It’s an unsettling place, so remote and quiet. Inside a small untended cemetery, fenced off by rusted metal, a marble headstone marks the graves of eight sailors, the youngest, aged seventeen, the captain, John Edgar Joyce, aged twenty-seven.
On November 22, 1874, the brigantine Orient, out of Carbonear, Newfoundland, slammed into the reefs off Anticosti Island, with sixteen men on board. Six perished in attempting to reach shore, their bodies lost to the sea. The captain and seven others were frozen to death in the rigging. The captain’s brother, Gilbert Joyce, who was mate on the ship, and seaman Charles Moore, managed to survive, though badly frozen.
These were not the first shipwreck victims to be kept under the watchful care of the Pope family. Nor would they be the last. The little graveyard holds other remains whose names have been lost to history.
By 1829, many ships had been caught on the reefs of Anticosti Island, when John Lambly Harbour Master for Quebec City and Captain Bayfield of the Royal Navy recommended that the first lighthouse on Anticosti be located at Southwest Point. The site was advantageous because most shipping at the time passed on the south side of the island and the limestone and sand needed for construction could be found at the point. The sum of £4,800 was appropriated for the project, and work commenced in 1830.
The tower, seventy-two feet tall and with a diameter of thirty-six feet at its base, was designed by Mr. Chillus, while the lantern was imported from England. The construction, which took two seasons to complete, was performed under contract by W. Lander. By the end of 1830, the tower was mostly complete, and two men were hired to stoke three stoves in the tower to help dry the walls during the winter. The massive limestone tower supported the first rotating light on the St. Lawrence, consisting of twenty-one flat-wick No. 1 burner lamps with twenty-one inch reflectors. It cast its beam for the first time on August 25, 1831, with Lt. James Harvey of the Royal Navy as its keeper.
The six-storey tower also served as the keeper’s dwelling. The ground floor was a kitchen with fireplace and oven, and the higher floors serving as a living area and bedrooms. This situation was not ideal. Deterioration of the mortar allowed water to penetrate the tower during storms and create a damp and wet living environment. With live-in residents, the tower was also at a higher risk of accidental fire, and when the wind blew in the wrong direction over the chimney top, the tower would fill with smoke in less than fifteen minutes. The tower was clapboarded in 1865 to help make it watertight.
To assist shipwreck victims, an emergency provision depot was established in 1831 in the lower storey of Southwest Point Lighthouse and stocked with a medicine chest, clothing, blankets, canned meat and barrels of salt pork, peas, and flour. Signposts erected along the Anticosti shoreline indicated the location of the cache.
Edward Pope, a retired naval officer from Prince Edward Island, took over as the light’s third keeper in 1843 and began a legacy of lightkeeping that would span three generations of his family.
In August 1869, while the Pope family was stricken with typhoid fever, the light’s revolving mechanism broke. There was no means of fixing the mechanism before the lighthouse tender returned the following spring, but if the light failed to rotate, it could have been mistaken for the fixed light at West Point and jeopardize the lives of mariners. With no other option available, Keeper Pope valiantly turned the apparatus by hand every night from sunset to sunrise from the middle of August until the end of the shipping in December, and then again, this time with help of his daughter who survived the fever, from the first of April until the end of June, when the mechanism was replaced.
Narcisse-Henri-Édouard Faucher de Saint-Maurice, who visited the Anticosti settlements in the 1860s, described the Pope household:
Mr E Pope welcomed us with Scottish hospitality. His family was gathered in the large kitchen of the lighthouse, whose floor was of stone. A piece of driftwood blazed in the hearth, and hung on the walls were hunting trophies, eagles’ wings, bear heads, rifles and fishing gear. An open window looked out over a bit of charming landscape. It was clear to us that Mr. Pope had a secret lacking among other lightkeepers. Where many others had felt loneliness and discomfort, this man had succeeded in creating relative ease. His fields were cleared and his barns full, and unlike other settlers on the island, his cows did not die from the mysterious ailment that prevailed among the cattle on the island.
On the evening of December 6, 1871, in the midst of a winter gale, the barque Russia, out of Sligo, Ireland foundered off Southwest Point. The impact ruptured the ship’s bottom, and the sea quickly washed the deck clean. With the fierce storm continuing the next day and the ship starting to break up, Laughlin McLaughlin, a crewman, tried to reach shore on a raft but was washed off and drowned. Keeper Pope and William Nadean, his assistant, alerted to the perilous situation went to the ship’s aid. Captain Redden left the following account of their perilous situation:
At 4:00 p.m. the boatswain, Hugh Harrison, tried to reach the shore on a raft, but was washed off in the soft ice; he was, however, gallantly rescued by the keeper, at the imminent risk of his own life, and after a long and severe struggle, Mr. Pope succeeded in bringing him through a quarter mile of ice; exhausted and insensible, to the shore. The keeper and his assistant then carried him up an almost inaccessible cliff to a fire they had previously made in the woods, and spent the night in rubbing and warming him, he being frozen all over.For helping rescue the crew, Keeper Pope and his assistant received inscribed watches from Her Majesty’s Government.
