Praise for Keepers of the Light
It must be a great life!" gushes the clerk at the Prince Rupert grocery checkout, waving away the proffered I.D. when she sees the unlikely address on the cheque. "It must be fantastic to have all that time to yourself. Do you get T.V.?" It is a moment a few lightkeepers, those who affect pea jackets and peaked caps in town, might relish. Most come to loathe it. The only thing worse than explaining the obvious is to be asked to again and again.
Some myths die hard. The childhood fantasies we all have about cowboys, firemen, nurses or train engineers seldom survive kindergarten. But when it comes to lightkeepers people never seem to grow up. Whether inspired by great artists, pulp novels, or postage stamps, people persist in fancying lighthouses as idyllic and romantic settings.
We all bring them with us, these notions, all the way from Regina, Montreal, Los Angeles, wherever. I did, even though I honestly can't remember absorbing them. My grandfather was a Prince Edward Island bluenose with a fair measure of saltwater in his veins, so I may have learned of them on his lap. I can still recall being mesmerized by the lighthouse stamped on the face E.B. Eddy's tissue dispenser in Regina's Roxy Theatre in the early fifties.
Something seemed awesome and remote, and I may as well write it - romantic - in the curl of that stainless steel wave against Eddystone's tower. Little did I suspect that one wild, seasick night, thirty years and two thousand miles away I would find myself and my family headed for a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, alone.
Even those who go on the lights cling to the illusion long after romance collides with reality since they have little more insight into their past than do outsiders. Out there on their stations they remain as cut off in time as in space. An unmarked grave, an old dusty hand-horn, a few mildewed logs in an engine room attic, rusting flywheels and boilers exposed at low tide, somebody's initials ornately carved into a workbench- these are all that connect with people who have been there - some of them a hundred years before. Between lies a void, though they look out at the same panorama, perhaps even make out their weather logs at the same desk.
The fact that the men and women who came before us to this life were among the most ill-used in all of Canada's long and troubled labour history, who knew real hunger, deprivation and despair as constant companions in the absence of any others, who contemplated and sometimes carried out the ultimate escape from their nightmarish existence subtracts nothing from their marvellous sacrifice. The real story is stranger and so much finer than fiction.
They were a special breed and we shall not see their like again, even if the federal government comes belatedly to its senses and abandons a flawed policy of gradually automating their calling out of existence. Keepers of these lights willingly risked their lives time and again for people passing on ships in the night, knowing better than to expect any reward. For a hundred and twenty years on Canada's west coast, ever since the first light at Fisgard lanced through the night, no vessel went to wreck, not a single life was lost due to negligence on the part of a lightkeeper. We might all stand a little taller with a tradition like that behind us.
This the social history of a people who had no society and it is hard to make it believable to other lightkeepers, let alone readers in the real world. Sometimes as disaster and death piled so high, I pushed away from the table, angry and depressed, leaving as much venom on paper as ink. To overcome disbelief (Lord, it couldn't have been that bad!) I have drawn heavily on the rich reserves of the keepers' own experience. A man who writes, "Would you please send someone up here at once as my wife has gone crazy and I want to get her to town at once" means business. There is an essay in terror written between those lines, and we have no better way to feel the tightening coils of tension inside at his island outpost, as it reeled against wind and waves that ugly September in 1919.
Unfortunately there are many gaps. Whether by accident or design, many records have been destroyed, condemning whole generations of lightkeepers to obscurity. Many live on only in names or faces staring out from faded tintypes but surely their common experience allows some inference that their lives were much the same as others who emerge, large as life, from their log books, letters and diaries. In one sense these places have barely changed since life crawled out of the sea, up and over them. Isolation still exacts the same heavy taxes and pays the same handsome dividends to those souls who choose it.
Readers of this volume will also quickly realize that its scope is limited geographically to the lightstations of the colonial period, the harbour lights of the south British Columbia coast, and the lights of the west coast of Vancouver Island. Those of the inside passage and the north coast will be dealt with in a later volume.
This is intended as a popular history, and rather than lead readers through a tangled thicket of footnotes, I have chosen to cite only those references which might spark controversy or, more likely, seem beyond belief. As for the original sources, the entire collection I inherited from Captain L. H. Cadieux can be found at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver. The Canada Coast Guard has a fine collection of files dating back to the 1870's at their base in Victoria. The rest of the written record, which would have remained out of reach without timely Explorations grants from the Canada Council, can be found in the Public Archives in Ottawa.
Whatever remains is locked away in the memories of those who lived through it all, survivors stranded now back in civilization by the doldrums of age. Some are isolated for the first time, but a large part of them remains, as it always will, out there, under swarming stars above a heaving sea, with the lantern turning and horns blasting away in their dreams.
THE PACIFIC GRAVEYARD
After lighting up the main harbours in the 1870s, the Department of Marine and Fisheries waited twenty years before working its way up Vancouver Island's West Coast. The department's bureaucrats had built Cape Beale light at the mouth of Barkley Sound when that was envisioned as a major port, but they left the rest of the coast in darkness until the mounting toll of shipwrecks and drownings forced them to act.
