When John James Audubon visited the islands in 1833, he wrote, “the air above for a hundred yards, and for some distance around the whole rock, was filled with gannets on the wing, which, from our position, made it appear as if a heavy snow was directly above us.”
Mariners began requesting a lighthouse to mark the rocks as early as the 1830s. When entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence via Cabot Strait, the most frequently used route, sailors had to use extreme caution as the Bird Rocks were located in the direct track of vessels. There were at least seventeen shipwrecks there between 1845 and 1857, many of which were vessels loaded with immigrants. Survivors would climb atop the smaller of the two islets, often without food or water, and anxiously wait to be rescued.
Construction of a fifty-foot hexagonal wooden tower and an accompanying dwelling was completed in 1870, and Bird Rock became the first of the Magdalen Islands to have a lighthouse. Peter Mitchell, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries stated in his 1870 report, “I feel much pleasure in stating that at Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence - the most difficult place in the Dominion on which to erect a lighthouse, owing to the surf which continually breaks around it, and the danger of approaching it and effecting a landing thereon - the efforts of the Department have been entirely successful in erecting the lighthouse and buildings in connection therewith.”
The light, which beamed forth for the first time on September 20, 1870, was fixed white and emanated from a second-order Fresnel lens with a focal plane of 140 feet above the sea. It could be seen in ordinary clear weather a distance of twenty-one miles. Bird Rock Lighthouse was constructed by Daley, Carter & Doolan of Miramichi, New Brunswick at a cost of just under $10,000, not including the lens, which the Marine Department had in storage.
A cannon, fired at regular intervals during heavy fog, was installed at the station in 1873. In 1895, cotton powder cartridge guns replaced the cannon, but even this improved method of warning ships proved inadequate, and after the wreck of the Dominion in 1903, the court ordered that an improved fog signal, which could be sounded at frequent intervals, be provided as soon as possible. A three-inch diaphone fog signal was installed on the rock in 1906.
The original lighthouse was replaced in 1887 by a thirty-nine-foot hexagonal wooden tower. The light’s signature was changed to occulting white (fifteen seconds on, five seconds off) in 1903, when petroleum vapor burned with an incandescent mantle was introduced. In 1908, the lighthouse was reinforced in concrete and its height increased by twelve feet so it could be seen above the fog signal building.
Lightening set many of the station’s buildings ablaze in 1955, and two years later, a new three-room bungalow and four-room dwelling were built for the keepers. In 1967, the lighthouse was replaced by a thirty-one-foot hexagonal tower with a concrete bottom half and a shingled wooden top supporting a red octagonal lantern. Since then, the top half has been removed, and a skeletal tower with a red lantern is now mounted on the lower part. The light’s current signature is a white flash every eight seconds that is visible for twenty miles.
In 1919, Bird Rock was declared a bird sanctuary, but shooting of birds and gathering of their eggs continued. Ornithologists, who often shot specimens for their own collections, complained, but the lighthouse keepers were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they enforced the ban or reported the criminal activity, they risked alienating the fishermen and sailors whose help they depended on in an emergency.
Lightkeepers lived at the station year round, even though the shipping season ran from April through December. The danger of taking them off in the early winter and replacing them in the spring was too great to be attempted, and the risk of delaying the lighting in April could not be justified. Supply boats only came during the good weather months, contributing to a very long and lonely winter when the ice on the surface of the rock was so slippery that the keepers had to crawl around on their hands and knees for fear of being blown away. The light was lit on Sundays during the winter so those on the other Magdalen Islands would know all was well on Bird Rock.
Even though their winters were filled with long cold nights with no light to maintain, the keepers said they felt lonelier in the summer when they watched every passing ship hoping in vain for visitors.
If harsh winters and loneliness were not enough, Bird Rock Lighthouse was beset with tragedy. According to popular local legend, the first keeper predicted that no keeper would last more than ten years on the rock without misfortune, and misfortune certainly befell many of the keepers.
Not much is known about the first two keepers, but George Preston became keeper in 1872 and just a few months later he had to relinquish his position “by reason of mental infirmity.” Preston was removed from the station (one source says in a straitjacket), and two reliable men were placed in charge along with two workmen until Peter Whalen took charge in 1873.
In early April 1880, Keeper Whalen, his son, and an assistant keeper went seal hunting on the ice pack, leaving Whalen’s wife alone at the station. An unexpected winter storm blew in and set the three men adrift on the ice. The assistant, Thomas Thivierge, made it back to the station the next day bearing the melancholy news that Keeper Whalen and his son had perished.
Charles Chiasson of Havre-aux-Maisons replaced Whalen as keeper. His misfortune struck on August 23, 1881 when he, along with his son Cyrice and assistant Télesphore Turbide, were firing the fog cannon for three visitors, Paul Chenell, his ten-year-old daughter Sarah, and Jean Turbide. When Chiasson lit the fuse a terrible explosion ensued, due to a nearby keg of powder that was imprudently left open. Chiasson and his son were immediately killed, and Chenell died a couple of hours later from his wounds. Though terribly frightened, young Sarah Chenell, Jean Turbide, and Télesphore Turbide escaped with only minor injuries. The blast's concussion broke all the glass in the lighthouse.
