A bill was brought before the New Brunswick government in 1824 calling for the establishment of a revolving light “upon one of the islands or rocks near the southeast coast of the Island of Grand Manan.” After the bill was agreed to, the Commissioners of Lighthouses examined the southeast coast of Grand Manan in 1825 to ascertain the best site for a lighthouse. Part of their investigation reportedly included leaving rafts of logs on various rocks and ledges over the winter to determine safe locations. In 1830 the commissioners gave £1,000 “to be applied towards building, establishing and maintaining a floating light off the Old Proprietor, near the Island of Grand Manan, provided it may be found practicable to carry it into effect, and if not, the sum to be applied towards building a Light House on the Gannet Rock.”
The first keeper of Gannet Rock Lighthouse was Captain Thomas Lamb, who received £165 per year, from which he had to pay an assistant. E. G. Miller took over when Captain Lamb was transferred to Quaco Head in 1835 and served at Gannet Rock until 1837, when he drowned while rowing back to the station after having procured a fresh supply of water on nearby Kent Island.
Lauchlan Donaldson inspected Gannet Rock Lighthouse in 1839 and reported that it was “a fearful place in storms.” During a gale the previous winter several shingles were washed off the lower part of the tower, and Donaldson concurred with Keeper Jonathon Kent’s opinion that only the iron braces and chains that had been put in place in 1838 to anchor the tower to the rock saved it from being swept away. Donaldson suggested that a wall of cut stone, four feet thick and at least twelve feet high be built around the tower for protection. As Keeper Kent was responsible for one of the few mechanical lights in New Brunswick, lived on a mere spot of rock where grass never grew, and was cut off from all contact with the world, Donaldson also recommended that he receive an increase in salary. At that time, eight lamps and reflectors were being used in the lantern room. In 1840, the station was given a signal gun, and a chute was chiseled into the rock so the keeper could easily launch and take up his boat.
A twelve-foot granite wall was built around Gannet Rock Lighthouse in 1845 at a cost of £1,426 to render the station “perfectly secure” and bring additional comfort to the keepers at the “desolate and dreary station.” The contractors for the work were John Purvis, master carpenter, and Robert Barbour, master stonecutter and builder. Under their supervision, a crew of roughly twenty men labored on the rock for just over two months.
Walter McLaughlin was appointed keeper of Gannet Rock Lighthouse in 1853 and spent the next twenty-seven years at the lonely outpost. Fortunately, he was a journal keeper, and his writings captured some details about the station that otherwise would have been lost.
W. McLaughlin: July 9, 1856 Mr. Pettingell and 3 other carpenters landed with 12 ½ thousand shingles last night. This was the first time the lighthouse and dwelling had been reshingled since they were constructed in 1831.
W. McLaughlin: July 9, 1867 We discontinue the light today and begin to take down the old lantern.
August 1, 1867 We lit the new light and were well satisfied with it. A new lantern and fourth-order Fresnel lens for Gannet Rock were acquired at a cost of $2,598 in 1866, but the attempt to install them that year was defeated by a period of rough seas and unfavorable weather, which delayed the landing of the valuable property at the station until the next year.
W. McLaughlin: October 11, 1871 We have detected a strong smell of burning buildings, and I am of the opinion that some large city such as New York or Boston is burnt. October 18, 1871 The boat came today and brought news of the burning of Chicago.
On September 1, 1876, Keeper McLaughlin wrote to John H. Harding, the agent for the Department of Marine in Saint John to congratulate him on the successful erection of a thirty-one-foot iron spindle, topped by an iron cage, on Old Proprietor Rock.
I have the honour to report that the iron spindle recently erected on the Old Proprietor Ledge, seven miles to the eastward of this station, is a great success. I have made enquiries of the fishermen of the Dominion and the United States who unanimously testify to its great utility. It can be seen from this station seven miles distinctly, even in somewhat hazy weather, and is in my opinion worth $10,000 a year to navigation in the Bay of Fundy. I have seen vessels stranded on this dangerous ledge in clear weather without being able to warn them of the danger which they wore approaching. I witnessed the loss of the British barque Parkfield at noon-day, May 13, 1863, with a ship and cargo worth £100,000 sterling.
In 1880, Keeper McLaughlin, who had been described in reports as “a careful and painstaking servant of the Department and well acquainted with the dangers of this coast,” was transferred to the newly constructed Southwest Head Lighthouse on the southern tip of Grand Manan Island, and Oliver A. Kent, an assistant keeper at Gannet Rock for many years, was appointed his successor. A house of refuge for the keepers was built in 1884 in case a fire broke out on the rock.
