Lightkeeper's Wife

Neither danger nor loneliness nor boredom could keep this woman from achieving happiness in her vigil on storm-lashed Belle Isle

RUTH OSBORNE December 15 1943

Lightkeeper's Wife

Neither danger nor loneliness nor boredom could keep this woman from achieving happiness in her vigil on storm-lashed Belle Isle

RUTH OSBORNE December 15 1943

THE SHIPS that pass Belle Isle lighthouse are blacked out now but the clear shining light which my husband Fred and I tended for 14 years continues to warn mariners of the treacherous rocks and reefs—a danger every bit as real as enemy submarines.

Well do I recall that day, many years ago, when my husband and I boarded the ship that was to take us to our new island home. We had a long, rough trip, stopping to supply other lighthouses on the way, and when we got near Belle Isle new orders came by radio from Ottawa ordering the lighthouse tender to go out immediately on ice patrol tor three days. Quite unused to accepting changes in plans and bitter disappointments at the sudden command of ship captains and Admiralty heads, I went right to the skipper of the Aranmore and said: “I’m not going on any three-day ice patrol out into the Atlantic and you might as well know it. I’m going ashore at Belle Isle when we get there—and that’s final.”

My husband, Fred, was aghast at the thought of me giving orders to the captain. But the captain was much impressed and said he’d put us ashore if he could. But when we arrived off the dark cliffs of Belle Isle quite a sea was running. He called for a volunteer crew to man the surfboat. For the first time—but not by any means the last—I stood in an opening in the side of the ship, where a great iron cattle door had been thrown open, and watched the surfboat rise and fall below me. I aimed for a potato bag, and as the boat rose to the crest and the sailors who had me by each arm shouted, “Jump!” I made my dizzy leap. Everywhere the white surf was booming.

When we came round the shoulder of a rocky island and into the treacherous anchorage known as Black Joke, I looked up and saw a solid wall of water roaring down on us, and above it, on the cliff, a white cross glistening. Highly symbolic it seemed at the time. And so it was, for having slid down the curled lip of destruction to solid land I found that the white stone monument commemorated the drowning of two fisher boys in Black Joke—two of many.

The boat’s crew left us at the stone dock with a barrel of flour, a barrel of sugar, a bag of potatoes and a trunk. Four workmen had come ashore with us to repair the lighthouse and we were to board them, but I didn’t know that at the time. We climbed to the house by the 90 steps cut into the rock, and the vessel steamed away.

I built a fire in the range but it was rusted out and a huge flame filled the oven. None of our furniture had come ashore. We had no table, no chair, no bedstead. The trunk which I had thought was filled with blankets and dishes and silver was the wrong one, containing useless trinkets. Some of the fishermen who frequent the island during July and August took in outworkers, but I had to get meals for three days, for six people, out of a barrel of sugar, a barrel of flour and a sack of potatoes. Fred and I slept between two mattresses, there being no blankets.

Isle of Demons

ON THE old charts Belle Isle is called Isle of Demons—and no wonder. An eerie heap of rock and cliff and moss it stands alone in the stormy Strait, 18 miles from the southern tip of Labrador, and 30 miles from the northern cape of Newfoundland. Glimpsing its jagged silhouette in the gloom of a snow squall, people on passing vessels shudder. There are no trees and even the single-budded pussy willows push their stems horizontally in the moss to escape the bitter winds. In all the rocky shores there’s not a safe harbor anywhere. Fog shrouds the island half the time in summer and once I remember the fog alarm sending its deep blare out to sea for 132 hours without a stop. Fred and his helper had little rest at such times because one of them always had to be on watch, and then, too, it was an iron-bound rule that the two compressor engines had to be alternated at regular intervals and the idle one taken down, inspected and greased. Nothing must go wrong with the fog alarm or the light—ever.

Just off the light were “Mad Rocks,” where the combers boiled over a reef. Nearby was Wreck Cove. The charts called our place Misery Point. But the charts were made before we got there.

Newfoundlanders who braved this place for a few weeks a year soon found out I was a trained nurse. A bearded schoonerman came to the house and said, “I got pups, Ma'm.”


Yes, Ma’m, and I feel so bad since I had the last batch I can’t fish.”

“You mean you had pups?”

Yes, Ma'm. Last Monday I had three, and Wednesday I had five, and come Friday I had 17.”

He rolled up his sleeve and showed me a crop of salt-water boils which, I discovered, go by the name of water pups. His back was covered with them and be was very sick. There was no one to take care of him so we had him in bed for three weeks, hardly able to move.

