The three-masted barque Jessie wrecked near the southwest tip of St. Paul Island during a snowstorm on January 1, 1825, a week after having left Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. The crew and passengers were able to reach the island, clutching what provisions and posessions they could carry. The survivors built great fires to attract the attention of residents on Cape Breton or passing vessels, but with the strait becoming blocked with heavy pack ice, nobody could come to their rescue. Mr. Mackay, the owner of the Jessie kept a journal of the sufferings endured on the island, and the gradual loss of life. His last entry was made on March 17, eleven weeks after being shipwrecked. Twenty-three people had managed to escape drowning in the strait, only to suffer the agonies of exposure and starvation on St. Paul Island.
The growing number of shipwrecks on St. Paul Island and the loss of lives in almost every instance of shipwreck finally compelled the government of Nova Scotia in 1831 to place a frame house and provisions at a cove on the southeast side of the island to relieve shipwreck victims. After the house had been erected, workers cut a road across the island and discovered a small lifesaving establishment on the western shore that the government of New Brunswick had built and staffed with two men and their families. When the workers left the island in January 1832 and returned to Sydney, they took with them the sole survivor of the crew of twenty-nine of the Great Britain that had wrecked on the island on December 2, 1831.
Nova Scotia appealed to the Imperial Government in 1834 for funds to construct lighthouses to mark St. Paul Island and Scatarie Island, citing examples of how the lack of lighthouses was impacting ships from Great Britain. The Imperial Government agreed to cover the cost of constructing the lighthouses, if the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Lower Canada would cover the annual maintenance.
Commissioners from the four provinces met at Miramichi in 1836 and decided that Nova Scotia would be responsible for overseeing the construction of two lighthouses on the north and south extremities of St. Paul Island and one lighthouse on the eastern point of Scatarie Island. In addition to the lighthouses, a humane establishment for assisting shipwrecked persons would be established on each island. The commissioners agreed that, after the lighthouses and humane establishments had been in operation for a year, Lower Canada would contribute 500£, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would each pay 250£, and Prince Edward Island would add 30£. Each year thereafter, the provinces would contribute a proportionate sum, which added to any unexpended balance from previous years, would amount to 1,030£.
The Commissioners of Lighthouses for Nova Scotia estimated that the three lighthouses and humane establishments would cost a total of 4,500£ exclusive of the lantern rooms, reflectors, lamps, and machinery for the revolving light intended for Scatarie Island.
Lighthouses were built on a small island separated from the northeast end of the St. Paul Island by a narrow passageway known as The Tickle or The Tittle, and on the southwest point of the island in 1839, while the humane establishment was built at Atlantic Cove, about mid-island on the eastern shore. Both lighthouses were a wooden octagonal tower that had a height of forty feet. A fixed white light was employed on the northeast end, and a revolving white light on the southwest end of the five-kilometre-long island. While all other lights in Nova Scotia were catoptric up through at least 1869, the lights initially installed on St. Paul Island were described as a dioptric apparatuses with mirros. The northeast light had 308 silvered glass reflectors illuminated by one lamp with six burners, and the southeast light had 264 silvered glass reflectors and a similar lamp. In 1874, the silvered reflectors were shipped to Chance Brothers in England, one-half at a time, to be resilvered. A covered passage connected the dwelling at the north end of the island to the lighthouse so the keepers could remain sheltered while servicing the light.
On July 15, 1871, the iron ship Minerva bound from Liverpool to Montreal with over 300 passengers on board and a load of cargo ran aground on the southeast shore of the island during a dense fog. The vessel was a total loss, but did hold together long enough for the crew and passengers to be landed on the island. This accident was just one more example of a wreck that may have been prevented had a powerful fog alarm existed on the island. A fog bell had been used during thick weather at the southwest lighthouse since 1846, and a cannon that was fired every four hours was added a few years later. These aids were deemed inadequate, and in 1872 a steam fog whistle was built just south of the humane establishment. Charles Stewart was hired as the first engineer for the whistle, which was placed in operation on October 7, 1872 and gave a five-second blast each minute when needed. The egineeer and his family were forced to live in the whistle house until a dwelling for them was finally built in 1875.
After the wreck of the Minerva, two more vessels were lost on the island before the fog whistle was established. The barque Emperor of London was dashed to pieces during a heavy snowstorm on November 28, 1871, and the captain and crew of fifteen men all perished. On July 25, 1872, the steamship Adalida, also of London and bound from Plymouth to Quebec, ran aground during a fog. All passengers and crew were safely landed along with most of the ship’s valuable cargo.
In 1870, after work on roads connecting the human establishment with both ends of the island was well underway, the superintendent of the humane establishment was placed in charge of both lights. This arrangement was more formalized in 1874, when Superintendent D.J. McNeil retired and Samuel C. Campbell returned as superintendent. Campbell was placed in charge of both lights and the humane establishment at an annual salary of $600, while Robert Muirhead earned $500 as the fog whistle engineer. Five boatmen, who served as assistants at the lighthouse and at the fog whistle, in addition to performing duties at the humane establishment, were paid a salary of $250.