The public dismay and private anguish aroused by modern-day aviation disasters provide a familiar standard with which to compare the impact of news about shipwrecks - news that arrived in Victoria weeks, sometimes months after a wreck occurred. Any vessels forsaking the sanctuary of Victoria for points north faced foggy days and fearful blind nights when their crews frantically cast lead lines while suspense mounted over the depth of water beneath their keels.
So desolate, so storm-tossed was their course that whole ships and crews were swallowed up by the Pacific's insatiable appetite. In December 1860 the schooner Ino sailed into Victoria with a splintered headboard on her foredeck bearing the name Jobn Marsball. After combing the silent shoreline for miles, her crew saw no bodies but much wreckage, rigging, and shattered masts. As if this were not enough to disquiet the Ino's hands, they retrieved the headboard of the Dancer and some of her rigging as well. Only after the trio of West Coast lights - Carmanah, Pachena, and Cape Beale-were manned, jutting up like white headstones along the graveyard of the Pacific, could the count of casualties begin. The tally of earlier victims will never be fully known. Fractured ribs and crushed hulls of ships were often found a decade or more after they were due in Victoria or Anchorage. Some West Coast tribes fed and clothed themselves almost exclusively from the cargoes washing ashore.
The most macabre imagination can barely conceive the dreadful fate awaiting seamen who heard the sudden roar of breakers coming through the night and fog. Once locked in their embrace, the stoutest vessels were borne by the relentless five-knot swells toward their doom on the shoals.
Few were as fortunate as Captain Frederick Mosher whose forty-year-old bark, the Atlanta foundered off Cape Flattery on 8 December 1890. Mosher's account was the one so many dead men could never tell. The tug Tyee towed her out of Port Gamble, then cut her loose. As soon as her crew put sail on, Atlanta started to take on water. Since his cargo was lumber, Mosher decided she was buoyant enough to plow on through the spume of the windward swells. They blundered on to the mouth of the Columbia where the wind changed abruptly and snow squalls set upon them. Captain Mosher:
"The sails all blew away on the night of Dec. 13 and soon after the heavy deck load of 80-foot timbers broke adrift. On the morning of the 14th, the fore and main masts went by the board, the foremast smashing the long-boat, destroying our means of leaving the ship. The seas were washing over us, fore and aft at that time. As we had been many hours without food, I went to what was left of our cabin and found one can of tomatoes and one of peaches. From these, each man was given a mouthful to relieve his thirst. About noon on the 14th, the vessel commenced to break up, and at about 3 p.m. she parted just abaft the main hatch, leaving 14 of us on the after house, with nothing to eat or drink the two cans being lost in the excitement.
"Night began to set in, and a night in December off Vancouver Island is a long one, even when one is comfortably situated. The mizzen mast went shortly after daybreak, and took nearly one half of our limited raft. Through all that day, and the next night, the sea was making a clean breach over us, but on the morning of the 16th we sighted land, which was a relief even though it was far away. The steward, John W. Wilburn, became temporarily insane at noon, on the 16th. The first officer's leg was broken, and all hands were inclined to be despondent. We had fully made up our minds that we would either be dead or ashore by morning, as we were all badly chilled. When morning came, few of the men could speak on account of thirst and cold.
"The rudder had been jammed with a lot of the deckload, forming quite a raft, and as our house was breaking up piece by piece, John Anderson, second mate, and four men went to it, so as to make room for us on the house. They had hardly crawled on to the timber, before it parted from the rest of the wreckage and we drifted away from each other at 8 a.m."
By some "singular coincidence" the two rafts drifted together again at 5 o'clock that afternoon and landed safely, two hundred yards apart, in Clayoquot Sound. Mosher and his men had been swept a hundred and seventy miles north over four days and nights. Clayoquot Indians took them in and cared for them until the schooner Katherine took Mosher and his men away to Victoria.
Usually any seaman lucky enough to stagger ashore had little time left to give thanks as he watched his ship's remains carried away in the swirling water, and took stock of his situation. Soaking wet, dazed and mesmerized by shock and hypothermia, he faced slow but certain death without food, water, and warmth unless someone out there on the unbroken line of gloom saw a fire or heard his wail of hurt and distress above the pounding surf. Janet Cowan's crew, wrecked off Pachena Bay on New Year's Eve 1895, languished for two weeks on shore, knee-deep in snow, frostbitten and starving, never knowing where they were. Their captain perished on the fifth day; two seamen and the cook followed him the next. A makeshift tarpaulin tent, their only shelter, caught fire and nearly incinerated the sick and injured cowering inside.
The most able-bodied among them elected to split up and strike out for help. One party headed south, the other northward. By sheer chance, a lookout aboard the Tyee spied the Janet Cowan on the rocks shortly after the tug cut its tow free in the Strait. They veered in as close as was safe and sent two boats ashore. These came back with fourteen survivors who were too weak to show the rescuers where the bodies of their shipmates were stowed. On 14 January the Princess Louise anchored off Carmanah lighthouse to take away nine more survivors who had been found by Phil Daykin, the lightkeeper.