In 1894, the fog gun, which had been fired every hour, was replaced by a cotton powder cartridge exploded every twenty minutes. A twelve by fourteen foot platform was built at the south end of the station and atop this a small building was erected for the electric firing apparatus. Pilots and shipmasters were “loud in their praise” of this new fog signal, whose reports were sharper than those of the gun. Starting July 1, 1901, the firing interval of the cotton powder fog signal was changed to fifteen minutes, and when the keeper heard a vessel’s fog signal in dangerous proximity, he was to fire one shot immediately and continue firing at five-minute intervals until the vessel had passed.
Elsie Clark lived on Gannet rock with her father, Keeper Lincoln Harvey, from 1898 to 1904. When Elsie was in her late 90s, she related the following to Deborah Dagett:
[The house] was timbered up like a ship – made with beams just like the beams of a ship – two beams came out on the floor about two feet. I remember sitting on them in front of the stove. The stove was off a vessel, the Gertrude E. Smith, I think, and was made of thick iron – it burned soft coal. (The Gertrude E. Smith, a three masted schooner bound from Rockland to Windsor, ran ashore on Gannet Rock in 1883. All hands aboard, including the wife and daughter of the captain, were saved and looked after by Keeper Kent until they could be picked up.) The kitchen was about eighteen feet long. … The living room wasn’t so big and from there was a big thick door into the lighthouse. Stairs went up from the kitchen. Upstairs was one big bedroom. From that room you went down a long hallway to the lighthouse. There was a big bedroom on the second floor of the lighthouse and two big closets. Then on the third floor of the lighthouse was another smaller bedroom.
Elsie recalled that her father had installed a wire from the fog signal to the house so that he could just push a button to explode the cotton bombs, though he still had to venture out every hour or so to reload the gun. One day a freak wave struck the rock. The door to the dwelling was open, allowing an inrush of seawater that moved the heavy stove and rose to a height of two feet.
Work on a new keeper’s dwelling commenced in 1906, and the following year day laborers constructed a new fog alarm building to house a five-inch diaphone plant, purchased from the Canadian Fog Signal Company of Toronto for $9,245. The rectangular wooden building was placed on the southern end of Gannet Rock, about forty feet from the dwelling, and its horn, elevated thirty-seven feet above high water, pointed due south.
An electric lighting plant was installed at the station in 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, and amazingly that conflict would reach remote Gannet Rock. The four-masted schooner Dornfontein departed Saint John on its maiden voyage on July 31, 1918 bound for South Africa with a load of lumber. Just after she passed Grand Manan, a German U-boat surfaced and fired two shots across her bow. The schooner’s crew was taken aboard the submarine while the Germans looted the vessel and set it ablaze. After being fed a dinner of bully beef and rice, the crew of the Dornfontein was put into dories and left to reach shore on their own. The men safely reached Gannet Rock the next day, where Keeper Allen Wilson took them in.
In August of 1930 or 1931, work began on a new keeper’s dwelling. Keeper Donald Wilson and his family received word on a Friday that they had to move their belongings out of the house and into the tower by Monday, when a crew arrived and began tearing down the old dwelling. Twelve workmen lived in the tower with the keepers until the construction work was finished in November.
During a two-year period starting in 1967, a temporary tower was erected at the station to display a light while the old lantern room and Fresnel lens were removed and a new lantern room and modern beacon were installed. The second-order Fresnel lens is now on display in the Grand Manan Museum.
The last keeper, Barry S. Bagley, left Gannet Rock in April of 1996, and in 2002, the Coast Guard solarized the light as part of major renovation that included gutting the attached dwelling that was rapidly falling prey to the elements. The large DCB lens removed from the tower was donated to the Grand Manan Museum that same year.
Head Keepers: Captain Thomas Lamb (1831 – 1835), E.G. Miller (1835 – 1837), Jonathon Kent (1837 – 1843), Henry McLaughlin (1843 – 1853), Walter B. McLaughlin (1853 – 1879), Oliver A. Kent (1879 – 1897), W. Lincoln Harvey (1897 – 1904), Coleman Grant Dalzell (1904 – 1911), Sydney W. Tatton (1911 – 1912), Allen Wilson (1912 – 1919), Arthur Wilson (1919 – 1929), Donald Wilson (1929 – 1944), Garfield Wilson (1944), Hayward Forsythe (1944 – 1946), Frank Linton (1946 – 1947), Frank M. Tucker (1947 – 1955), Bernard G. Deveau (1955 – 1959), Howard N. Ingalls (1959 – 1962), Ralph N. Maker (1962 – 1963), Laurence Benson (1963 – 1966), Addison Naves (1966 – 1971), Douglas S. Daggett (1971 – 1974), Donald Denton (1974 – 1982), Sidney Guptill (1982 – 1989), Barry S. Bagley (1989 – 1996).