In 1876, sixty sign boards were placed on the roads around the island to direct shipwrecked mariners to the humane establishment. Superintendent Samuel Campbell described a fearful event at the humane establishment that occurred on August 18, 1876:
In the afternoon the sky looked fearfully wild, the clouds seemed to be flying towards each other and whirling in every direction. About 4 o’clock p.m., we had some distant peals of thunder with bright lightning, and at about a quarter past 4 there was a very loud crackling clap of thunder and a shower of rain. The wind changed round to north-west, and I went out and had a walk round the buildings to see that all was right after the thunder. All at once, I heard a fearful rushing noise, I think it was then about 5 ½ o’clock. Looking in the direction, I beheld a sight that made me tremble from head to foot. At a distance of less than a quarter of a mile from me in a westerly direction, I saw rocks, earth, trees and water all whirling round high up in the air to a distance of more than a hundred feet. For a few moments I watched the whirling blast to see what direction it was likely to take. I saw it was crossing the cove towards me and likely to take the dwelling house in its course. My mother, a deaf and dumb sister and the servants were in the house, and I had two men in the fields close by. I ran to warn them; as I did so, a squall of the whirling blast struck around me, carrying in its course a grinding stone, and stones and sticks high up in the air above me. The main body of the blast was now close to me and I ran with all my might for the dwelling house, calling on the two men in the fields to follow me. They both seemed terribly frightened, one of them on hearing me call ran in the house just in time to escape the destroying blast that followed. As we crossed the threshold of the door, it became dark as night and the raging tempest burst around us, shaking the house from top to foundation, and amidst falling plaster, chimneys, windows, dashed in and broken into atoms, chairs, tables roughly overturned, we, as we thought, took the last look of each other. As quick as it came it was over, all was again still and calm, the sun shone out bright and fine, but what a perfect wreck was left. With the smoke of the falling plaster we at first thought the house was on fire; finding this not to be the case I made the best of my way outside. Two of my men, when the water spout first made its appearance, were away some distance from the house, I think about a quarter of a mile. On seeing the fearful blast coming over the mountain they also ran for the house, at last were obliged to throw themselves on the ground and clinging to a bush were saved, trees, earth and rocks passing over them. Not so with the poor fellow who seemed not to have heard my warning voice when I called on him to run for life. He was found after about half an hour’s search, at the door step quite dead, and he must have been killed on the spot where he stood and carried with the blast to where we found him, a distance of about 300 feet.Five buildings at the establishment were entirely destroyed and others severely damaged.
In 1890, the Newfield laid a telegraph cable between the humane establishment and Meat Cove on Cape Breton. Each year, new provisions for shipwreck victims were landed on the island, and the old provisions were taken away and sold at auction in Nova Scotia.
Superintendent Samuel Campbell was suspended on November 9, 1893, and Robert Muirhead, the whistle engineer, was temporarily placed in charge of the island. Two weeks later, Muirhead shot himself dead. John Campbell was appointed superintendent, and Henry Kerr was sent to the island to take charge of the fog alarm. Muirhead’s death, after nearly twenty years on the island, was ruled to be suicide while “under a temporary fit of insanity or desponcency.”
After mariners had mistaken the whistle on the island on more than one occasion for a ship’s whistle, a diaphone fog alarm was place in operation on April 1, 1911 on the northeast point of the island, and the steam whistle was discontinued. The diaphone foghorn gave two three-second blasts each minute, with three seconds between the pair of blasts.
In 1912, a suspension bridge was built to span The Tickle at the northeast end of the island. This bridge served the keepers well until a storm washed it away in December 1919. A box-like car was subsequently suspended from a cable that spanned The Tickle, and later, a breeches-buoy was used. A person would sit in the box or breeches-buoy and then pull himself across the channel. In December 1955, George Gatza was expecting the delivery of two Christams packages he had ordered for his wife. When the Edward Cornwalis arrived off the island, it was too rough in The Tickle to land there, but the captain agreed to try a landing along the east coast.
George Gatza persuaded Merlyn Baker, another assistant at the Northeast Light, to cross The Tickle with him and go after the packages. When the men had reached mid-span, the cable parted, sending the men plummeting into the icy, turbulent waters in The Tickle. Baker lost consciousness for a few seconds, but woke just before a large wave deposited him on a ledge. He was able to scramble up the cliff only to see Ga tza being washed out to sea.
Baker raced back to the lighthouse and had the keeper radio the Edward Cornwalis to initiated a search for Gatza, but his body was never found. Gatza’s expectant wife had initially agreed to wait until after Christmas to be taken from the island, but the next day, the grief-stricken woman required immediate medical attention and was airlifted to Syndey.