On the 8th, at day break, we made a raft, and succeeded in getting ashore in two trips, and we were assisted by the keeper and his assistant through the soft ice. We were as much exhausted, and more or less frost-bitten. We then proceeded to the lighthouse where we were kindly and hospitably received; and during the winter we met with every possible attention and careful treatment, which were the means of saving the lives of some of us who were ill and badly frozen. On behalf of myself and the rest of the crew, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Pope and family for their kind attention to our comfort, and for their liberality in supplying us with bedding, dressings, and stores, which were wanting in the Government depot.
In the 1873 Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, the inspector wrote the following after visiting Southwest Point:
The whole is in excellent order, and in charge of E. Pope, who has rendered valuable assistance in saving life and property in the cases of wrecks which have occurred in the neighbourhood, and, in some instances, at the risk of his own life; he has also supplied distressed seaman from his own stores, and both himself and family have at great inconvenience cheerfully attended to the wants of the sick, and dressed the wounds of those injured in their efforts to save their lives. This praiseworthy conduct has been brought before the notice of the department, and I understand that beside reimbursing him for the supplies so generously furnished, it is also further intended to reward him.
The lifesaving tradition continued with Herbert Pope, who succeeded his father in 1892. Along with tending the light, he too, had a very good kitchen garden with lettuce, cabbages, turnips, potatoes, carrots and rhubarb - quite a feat for the inhospitable ground of Anticosti. The Pope’s tenure at Southwest Point ended in 1899, when Herbert Pope died and Zephirin Lemieux was made keeper.
By 1877, a keeper’s dwelling had been added to the station, adjoining the lighthouse. Also at the station were a wooden house of refuge for shipwrecked mariners, a wooden provision depot, a wooden barn, a wooden workshop, two small wooden buildings, and an oil shed, built of stone with a zinc roof.
In 1881, two horizontal red bands were painted on the white tower so it could be easily identified during the day. That same year, a submarine cable was run from Southwest Point to Grottin Cove in the Gaspé, and a telegraph and signal station were established at the point. Daily dispatches were sent out advising mariners of the ice and weather conditions.
In 1914, a single-flash, long focus reflector was installed in the lantern room, and the light’s characteristic was changed from a white flash every minute to 3.5 seconds of light, intensified by a flash, followed by a 3.5-second eclipse.
After a fire damaged the lighthouse in 1958, it was replaced the following year by an automated light atop an eighty-foot-tall tower. The era of lightkeeping at Southwest Point had come to an end. This second tower was replaced in 1972 by a fifty-foot-tall, skeleton tower which exhibits a white flash every six seconds.
With the automation of the light, the keepers were removed from the station, and the tower fell into disrepair. By 1999, it was on the lighthouse doomsday light, and the damage it had suffered was irreversible. Around August of 2011, the top portion of the neglected tower collapsed, and the remaining portion will gradually follow suit.
When Faucher de Saint-Maurice visited the lightstation in the 1860s, he wrote, “A little further on, are huddled together under mounds of peat covered with bramble, the bodies of twenty-one castaways, part of the crew of George Channing, an English ship that came to the coast in 1830. Nine of these unfortunate lie in a single grave. An epitaph stands on this dismal spot. It consists of a board, on which a friendly hand engraved with a knife [their memory]. Never in my life have I seen anything more sad than the grave of these strangers, who lie in forgotten sorrows without prayers.”
That board is now gone, and the mass grave is unmarked. The Pope family plot is surrounded by a worn, weathered fence with missing slats. The lighthouse tower, once a symbol of safety and philanthropy, stands gaunt and empty, slowly crumbling into a heap of stone. How very sad that where once stood greatness, in both architecture and humanity, only a few decaying remnants remain to tell the tale.
Keepers: Lt. James Harvey (1831 – 1837), William Hall (1838 - 1839), John Elias Hammond (1839 - 1843), Edward Pope (1843 - 1857), Edward Pope Jr. (1857 - 1892), Herbert Pope (1892 - 1899), Zephirin Lemieux (1900 - 1924), L. C. Lemieux (1924 - 1930), Placide Duguay (1930 - at least 1937), Sauver Duguay, Roger Poulin, Evariste Ferguson (1957 – 1958).