Celtic Ex­pe­ri­ence

Colum­nist Ran­nie Gil­lis dis­cusses light­houses.

Cape Breton Post - - WEEKEND - Ran­nie Gil­lis

Nova Sco­tia has more light­houses than any other province or ter­ri­tory in Canada, ap­prox­i­mately 150 at the present time.

None of these are still manned, as far as I know, as they have all been au­to­mated over the last 50 or so years. While most are lo­cated on the main­land or on Cape Bre­ton Is­land, a se­lect few are, or have been, lo­cated on the many is­lands that are found around the coast of this province.

Of these is­lands two of the most iso­lated are also as­so­ci­ated in leg­end and history with grave­yards, as both have had more than their fair share of graves and shipwrecks over the last few cen­turies.

By far the most re­mote is the in­fa­mous Sable Is­land, which is lo­cated about 200 miles south­east of Hal­i­fax in the North At­lantic ocean. Known through the years as the “Grave­yard of the At­lantic,” it is es­ti­mated that at least 350 shipwrecks have oc­curred there, the last in 1999. On that oc­ca­sion the three crew mem­bers of a pri­vate yacht sur­vived an en­counter with the is­land, that hap­pened due to faulty nav­i­ga­tion.

Not quite so re­mote is St. Paul Is­land, lo­cated off north­ern Cape Bre­ton, at the en­trance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is ap­prox­i­mately 14 miles north­east of Cape North and about 50 miles south­west of Port aux Basques, N.L. It is known as the “Grave­yard of the Gulf ” and, much like Sable Is­land, it is es­ti­mated that more than 350 shipwrecks have oc­curred there over the last 400 years.

How­ever, there is one ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween these two is­lands, and it is ge­o­graphic.

Cres­cent-shaped Sable Is­land is ba­si­cally one big sand­bar, about 25 miles long and less than one-mile wide. It is low-ly­ing, with only a few small hills. It is con­stantly chang­ing shape be­cause the sandy coast­line is washed away by the waves in some places and added to by the same waves in other lo­ca­tions.

On the other hand, if Sable Is­land is one big sand­bar, then St. Paul Is­land is one big rock. But what a rock. It is ba­si­cally a three-mile-long piece of an­cient gran­ite, al­most 500 feet high and only one-mile wide. The is­land is al­most en­tirely sur­rounded by steep cliffs and is very ir­reg­u­larly shaped. At one point it is only 1,500 feet wide.

Each of these two re­mote is­lands has two light­houses. With re­spect to a map, Sable Is­land is ba­si­cally ori­ented from east to west, with a light at each end. St. Paul Is­land, which is ori­ented north to south, also has a light at each end. How­ever, the “south­west light,” as the lo­cal fish­er­men call it, has the most in­ter­est­ing history of all four of these lights.

Be­cause of the ex­treme dan­ger to ship­ping head­ing through the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Que­bec City and Mon­treal, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment de­cided to build two wooden light­houses on St. Paul Is­land. The first south­west light was es­tab­lished in 1839, but was de­stroyed by fire in 1916.

A cast iron re­place­ment, the first such light­house in Canada, was pre­fab­ri­cated in On­tario in 1915. The curved sec­tions were dis­man­tled and sent to Cape Bre­ton by train. It took two years to trans­port the cast iron sec­tions to St. Paul by boat and to then bolt the sec­tions to­gether on the south west point. The new light was turned on in 1917.

This light was re­placed by a new au­to­mated tower in 1982 and the old one was dis­man­tled and shipped in sec­tions to the park­ing lot of the Cana­dian Coast Guard sta­tion in Dart­mouth. It seemed to be a rather in­glo­ri­ous end to a very unique part of our lo­cal mar­itime history.

Then, al­most 30 years af­ter it was moved, the St. Paul Is­land His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety in Ding­wall started a cam­paign to bring home the first cast iron light­house in Canada.

Ac­cord­ing to Hamil­ton Carter, the chair­per­son of the so­ci­ety, it was de­cided for rea­sons of public ac­cess to re­lo­cate the struc­ture to Ding­wall, rather than on the south­west tip of a de­serted St. Paul Is­land.

Thanks to the ded­i­cated ef­forts of a small team of vol­un­teers, and with the help of two Cape Bre­ton politi­cians by the name of Keith Bain and Ce­cil Clarke, the process was suc­cess­ful, and the light­house was moved in sec­tions, to Ding­wall in May 2011.

On Satur­day, Aug. 1, a 100year an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion for this his­toric aid to marine nav­i­ga­tion will take place in the lit­tle vil­lage of Ding­wall. I, for one, cer­tainly plan on be­ing there. Ran­nie Gil­lis is a re­tired teacher and guid­ance coun­sel­lor who lives in North Syd­ney.

An avid writer, pho­tog­ra­pher and moto-jour­nal­ist, he is the au­thor of sev­eral books and has writ­ten travel sto­ries for var­i­ous Cana­dian and Amer­i­can mag­a­zines. He spe­cial­izes in the Celtic World. He can be reached at ran­niegillis@ns.sym­pa­tico.ca.


The south­west point light­house from St. Paul Is­land, af­ter its re­lo­ca­tion to Ding­wall from the grounds of the Cana­dian Coast Guard sta­tion in Dart­mouth. It is not a very tall light­house, be­cause it was lo­cated on a rel­a­tively high point on the south­ern tip of the is­land.

RIGHT: The com­pli­cated lens mech­a­nism for the light in the St. Paul light­house. It was vis­i­ble up to 18 nau­ti­cal miles at sea.

Aspy Bay from the Markland Re­sort in Ding­wall, with Cape North and Money Point in the back­ground. Many shipwrecks have been recorded at this rugged head­land over the years.

Climb­ing to the light. The only cast iron light­house in Canada was made of 36 curved pan­els that were shipped to north­ern Cape Bre­ton from On­tario in 1915. They were then shipped to St. Paul Is­land by boat and bolted to­gether on site

The nar­row en­trance to the har­bour at Ding­wall, with the Cape Bre­ton High­lands in the back­ground.

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