The Aranmore came twice a year, in August and November, with mail and supplies for us. Pack ice ground against the island all winter, churned by the Labrador current driving south, the St. Lawrence sweeping into the sea, and tides that run eight and 10 knots past the points. Sunny days in winter the ice was sometimes locked silent and you’d be tempted to think dog teams could cross it by a quick dash to the blue Labrador shore. But it was almost certain death to try, for it might start grinding and rafting again at any moment, roaring against the rocks with such force you’d expect it to pulverize the island in one night. Because of pack ice we were more isolated than we would have been in Baffin Land, where the ice makes solid dog-team roads in all directions. On our island no one could leave or arrive—come hell or high water, life or death—between Christmas and the following June.

November of that first year I had to leave on the Aranmore because I was going to have a baby. She was born in February and her father never saw her until August when I got back again on the next supply ship. We had a new range, crates of hens, a fine supply of vegetables and new curtains.

We had a telephone that was supposed to connect our station, at the ocean end of Belle Isle, with another lighthouse 12 miles away on the inner point of the island where they had a Government radio. Thus we were theoretically connected with the outside world. But the island being solid rock it had been impossible to set telephone poles, so the line had been laid on the bare rock, blithely crossing chasms and rusting on the hilltops. The telephone wouldn’t work when the day was foggy, rainy, snowy or blowy. Fred ground the crank on the miserable box and shouted into the mouthpiece like a mate bawling orders in a gale, and it was about three times a summer that he got a faint whispered “Hello” in return and not much else. In practice, our messages to and from the outside world meant a 20-mile journey afoot or by dog team, skirting the ponds and cliffs that cut up the island’s crest. It was not infrequent for a man making the round trip to be storm-bound ten days at a stretch, and there was one who had been frozen to death. It’s partly on account of our telephone that Fred is a radio expert now.

Teacher of Many Names

AS WELL as being a trained nurse I had once studied elementary teaching. By the time we had two daughters the older one needed schooling, and it wasn’t long before both girls were studying in “The Belle Isle Institute of Learning and Seminary for the Enlightenment of Progressive Females,” taught by a person who was known in the kitchen as “Dearie.” The girls, however, changed her name annually in the schoolroom for who ever heard of having the same teacher year after year? In successive years i was known as Miss Simpson, Miss Black, Miss White, Miss Jimpsie, and one year when we began a week early and the pupils were angry about it, I was christened Miss Black-and-Blue.

Fred made us sand tables. We began with crayoning and numbers and letters and clay modelling, working up from there. We sent for Elson Readers and a Book of Knowledge, as well as all sorts of reading, writing and ’rithmetic books. And we got pretty professional before we were through—with regular Christmas and Easter vacations, a blackboard, graduation ceremonies, a globe, homemade songs, dances, poetry, and homemade paintings on the wall. Before the girls were five they could read quite well.

The coming of our supply steamer with letters and surprises brought on such a scurrying as you could hardly imagine. She’d be coming over the horizon and we’d be studying her with the telescope when like as not the barometer would begin to fall and the breeze would pipe up. Breakers would roar in across “the flats” and smash solid over our concrete landing. They’d know all about that aboard the steamer and she’d turn around and steam away, getting smaller and smaller till she disappeared. Everybody’s face would look kind of white and strained—we’d been waiting as long as eight months. But alter a few days unloading supplies at some more sheltered light along the Gulf shore she’d reappear and make another try.

All our tons of supplies came ashore in a surfboat towed by a shoal-draft motor launch. Several times while the Aranmore lay at anchor unloading the fierce tides caught her and she began to drag. They had to wind in her chain and jog to and fro under power while the unloading continued.

One hundred barrels of oil it took to supply the light and fog alarm engines. The August boat usually brought those along with scores of blessed letters from our families and friends. There was no time to answer letters in all the commotion of unloading freight; the answers had to wait until November. And in November the answers had to wait until the following August. Most years we received a live ox, unloaded by a sling harness into the surfboat and brought ashore to be kept until freezeup, when we butchered it for our winter’s beef. They tied the bullock’s head down tight to a thwart in the surfboard and hoped he wouldn’t kick the bottom out.

Most years we ordered crates of hens, which we kept to lay eggs for us during the winter. Once, in the commotion of freight day, I went down the cliff road to the dock and found that our team of Husky dogs had got loose and eaten the heads off every one of our crated hens. I had to get busy and can chicken meat.

