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Cape Race, NF  Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Active Fresnel Lens   

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Cape Race Lighthouse

Cape Race, the southeast tip of Newfoundland, has long been an important navigational point. For vessels bound to North America from England, the cape was often their first landfall, so it is not surprising that a lighthouse, fog alarm, telegraph station, and wireless station were all established there.

Drawing that accompanied the Notice to Mariners publicizing the activation of Cape Race Lighthouse
The cape may be best known now for its role in the Titanic disaster. Late in the evening of April 14, 1912, just minutes before striking the fateful iceberg, the Titanic had been relaying passengers’ messages to Cape Race, but the nature of the wireless transmissions soon changed when the Titanic broadcast: “CQD CQD SOS Titanic Position 41.44 N 50.24 W. Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking.” Over the next several hours, Cape Race Marconi Station sent and received numerous messages as it helped coordinate the rescue operation and disseminated news of the tragedy. A marine radio station was active at Cape Race until 1965.

In 1840, the governor of Newfoundland requested that the British government erect a lighthouse at Cape Pine, the southernmost point in the colony located thirty-six kilometres west of Cape Race. Captain Henry Bayfield was dispatched in 1847 to determine the best location and proper height for a light on Cape Pine, and as part of this survey he also examined Cape Race, concluding, “it appears that a light on each of these headlands would possess distinct and important advantages; and it will probably, therefore, in the end be found necessary to light them both.”

Money for erecting a “beacon” on Cape Race was included in the appropriation for Cape Pine Lighthouse, which commenced operation in January 1851. Newfoundland’s Commissioners of Lighthouses advertised the following description of the beacon in October 1852, shortly after it was completed:

It is of hexagonal shape, 22 feet in diameter at the base, and 11 feet on each face. It tapers upwards to a height of 56 feet, where its diameter is but 2 feet 9 inches, and is then surmounted by a skeleton ball 9 feet in diameter, making the total height 65 feet. The beacon is constructed of timber framework with exterior clapboarding, and its faces are painted alternately white and red, and the ball at the top red.
Cape Pine Lighthouse was also painted white and red but with horizontal stripes to prevent mariners from confusing the two structures.

On September 24, 1854, the iron-hulled steamer SS City of Philadelphia was making its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Philadelphia when it ran into a rock off Cape Race in a thick fog. After the vessel was able to back off the rock, its captain turned the ship north and ran it aground in nearby Chance Cove, before the inrush of water could take the vessel to the bottom. All passengers were safely put ashore and taken to St. John’s the next day by the mail steamer Victoria.

Iron lighthouse and steam fog whistle in 1895
Photograph courtesy Canadian Coast Guard
Citing this wreck, Chandler White, vice-president of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, wrote the following to the colonial secretary of Newfoundland:
Cape Race is the point on the great highway of nations, towards which every mariner bound on either the eastern or western voyage, between Europe and America, looks as to a place of departure, it being nearly in the line of the great circle-sailing, between the ports of Liverpool, London, and Havre, on the one side of the Atlantic; and Boston, New York, and Philadelphia on the other.

In view of the millions of lives and property the safety of which would be greatly increased if the suggestion be carried into effect, it seems superfluous to enlarge upon the want of a Light House on this most prominent Cape; and I beg leave respectfully to ask you, to submit to His Excellency the Governor, a proposition to remove the Beacon at present on Cape Race, to Mistaken Point, and that a first class Light be established in lieu thereof.

In the spring of 1855, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies informed the governor of Newfoundland that the British Parliament would be asked in its coming session to allocate £5,000 for a lighthouse at Cape Race. Alexander Gordon, the same engineer who was responsible for Cape Pine Lighthouse, was contracted for “an Iron Tower for the Light with Stone Buildings about its base for the dwellings of the Light Keepers.”

