Columnist Rannie Gillis discusses lighthouses.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.