On November 17, 1914, a fire destroyed the wooden, octagonal tower on the southwest end of the island. A provisional light of the same characteristic but of lesser power was put in place until the construction of a fire-proof metal tower was completed in 1916. This round cast-iron lighthouse stood twenty-seven feet tall and had a platform made of reinforced concrete that supported the lantern room. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was used in the lantern room to produce a group of four flashes every tewleve seconds. To revolve the lens, a cable with weights on its end was fed out the tower, through a ring-bolt, and several feet down the cliff. This worked fine until ice would build up on the cable, forcing the keeper to periodically got out and beat on it with a large hammer.
This cast-iron tower served until 1964, when a round fibreglass tower tooks its place and the station was automated. The cast-iron tower was relocated to the parking lot of the Coast Guard base in Dartmouth where it was on display for several years with a Fresnel lens in its lantern room.
The northeast station finally received a new tower in 1962, when the present octagonal, reinforced-concrete tower wsa finished. Two new dwellings, an oil house, and a baothosue were alos built at the same time. The foghorn was discontinued in 1987, and the last keepers left the island in 1991.
The St. Paul Island Historical Society was formed in 2001 and made various attempts to acquire the Southwest Lighthouse in Dartmouth, where it was inaccessible to the public. In 2010, the society wrote a letter soliciting support for its effort to move the lighthouse to is musem in Dingwall, which has been linked to ST. Paul Island by both sea and air for years.
The society’s persistence paid off. On October 21, 2010, two Tory members of the Nova Scotia legislature — Cape Bretoners Keith Bain and Cecil Clarke — announced that the lighthouse would be relocated to the community museum in Dingwall.
The lighthouse was disassembled in March 2011, sandblasted and painted in April, and transported by truck to Dingwall in May. In August, the lantern room was installed atop a concrete base poured on the grounds of the St. Paul Island Museum. The total cost of transporting, erecting, and restoring the lighthouse was roughly $120,000. The federal government invested $108,000 in the project through Enterprise Cape Breton Corp.
A gathering to mark the 100th anniversary of the lighthouse tower was held on August 1, 2015 at the museum. Gary and Ann Marie, the son and daughter of Keeper John Beaton, who died on St. Paul Island in 1982, were given the honor of cutting the celebratory cake.
The lights on the northeast and southwest ends of the island were both discontinued in 2015.
Keepers (Northeast): Donald Moon (1839 – 1846), A. MacCallum(1846), Walter McKay (1850 – 1860), Lauchlin McDougall (1864 – 1870), L. MacDonald (1870 – 1874), John Rose (1881 – 1909), William Giles (1909 – 1912), John McLeod (1912 – 1920), Walter T. Jamieson (1920 – 1927), Peter M. McLennan (1927 – 1937), Thomas Stephenson (1937 – 1943), William A. Martell (1943 – 1946), Neil MacNeil (1946 – 1953), Joe G. Mitchell (1953 – 1966), James Rogers (1963 – 1967), Jackie Morrision (1967 – 1970), Melvin J. Tanner (1966 – 1971), J.W. MacLennan (1971 – 1972), Wilfred J. McSheffery (1972 – 1977), Paul Cranford (1975 – 1991), John A. Beaton (1977 – 1982), Valdor Boudreau (1983 – 1985), Eric A. Stevens (1977 – 1988), John McEvoy (1982 – 1988), John Fairservice (1988 – 1989).
Keepers (Southwest): F. McPhadain (1842 – 1845), Dyall McPhadain (1845 – 1846), A. MacCallum (1846 – 1850), Norman Campbell (1850 – 1870), Lauchlin McDougall (1870 – 1874), John McLeod (1881 – 1885), John McKenzie (1904 – 1910), Archur Buchanan (1910), John Dauphney (1910 – 1913), Angus G. McNeil (1913 – 1916), Frank Huntley (1916 – 1921), John A. McIntyre (1921 – 1930), Wilson J. Gwinn (1930 – 1941), Charlie MacDonald (1943 – 1953), Morris Baker ( – 1955), Fred Budge (1955 – 1960), Wilson Ingraham (1960 – 1961), George Morrison (1961 – 1964).
Engineer: Charles Stewart (1872 – 1873), A.H. Rand (1873 – 1874), Robert Muirhead (1874 – 1893), Henry Kerr (1893 – 1894), John M. Campbell (1898 – 1903), S.C. Campbell (1905), M.J. McLeod (1906 – 1911), John McLeod (1911 – 1912).
Superintendent: John Campbell (1839 – 1857), Samuel C. Campbell (1857 – 1863), D.J. McNeil (1864 – 1874), Samuel C. Campbell (1874 – 1893), Robert Muirhead (1893), John M. Campbell (1893 – 1894), John McLeod (1894 – 1897), Samuel C. Campbell (1897 – 1904), John Campbell (1904 – 1905), S.C. Campbell (1905 – 1906), John M. Campbell (1907 – 1918), A.I. McLeod (1919 – 1927).