The tower’s thirty-two iron plates and other materials necessary for the lighthouse were shipped from England to Trepassey during the fall of 1855. Twenty workmen were employed the following summer to hoist the three-quarter-ton panels into place and bolt them together. The Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade alerted mariners that on and after December 15, 1856, Cape Race Lighthouse would exhibit a fixed white light at an elevation of fifty-five metres. Being fixed, the light would not be confused with the two nearest lights at Cape Spear and Cape Pine that were both flashing. The fifteen-metre-tall tower stood thirty-two metres west of the old beacon, which had been cut down to a height of seven metres and covered with a pointed roof. Like the beacon, the tower was painted in red and white vertical stripes. A doughnut-shaped stone keeper’s dwelling encircled the base of the tower and was divided into six apartments. The total cost of constructing the lighthouse was £7,358.

Cape Race Lighthouse, Dwelling, and Fog Alarm in 1901
Photograph courtesy Library and Archives Canada
Newfoundland’s Commissioners of Lighthouses, still chaffing from the fact that they alone paid for the maintenance of Cape Pine Lighthouse while the other British North American Colonies derived more benefit from it, refused to be solely responsible for the maintenance of Cape Race Lighthouse. To cover the annual operating expense, the British Parliament therefore passed an act authorizing the collection of a toll of one sixteenth of a penny per ton for vessels passing the cape.

William Hally, a retired captain, was appointed the first head keeper of Cape Race Lighthouse. On Christmas 1856, just ten days after the light was put in operation, the Welsford, bound from Saint John, New Brunswick to Liverpool with a load of timber, ran aground at Cape Race. Keeper Hally and his assistant cast lines down the cliff and managed to save four crewmembers, but the other twenty-two perished as a heavy swell quickly ground the ship to pieces against the black shale cliff.

In 1857, the Newfoundland government received authorization to invite bids for the construction of a new dwelling at Cape Race to replace the “damp and unwholesome residence” provided with the iron tower. William O’Grady’s bid of £446 was accepted, and in November 1857 he started work on the wooden structure, which would be attached to the tower by a covered way. On January 19, 1858, the keepers were able to abandon their former residence for the new dwelling, which was “replete with every comfort and convenience.”

New and old lighthouses in September 1906
Photograph courtesy Library and Archives Canada
As part of the telegraph cable that linked St. John’s to New York City, a telegraph station was established at Cape Race. In 1859, the Associated Press of New York stationed a boat at Cape Race to retrieve messages thrown overboard in watertight containers from passing steamers. In this manner, important news from Europe could reach New York four days faster than it could before. This system became obsolete with the successful completion of the transatlantic telegraph at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland in 1866.

It wasn’t long before mariners complained that the light at Cape Race was too feeble for such an important headland. To address the problem, the Committee of Privy Council for Trade decided to change the light at Cape Race from fixed to flashing and that on Cape Pine from flashing to fixed, while increasing the power of both lights. Inspector Robert Oke carried out this changed during the summer of 1866, after receiving new lighting apparatuses from England.

While surveying the southern coast of Newfoundland in the early 1860s, Captain Orlebar of the Royal Navy recommended the construction of a powerful steam whistle at Cape Race, but this needed aid would not be built for another decade. In early 1870, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries for Canada, noting that three steamships had recently wrecked near Cape Race, requested that his government petition the British government for the erection of a steam fog whistle there. The minister suggested that proceeds from the Cape Race tolls could be used to construct and maintain the whistle, and if the current toll was insufficient it could be raised from one-sixteenth to one-twelfth of a penny per ton.

After receiving the blessing of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade, a ten-inch steam fog whistle was manufactured at Saint John, New Brunswick during the summer of 1872, shipped from there to Sydney, Nova Scotia that September, and from there to St. John’s in October. Due to the lateness of the season, the whistle was not established on Cape Race until the following year. Water for the steam whistle was provided by a small spring, and the structure to house the machinery was built seventy-six metres south of the lighthouse. The whistle, under the charge of Patrick Myrick, produced a ten-second blast each minute, when needed, and could reportedly be heard at a distance of thirty-two kilometres in calm weather.