We had an old truck for carrying our tons of oil and coal and potatoes up from the landing to the lighthouse. The road was a zigzag, precariously narrow, blasted out of the rock wall. It had two turns that were so narrow you had to stop and back up toward the abyss to get around them. There was nowhere to run the truck except on the cliff road hauling supplies, and this we did for eight years. By this time it had no fenders, no light, no doors, no upholstery, no top and no horn.

Wouldn’t Do It Again

NEXT time a lighthouse inspector came ashore to stay a week on his yearly visit Fred rode him up the cliff road in the old truck. The inspector stepped out at the top, white as a sheet, hardly knowing whether to be furious or thankful—too shaken to be either. “I wouldn’t ride in that thing again,” he said, “if my job depended on it.”

That night I got him aside and said, “Fred has to ride in that thing, you know. There is no other way to get up the freight. Don’t you think something should be done about it?”

He agreed and said he would make a complete report. So next time the tender came she took away our old truck. With dismay we heard that she was “to be repaired.”

“You might as well repair my grandfather,” said Fred. Nevertheless back came our truck with supposedly refurbished innards. Fred hopped in and took the first load to the cliff top, and upon my word, there she simply collapsed—went to pieces, lay down and died—like the wonderful one-horse shay. Nobody could fix her after that, not even Fred. That year he and the hired man were months getting the freight up the cliff road, carrying it on handbarrows, dragging up the oil drums and coal by dogsled over patches of snow and bare-blown rocks.

But the following year we got a brand new pearl-grey delivery truck with headlights, red leather upholstery, cigarette lighter, ash tray, heater in the cab, and wonder of wonders, two horns and a traffic mirror. We wished we had somewhere to ride in it, and we did all get in and tour back and forth on the smooth rocks between the light and the house, looking in the traffic mirror at the sea and blowing both horns at once.

The delays in receiving things we sent away for were hardly credible. In August I sent to a department store for a particular dress of cornflower blue that I had seen advertised. In November came a letter saying, “Our stock of this model in cornflower blue is exhausted. Shall we send navy? Kindly advise and be assured it is our highest happiness to serve you, etc.”

“The fools,” said I. By the following August boat I mailed a letter directing them to send the navy one by all means. In November, a year having now elapsed, came a letter from the store. “We no longer stock this model in any color. May we send you something else? We enclose our catalogue. Kindly advise, and be assured it is our highest happiness, etc.” I got a piece of homespun from a fisherman’s wife and made a better dress than they could ever have sent anyway. “Sour grapes,” said Fred. But it was really very pretty.

We had to order schoolbooks a year ahead, since if we ordered them in August they didn’t come until November—long after school had commenced. Similarly we had trouble with calendars, there being none of the following year’s issue available in November, while the year was half gone when new ones came in August. So we made our own with crayons and blocked off squares.

Friends By Radio

IN THE winter, evening after evening with the earphones on, Fred taught himself the Morse code by listening to the ships at sea. He studied radio in all its phases, got his license, and by studying and experimenting on his own and consulting with experts at the west end he built his own sending set. It was one of the grandest things that ever happened to us. He could talk with our friends in the long winter now— and with scores of amateur radio pals in Wisconsin and Holland and Hudson Bay and Philadelphia. When war came and all the amateurs were put off the air we felt lost without our radio friends.

In recognition of the hundreds of necessary messages that Fred sent for the summer fishing crews, the Government equipped him with a more powerful transmission and receiving set. I remember one wild December night we were sitting in our cosy living room close by the warm stove, Fred with the earphones on, listening to short-wave stations and the ships, when he suddenly held up his hand and said, “Sh-h! An SOS.” It was a coaster sinking in the storm, not 100 miles from Belle Isle. And we sat there while Fred told off to me the last words ever heard from them: “The officers and crew send their undying love to their dear ones at home, and may God bless and keep them every one. Good-by.” I wept and didn’t feel ashamed. There were things like that I can hardly speak of.

I found that if I was to run the “Female Seminary” efficiently we had to have a maid to help with washing and cleaning and cooking. Some of our girls stayed two or three years and were fine indeed; others not so good. It was very important, under the circumstances, for us to keep our hired man and hired girl as happy as possible as we all lived together more like one family than like employer and employee. One maid we liked immensely was Georgina Ryland, who came from a small fishing settlement on the north shore of the Strait. We paid her $10 a month in winter and more in summer, and she was particularly glad to get it because on Belle Isle she could save almost every cent toward a cherished hope chest. Her home port, like so much of the Labrador shore, was under the jurisdiction of the Colony of Newfoundland, which charged an import duty ranging as high as 65% on the linens and pretties on which she had her heart set. But by living with us at a Canadian lighthouse station she could order her trousseau duty free. After two years of being the belle of Belle Isle, she took home an outfit that made her a highly desirable miss—though she was anyway.