Télesphore Turbide was appointed head keeper in placed of Chiasson and served for another fifteen years on the island. On June 24, 1891, Turbide loaded the fog cannon with a load of charge, but it failed to fire. Believing the charge was not seated properly, Turbide had just inserted the ramrod into the muzzle of the cannon, when it discharged, throwing him twenty-five feet and nearly tearing off his right hand. With the telegraph line down, a passing ship was flagged, which took him to Cape Breton for help. Turbide was rendered unfit for further service after the crane used to haul supplies up the face of the rock fell on him in September 1896. The two accidents had crippled him for life, but he was at least still sane and alive. Turbide was granted an annual allowance of $180 for life.
In March 1897, before Bourque’s arrival, Arsine, Télesphore’s seventeen-year-old son Charles, and assistant keeper Damien Cormier went seal hunting. In circumstances very similar to those of Peter Whalen seventeen years earlier, an unexpected storm pummeled them. Charles and Cormier did not survive the night. Over the course of the next three days, Arsine walked sixty miles across the frozen sea, bludgeoning a seal and drinking its warm blood for strength and dozing only while still on his feet. Arsine finally made it to Baie Saint Laurent on Cape Breton, where he died fifteen days later. A government vessel was dispatched to cut through the ice and rescue Cormier’s wife, left alone on the island.
Pierre Bourque arrived on the island in May 1897, and misfortune soon followed. After just a few weeks, Hippolyte Melanson, his assistant, was seriously injured while firing the fog cartridge gun. Bourque’s son Wilfrid became the assistant keeper, and was later promoted to head keeper in 1905.
A photographer from the Audubon Society described meeting the Bourque family while visiting the rock in 1908. “Of course there were many questions to be asked and much news to be discussed, for which their eager minds were hungry. After supper, the festivities began; a graphophone was brought out and a whole trunk full of songs and other music reeled off; one of the girls could play the accordion, which did the duty as an orchestra while the rest of us danced, sang and made merry well into the night.”
On March 11, 1912, Wilfrid took his shotgun to go after a sea ducks he had seen in a small opening in the ice near Bird Rock. When he didn’t return at the expected time, his wife sent their nephew and the assistant keeper out in search of him. They found him dead in the water near the edge of the ice.
One can only imagine what it was like being stuck on the rock, surrounded by squawking birds that swarmed like locusts. The dwelling’s windows and doors were always kept closed, and it was a constant battle keeping birds from nesting in the occupied area of the island. Pierre Bourque complained about the collected rainwater which was undoubtedly contaminated by the birds. “Any medical man would condemn the water we have to use here,” he wrote.
Elphége Bourque, Wilfrid’s nephew and the next keeper, would find this out the hard way. In the fall of 1922, Elphége went on vacation, and his brother Albin took charge of the station with Philias Richard and Octave Langford as assistants. Shortly after Albin's arrival, everyone on the island fell sick, apparently from drinking tainted water from the station's cistern. Albin's mother-in-law was also on the island, and she was the only one well enough to send out a distress signal. A vessel arrived and took the four to Charlottetown, but Albin passed away enroute. Langford and Richard were paralyzed from the waist down, and Richard passed away a year and a half later.
The next keeper, J. Montague Arsenault complained in 1928, “In the winter, we are forced to gather up snow on the Island which is very dirty and even when the spring rains arrive, we get very little water. . .” This interesting video shows Alfred Arsenault, head keeper from 1943 to 1955, returning to the island, receiving a kiss from his wife, firing up the fog signal, and checking on the Fresnel lens.
In spite of all the difficulties encountered at the isolated station, keepers and their families were stationed on the rock until 1961. Thereafter, Canadian Coast Guard crews rotated on and off the island every twenty-eight days until the light was automated in 1988.
Leon Patton, keeper from 1965 to 1967, described the modern keeper’s life. The job entailed maintaining all of the equipment, but was also filled with playing checkers, watching television, observing the birds (along with putting up with their noise and nauseous stench), and on a rare calm summer day, rowing out to fish for cod and mackerel. When asked if he missed the rock, he said, “Not really. I was ready to get back to civilization, although it wasn’t really that bad of a place to work.”
Today the only humans allowed on the rock are Canadian Coast Guard crews who routinely arrive by helicopter to inspect and repair the lighting equipment.
Keepers: J. Chapman (1870), Jacques Couette (1871), George Preston (1872 – 1873), Peter Whalen (1873 – 1880), Charles Chiasson (1880 – 1881), Télesphore Turbide (1881 – 1896), Arsène Turbide (temp.) (1896), Pierre Bourque (1897 – 1905), Wilfrid Bourque (1905 – 1912), Daniel Turbide (temp.) (1912), Elphège Bourque (1912 – 1923), J. Montague Arsenault (1923 – 1938), J. Marc Richard (1938 – 1943), Alfred A. Arsenault (1943 – 1955), Elzéar Arsenault (1955 – 1959), Antoine Éloquin (1959 – 1961), A. LeBlanc (1961 – 1962), Archibald Carl McLean (1962 – 1964), Donat Devost (1962 – 1966), Arnold Reginald Clarke (1964 – 1966), Daniel K. McLean, Jr. (1962 – 1985?), Leon W. Patton (1965 – 1967), Luke Arsenault (c. 1980s), Louis Hubert (c. 1980s), Lauréat LeBlanc (1967 –1987), Philip Quinn (?).