As early as 1887 the British Columbia Legislature, citing increases in traffic stemming from coal and lumber, and the anticipated boom in trans-Pacific commerce following completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, had petitioned Ottawa to recognize "the great and urgent importance of having a life-saving station established on the West Coast of Vancouver Island." The lieutenant governor
cited the recent wreck of the Belvedere, whose crew was saved only by the "timely and accidental arrival of a tug from Victoria." The crew of the bark R.J. Foster would certainly have perished too had they not stumbled upon a Catholic mission. The Japanese current, he explained, conspired to bear all ships to the West Coast, an area which afforded "little or no natural protection" and was "entirely destitute of life-saving appliances."
The province's petition was duly referred to Colonel W.P. Anderson in his capacity as chairman of the Dominion Lighthouse Board. A life-saving station would doubtless entail a "very serious outlay" in terms of wages, Anderson calculated. "[It is] inexpedient to establish a lifeboat at least until the danger becomes more urgent or the white population denser," he concluded. Instead he advocated that Indians, "wonderfully expert" at handling canoes in surf and swells which would swamp an ordinary boat, be drafted as search and rescue teams. In short, Anderson was upholding the status quo, though he suggested that the tribesmen might be paid whenever they "turned out," and awarded a bounty for every life saved. He argued that the lighthouse he was proposing for Bonilla Point would "decrease the dangers on that rugged coast" as soon as a telegraph line connected Victoria to Bamfield in Barkley Sound.
The issue lay dormant until October 1893 when the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce wrote the Victoria Board of Trade, boasting that the United States ,government intended to put up a first-class life-saving station near Flattery at a cost of $80,000. They called upon Victoria businessmen to lobby their government for a similar installation at Bonilla Point in order to bracket the worst stretch Of coastline. "We do not deem it necessary to go into detail regarding the names of vessels wrecked on the Vancouver [Island] coast," they wrote, "as all the facts are only too well known in Victoria."
The Board of Trade sent the letter on to Sir Charles Tupper, minister of finance. From there the issue bounced back to Anderson. He drew his minister's attention to his earlier report, reiterating his staunch faith in the cooperation of Indians as an economy measure. The chief engineer explained that the new Carmanah lighthouse, built near Bonilla Point in 1891, had a twenty-foot whaleboat but admitted it "would not be large enough for lifesaving purposes even if the keeper had a crew on hand to handle it." If the department undertook the expense of hiring, training, and housing a nine-man crew, they ought to station them at Carmanah. Though poor at best, the landing there was still superior to anywhere else between Cape Beale and Port San Juan. Otherwise, Anderson suggested, the Quadra should be placed on standby since the telegraph now stretched from Victoria through Carmanah and Cape Beale to Bamfield. "Her speed and stability might enable her to reach a vessel in distress more quickly and more effectively than any lifeboat," Anderson claimed.
Sobered by Anderson's estimates, the British Columbia Board of Trade conceded the drawbacks of a life-boat station in February 1893 and recommended instead the construction of a series of less sophisticated (and less costly) lifesaving stations, to be manned only during winter, supplied with "the usual appliances, rocket apparatus, etc." Anderson calculated a cost of $1500 to man the stations for four winter months. Even this was too high; he recommended that action be deferred 'cat least a year or two." Meanwhile the whole correspondence should be forwarded to the marine agent in Victoria for comment.
The man on the scene, Captain James Gaudin, submitted his report in April 1894. He advocated placing the proposed stations between Port San Juan and Cape Beale. Compiling a list of wrecks to illustrate that most vessels came to grief along that stretch, he argued that loss of life was greatest from Bonilla Point to Pachena Bay. North of Cape Beale, the agent noted, in clear weather, a vessel could be steered safely where the sea was not breaking. Lighthouses with fog alarms remained the key to safe navigation. When fog cleared, he reported, the Coxes at Cape Beale light often saw sailing vessels drifting perilously close to shore near the entrance to Barkley Sound. Many lost their anchors to the foul ground there. He advocated that more lights and fog alarms be constructed north of Cape Beale.
Gaudin also advanced a novel solution to the plight of sailors marooned ashore: shelter shacks scattered every five miles along the coast, well stocked with blankets and provisions, "in which would be found printed instructions in different languages stating the direction and distance of the telegraph wire and how to communicate through it to the nearest station." Since coastal Indians already made adequate wages fishing and sealing, he doubted they would ever idle the winters away in their villages waiting for rescue work.
Anderson took Gaudin's report in to Sir Louis Davies. The minister endorsed the proposal to build shelter shacks and concluded, "Under the circumstances . . . establishing life-boats may be postponed without leaving the Department open to the charge of cruelty."' Ottawa was giving the West Coast short shrift; by 1893 there were seventeen lifesaving stations on the Great Lakes and along the East Coast.
Nine months later all the flags in Victoria were at half mast, and throngs of hatless spectators lined the streets to watch four hearses, flanked by two detachments of blue jackets from HMS Royal Arthur, in a grim procession to Ross Bay Cemetery with the Janet Cowan's dead.