So many of the summer fishermen came to us for help that the first thing I knew I found myself with a four-bed unofficial nursing station on my hands, run completely at our own expense. We tried to get financial aid, but the patients were Newfoundland fishermen, the island was Canadian territory, and the two Governments weren’t much for co-operation. In one summer I gave more than 400 treatments for various ailments.

I missed playmates for my girls though I could teach them all right. I taught them both to play the little organ we had, and as for school work, I gave them regulation Department of Education examinations that a superintendent in Prince Edward Island furnished. These they passed with flying colors. But they needed the give and take of competition—or so I thought.

Once when we were out for a sojourn in the green farming country of Prince Edward Island the two girls went out alone for a walk. The older one gripped the little one’s hand and they moved with caution, for on the island we had a 200-foot cliff not a rod from the house, and in winter we dared not go near it for fear of being blown over the icy edge. I saw them inching down the road, but by and by they came back shouting, “Mother, Mother, we went the longest way and it’s all flat and we never came to a single cliff!”

To leave or get back to the island was almost as much as your life was worth. I had to go to the dentist one summer when I broke off a front tooth and couldn’t stand the sight of myself in a mirror. I braved the 40-mile trip in an open motorboat—the filthiest, fishiest motorboat that ever was. We started out across the Strait with a sail, but the roughest sort of weather soon made my fishy friend claw that down in a hurry. I lay all day among the fish scales in the bottom, rolled up in a Hudson Bay blanket, drenched with spray while the boat tried to pound its bottom out in the tide rips and couldn’t quite manage it. We stopped in a little Newfoundland harbor for gas, but out of there the weather got so dirty we had to put back and complete the trip next day. It was worth it, though. In St. Anthony there were an American surgeon, a British officer, a Polish refugee girl, a Scottish doctor with a wife who had sung in opera, a New York Junior Leaguer who played the violin like a professional and three splendid Dutch, Swedish and Labrador nurses. We had the grandest music, talks and parties I had enjoyed for years. My dentist bill was one dollar, and my motorboat fare an even $100.

Winter storms were kind of cosy and we didn’t have to bother much with them. Our house was solidly built, had an eight-foot cellar blasted out of the rock and was anchored with iron bolts. But most every summer storm brought some kind of trouble. Five little fishing boats were caught in a cove just under the horn house and had to ride to their anchors and hope they wouldn’t get swept away. Nobody could get out to them, and they couldn’t get ashore on account of the terrific tide running against the wind. They were there all day, and it was one of the worst days we’ve ever spent. At 10 o’clock that night the storm let up some and they all got safely in.

Twelve schooners have been known to go down in Black Joke in one storm. It looked like a good little anchorage but that was the cruel part of the joke. When gales were blowing a mysterious and irresistible undertow surged through the tickle with such force that no boat could live. Many’s the time I’ve seen schooners’ sails flutter up and fly before a gale out across the grim, deep-purple strait. In one storm I saw three schooners founder in Black Joke. They had anchors out astern and were moored bow-on to ringbolts in the rock by steel cables and chains. You could hear the cables pop like strings. The crew tried to hold the last of them by two-inch chains fastened to her bulwarks on the port side. A surge of current came through and tore the side off the vessel, leaving a few timbers thrashing about at the ends of the chains, and that was all. The men got ashore on the rocks but there was not a spar or a single splinter of wreckage ever found around the shores of Black Joke. The undertow carried everything far out to sea—we never knew where.

The island is a bad place for sharks and ice, too. Often sharks would get into the fishermen’s nets and tear them full of holes. Sometimes, in the night, pieces of iceberg, called “growlers,” would come down on the nets—borne on the tide—and sweep them away. All in all it’s a beastly place to fish, the only recommendation being that the fish are there by the millions.

Summers Lonely, Winters Best

Summer wasn’t our best time by any means. As far as food went it was our starvation time, with the frozen beef all gone, berries not yet ripe, vegetables spoiling. It was the steady stream of ships passing our island that was exasperating. The great ships bound for England, the other ships outward bound for Australia and round the world or rolling home, cruise ships for Bermuda, freighters, yachts and coasters—we stood on the cliff and watched them pass—so near and yet so far. At night in peacetime the liners slid by like jewels.

It must seem strange but when the snows came and the ice, and navigation closed, we settled in with a feeling of real happiness. Everybody was gone and our lives were our own. The cellar was stocked with food by the ton. Our two 5,000-gallon fresh-water cisterns under the house had been carefully filled and the pipe from the pond above us as carefully drained.