Cape Race in 1919 with its wireless station, lighthouse, and fog alarm
Photograph courtesy Canadian Coast Guard
By the early 1880s, a substantial surplus of money had been collected from the Cape Race tolls, and the British government wanted to transfer ownership of the station to Newfoundland, which had previously just been responsible for maintaining the station using the collected funds. Newfoundland, however, was unwilling to accept charge of Cape Race, so the station was transferred to Canada on July 1, 1886 along with the surplus fund of $100,151.50. Under the transfer agreement, Canada would be solely responsible for the maintenance of the light and fog alarm, and the tolls would no longer be collected.

The first transatlantic wireless transmission was received at St. John’s Signal Hill in December 1901 by Guglielmo Marconi, and three years later a Marconi wireless station was built at Cape Race. This station was a vital link in communicating with offshore vessels and was the first land-based wireless to respond to the distress call from the Titanic.

In 1906, the Canadian government contracted the Steel Concrete Company of Montreal to construct the country’s first reinforced concrete lighthouse for Cape Race. A lantern room that housed a behemoth hyper-radial lens topped this new lighthouse, which at 30.5 metres tall was nearly twice as tall as the iron tower it replaced. The lantern room and lens were manufactured in England by Chance Brothers, and the lens, when it was put into operation on October 1, 1907, was the largest lighting apparatus in North or South America. The lens has four flash-panels and is mounted on a cast-iron table that floats in a mercury bath, which allowed it to be easily revolved by a weight-driven clockwork mechanism. An incandescent petroleum vapour lamp was originally used inside the lens, and when first established the light’s characteristic was a white flash every five seconds. A few years later, the characteristic was changed to a flash every 7.5 seconds and remains so today.

The new tower was painted in red and white vertical stripes like its predecessor, but today the tower is white. The iron tower was dismantled after a couple of years of disuse and shipped to Cape North, the northeast tip of Cape Breton, where it was used until 1978. After being replaced by a modern light, the iron tower was relocated to Ottawa and erected on the grounds of the National Museum of Science and Technology.

Cape Race as it appeared in 1962
Photograph courtesy Canadian Coast Guard
In April 1907, the Cape Race steam whistle was replaced by a five-inch diaphone supplied by the Canadian Fog Signal Company. A new double-dwelling for the fog alarm engineers was completed in 1909, and in 1912 two powerful seven-inch diaphones were installed at the cape.

Two fifty-horse-power Robb Mumford boilers, which consumed 500 tons of coal each year, were installed at Cape Race in 1923 to generate electricity for the station. An electric lighting apparatus replaced the old vapour lighting apparatus in the lighthouse in 1926. At this time, around ten families were living on the cape, and a two-room schoolhouse was built for the children. In 1929, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked the Grand Banks off the southern coast of Newfoundland. The violent tremor caused about five pounds of mercury to spill in the lantern room at Cape Race and generated a tidal wave that killed over twenty people on the Burin Peninsula.

A supportive concrete shell was placed around the tower in 1937.

Diesel generators later replaced the boilers, and in 1969, staffing of the station was changed to a four-person shift system. This change allowed the keepers’ families to live in nearby communities such as Trepassey. A few buildings became surplus as a result and were removed from the site. The fog alarm at Cape Race was discontinued in 1991.

Cape Race Lighthouse was designated a national historic site in 1974 and a Recognized Federal Heritage Building in 1990. The Myrick Wireless Interpretive Centre, a replica of the original Cape Race Marconi Station, provides visitors a chance to learn about the multifaceted history of Cape Race. The centre is named for the Myrick family who served as light keepers, fog alarm engineers, telegraphers, and wireless operators at Cape Race between 1874 and 2007.

Keepers: William Hally (1856 – 1866), Michael J. Hally (1866 – at least 1878), Patrick Myrick (1886 – 1897), John Myrick (1897 – 1922), Francis Myrick (1922 – 1942), Jeremiah Myrick (1942 – 1955), Patrick Myrick (1955 – 1957), James Myrick (1957 – 1973), Tom Ryan (1973 – 1996), Frederick Osbourne (1996 – 2000), Michael Ward (2000 – 2012).

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  1. Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, various years.
  3. The First Landfall Historic Lighthouses of Newfoundland and Labrador, David J. Molloy, 1994

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