched heavy forest to the foot of precipitous cliffs—a dark, forbidding background. One night the light failed to appear. Settlers nearby investigated. Within the lighthouse was evidence of a terrific struggle. Behind a box lay the dead body of the keeper of the light, and nearby the corpses of two Indians with a can of methylated spirits between them. This fluid is essential to the upkeep of the light, and the keeper had given his life in successful effort to defend it.

The lighthouse service is on duty twenty-four hours in the day, all the year round. No matter what occurs the light must be kept going, and constant alertness is not only a rule, it is a habit. The slightest slip-up or neglect might mean a shipwreck, with loss of human life. On stations nearer shore, as on some of the lights of the St. Lawrence River, the men are allowed ashore occasionally—once every two or three weeks— by the lightkeeper, but never for long periods during the navigation season. Absence without leave is punished by immediate dismissal.

‘Safety First’

IT IS, sometimes, a matter of wonder to 4 the layman that light stations are not provided with power boats, but the reason for this is in keeping with the policy of the department. That policy may be summed up in four words: ‘Leave nothing to chance.’ A gasoline engine may fail to work. A seaworthy boat, with stout oars, propelled by backs and arms, is a very sure help in time of trouble. Lighthouse staffs may provide an engine auxiliary at their own expense if they wish, but, even then, oars must be in the boat at all times when in use. The same idea is carried out in the station equipment. The light apparatus, fog signals and all other appliances of the service are maintained in duplicate, and are used in weekly or bi-monthly rotation, so that those responsible can be certain that, when called upon, the reserve apparatus will be in perfect working order. Lightships, although stationary units, are self-propelled; if they go adrift they are able to get back to their posts under their own power. Conditions aboard the lightships are the same as on land stations, and they are manned by a similar type of people.

Some Prodigies of Observation and Endurance

LIFE on a lonely station seems to develop powers of observation and endurance to a degree extraordinary to a landsman. On one occasion, Commissioner of Lights, J. G. Macphail, was visiting a Gaspe station, and the department steamer was to call and take him off. The steamer became overdue and there was considerable speculation as to when she would arrive. The light-keeper, while up on his tower, sweeping the horizon, suddenly shaded his eyes.

“There she is,” he announced.

The Commissioner could see nothing.

“Out there,” the keeper said, indicating with pointed finger. “That tiny cloud there, on the skyline.” The Commissioner could see nothing and gave up the attempt.

Eight hours later, the steamer arrived from the point indicated. As she was steaming at twelve miles per hour, she was ninety-six miles away when the keeper first saw her smoke. So much for observation. Here is an anecdote which strikingly illustrates the endurance and resource of some light-keepers.

The keeper of a light in the Straits of Belle Isle, after the close of navigation, wished to spend the winter in Quebec. He was lame, and walked with a stick. His application was rejected at first, on the ground that he would be cut off from his light by ice and would be unable to return for the opening of navigation. He made no violent protest. “You know my record,” he said quietly. “I’ll be back at the light in time.” He was allowed' to leave. The winter was over, he boarded an ice-breaking steamer which was leaving Quebec for Greenly Island in March. He took with him on the vessel, two dogs, supplies, and the material for a sled. During the passage to Greenly Island, which was five hundred miles from his light, he made a sled, and at Greenly Island bought three more dogs to make up his team of five. Then, alone, and crippled as he was, he set out over those five hundred miles of ice and desolation to his post, which he reached in plenty of time for the opening of navigation. This spirit may explain why, last year, among the thousands of employees of the lighthouse service, only three cases of men who failed in their duty were reported.

Patriarchs of the Lighthouse Tower

WHERE a few men are cooped up for long periods in a confined space, it is almost inevitable that disagreements will take place, and that the deadly monotony of a circumscribed routine will have a trying effect on the best of tempers. It is important, therefore, that the people of a station shall be of a type congenial to each other, and the system of selection and payment of light-keepers is laid down with this end in view.

The light-keeper is appointed by civil service competition. He must be a qualified stationary engineer with chief’s papers. He is paid a certain definite salary—for example, $3,600 a year—out of which he must provide two assistants, chosen by himself. They, also, must be qualified stationary engineers—that is, be able to pass an examination set by the Lights Branch. In this way, the light keeper is made responsible for the harmony of his station, for he will select, of course, only men whom he believes can get along together. A s-a matter of fact, his assistants are relatives, usually, so that the light staff in the majority of cases is a family group, an arrangement which has proved to be the most satisfactory. Food is not supplied by the government, but must be met out of the pay of the staff. The keeper designates the merchant from whom he wishes to purchase his supplies, and they are bought by the government and delivered to the light by the supply ship. The amount is deducted from the keeper’s salary and he in turn makes his own adjustments with his assistants. In this way, the keeper, alone, is entirely responsible for maintaining a satisfactory state of affairs.

In a large number of cases, under this system, the care of the lights passes from father to son, so that the job of keeping the lights often has remained in one family for a long period of years. The light at Green Island, Quebec, for instance, has been in the Lindsay family for ninety-nine years. The present keeper of the light at Father Point, whose name is Wyatt, formerly was keeper of the light at Point Amour, which he took over from his father. Upon his transfer to Father Point his son was appointed keeper of the Point Amour light, so that this has been maintained by the Wyatts for over eighty-four years. This is indicative of the pride in which the light-keepers hold their calling.