We celebrated all holidays, both American and Canadian, with school concerts, special meals and all kinds of doings. We never let a hired man’s or anybody’s birthday go by without festivities, and I was all the summer hiding away odd presents for special occasions like April Fool’s Day and Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day. For one of our concerts Betty Jean wrote and recited the following poem on a subject we all knew a lot about.

The Fog

I am the fog;

I roll silently, slowly in from the sea,

Coming softly as on kitten’s paws.

My cool grey blanket enfolds the land.

The wind is still, and all the ground

Is wet, as if with dew.

The sea is calm, and on I pass

As soft and silent as night dawning into day.

I am the fog.

There was a Christmas when the girls decorated the house with red and green, and in the living room were red and white bells covered with silver stars, which Betty Jean and I had cut out. Over the ceiling was stretched a tinsel spider web that glittered at night. A lightman and a radio operator from the west came crunching in over the snow to visit us for the holidays so we had a full house, and Christmas Eve the school put on its inevitable concert.

We had a Christmas tree which had been shipped in on the fall boat and kept in a damp place bound up in burlap. For refreshments there were ice cream and popcorn balls. Each of the 25 dolls and animals that belonged to the girls had hung up its stocking and was dutifully sleeping until after the concert. Some got caps, some pins, some new collars, and the oldest dolls each had a raisin, a piece of popcorn and a peanut.

The children went off to bed while Fred and I decorated the Christmas tree and opened our packages. Fred gave me a ski suit, navy blue with matching helmet, scarf and mitts, and a cheque to buy something for the new house. I gave him a nice sweater, scarf, mitts and socks. We got to bed at one o’clock, and Betty woke us at five. I fixed the morning orange and porridge while Fred poked up the fires. The children swallowed their breakfasts whole and then we went in. Six lamps were in the room besides the big white one; Betty Jean’s mouth and eyes were three big O’s, and Sally held tight to Dad, not knowing whether to cry or not.

It was a scramble among the packages from aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, with me trying to get hold of tags to jot down what was from whom and finally getting lost in the paper and ribbons and giving it up to enjoy life. Fred had made a new table for one of the girls, with a desk top and drawer in it, and two dolls’ beds for the other. About nine o’clock Sally had to go back to bed to get rested, and Betty fell asleep while listening to a new storybook.

The dinner was a tremendous affair of roast beef, cream potatoes, carrots and peas, fruit cup, pineapple salad, jellies, pickles, ice cream with chocolate sauce, nuts and pumpkin pie. It was stormy in the afternoon so we didn’t go outdoors, and the radio was dead so we didn’t get a bit of Christmas music, but I remember a happy day and a gay crowd and—though it’s hard to believe—a hungry crowd at five o’clock supper. We played cribbage at night and at 11 had a little snack just to keep us in trim.

Happy Despite Isolation

Whenever I tell people about our years on Belle Isle they usually suppose I am a great sailor and just love the sea. The fact is that a breaking sea on a sharp-toothed reef is not much kinder than a German tank, and I dislike the sea intensely. Then how did I live there so happily? It is hard to explain but I will try.

You must know that every window of our house faced the sea and the grey rocks; there was no getting away from them. One day I was feeling unusually sad about the sternness of our surroundings, so sad that even the little willow bush outside the house did not comfort me—for all its fortitude. That was the only plant that stood up straight, two gnarly feet into the air, while everything else crawled on the rocks. I just happened to wander into the dining room and there on the floor I picked up a torn piece of magazine and read a poem. This is what it said:

Oh, weary am I of this gaunt grey land

And the ceaseless ebb and flow

Of the hungry sea as it surges in

To crash on the rocks below;

Of the blinding fogs and the cutting winds,

And the bleached contorted tree

Gripping the soil with its knotted roots,

In its stubborn will to be.

For I was bred in a kinder land,

And felt myself as one

With the rich black earth and the slanting rain

And the fierce compelling sun.

But my man is here, and the sea he loves

Is linked with his love for me;

So I bide me here with the rocks and tides

And the brave old twisted tree.

And there was my case stated for me, even to the rocks and the tree and the man.

We were there 14 years, with a winter out every three or four years. When we came to leave Belle Isle the fishermen gave us gifts. Poor as they are they made up a purse for Fred and asked me to buy him something. And they had a brass plaque made for him in St. John’s which said: “To Skipper Fred. A friend in need is a friend indeed.” There was another one for me that read: “To Mrs. Osborne, for kindnesses rendered in sickness and health.” No other gift has ever touched me so.