There are many kinds of lights, but the larger beacons, or first and second class lights, set in a stone or steel tower and requiring the services of a keeper and two assistants are mostly of the same type. They rise to a height of sixty to ninety feet, and are built with an inside staircase. The lamp room is fitted with a hyper-radial light run by motor mechanism. The light on Cape Race off Victoria, British Columbia,-—that is, the lamp lenses, and mechanism exclusive of the cost of the tower—cost $50,000 and is one of the most powerful in the world. Beside the tower, and set if possible behind some bit of slightly rising ground for protection against the prevailing winds, is the light-keeper’s cottage, a warm, comfortable little dwelling, with polished or carpeted floor, simple, homely furniture and, in the spotless kitchen, rows of bright crockery and glistening pans. Flowers in boxes make cheerful spots of color in the windows, and, in summer, the sunny side of the house has its mass of climbing blooms. Some stations maintain a cow, for fresh milk and butter, others poultry, and in the more favored ones, where the nature and extent of the soil permits, the keepers and their families raise their own vegetables, and sometimes more extensive crops. The casual visitor is always sure of a hearty welcome from these hospitable folk. They are glad of an opportunity to gossip with strangers, and one of a congenial turn will often be invited to a meal or to spend an evening with the wardens of the sea.

Many Aids to the Sailor’s Safety

MAINTENANCE of light houses is not the only duty of the Commissioner of Lights Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. It has many others. It is responsible for placing aids to navigation of many kinds on all the navigable waterways of the Dominion, both inland and coastal. An idea of the scope of the work may be gained from a glance at the statistical analysis of the department’s service equipment. 

Lights, including lighthouses and unwatched automatic lights of various kinds number 1,654. There are ten lightships and 349 fog signals. Buoys of one sort or another total 504. Other protective devices such as submarine bells floats, stakes, bushes, unlighted tripods and beacons, to mention only some of them, number 8,228. In addition, the branch maintains an establishment of 1,654 light-keepers, not including the crews of government tenders and other workers necessary to the efficient upkeep of the system.

Foreign opinion regarding the efficiency and standing of any public service is always of value, so it will be interesting to Canadians to know that some time ago, when a commission was appointed in Europe to formulate plans for the lighting of the Danube, the commission got in touch with the Department of Marine and Fisheries at Ottawa and requested to be given the plans for the lighting of the St. Lawrence, as, in the opinion of foreign experts, this river was the best-lighted navigable waterway in the world.

Fighting the Ice Menace

SOME of the hardest work done by the lighthouse service is in connection with the lighting of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, due to the tremendous difficulty imposed annually by ice, the most formidable enemy the department has to face. In solving this problem, the service often is hindered by the action of shipowners who insist upon running their vessels up the river until after the ice has begun to form, with no thought that after their ships have cleared through the channel on their last outward-bound passage there still remains the task of picking up the various buoys, spars and other channel guides.

Ships seldom cease running before the ice actually becomes too dangerous and difficult to navigate. When the last ship has gone, government vessels set out to pick up more than 3,000 aids, including over 300 gas buoys, each weighing five tons, and valued at $4,000 apiece. For two weeks of gruelling endeavor, the men responsible for this work carry on, almost without sleep. This happens both at the beginning and the end of the navigation season; at the end of the year breaking the ice and hoisting the ponderous, ice-laden aids aboard, and in the spring racing the weather to get them out again.

It is point of honor with the men, that the opening of navigation will find every last aid in place.

The vessel bearing the buoys, sets off from the base two to three hours before dawn in order to begin work immediately day breaks. All day, until it is too dark to continue, the crew toils handling the massive, unwieldy affairs and making them fast to their sixteen ton bases. Then they steam back to headquarters to make ready and load the next day’s supply, working without pause until midnight or one in the morning. After snatching two, or at the most three, hours sleep, they set forth again in the freezing dark. There is no cessation, and there is no complaint.

Sometimes, under stress of weather, the valuable buoys break adrift and go on a cruise, and when this occurs, effort is unsparing to locate them. A letter from Queenstown recently reported the finding on the Irish coast of a buoy from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, probably carried away two years before. Another buoy, after a voyage of approximately three years, grounded on the West Coast of Africa. There is another in Liverpool harbor. But the record for a voyage is held by a buoy which broke adrift from the Straits of Belle Isle and barged out into the Atlantic and the track of the Gulf Stream. At various times for a period of years, ships reported sighting it off the British Isles, the Bay of Biscay, Portugal, Morocco, the Canary Islands and mid-Atlantic, and when last seen it was off the Leeward Islands in the West Indies. By now it either lies upon some desolate coral beach, or once more is surging in lonely passage across the North Atlantic.

The Better Half of the Service

IN POINT of service and efficiency, the Canadian lights service does not cede first place to any nation in the world. Its individual members may not express this in actual words, but contact with the personnel, and a survey of what has been accomplished, conveys it with unmistakable emphasis. More than machinery and matter-of-fact apparatus, there is in the service a spirit that accomplishes things at which frail human flesh well might quail. That spirit lives, not only in the men who directly are responsible for keeping the lights going, and in whose capable hands the lives of thousands of seafarers rest, but in those other brave souls, their wives. Sharing with their men the isolation, the hard, rigorous years of boiling sun and sleety winter gales, far out on an ocean rock, away from all the little amenities which mean so much to more favored women, they, too, carry on, uncomplaining, brave, bearing into the world little Canadians of the same sturdy breed as themselves. All mothers will appreciate the following.

Nine years ago a young bride of our old, non-beatable maritime stock, accompanied her husband to his light station on a lonely corner of the Newfoundland coast. She bore eleven children in those nine years, including one set of triplets. Then, feeling the need of a holiday, she applied, through her husband, to be called for by the supply ship and brought back to the mainland for a three months rest. The ship called and took off, the mother, Mary, aged three, David, aged two, and Andrew, aged two months. She was going home for a rest.