A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Early Lights

The most ancient type of lighthouse was called a "pharos", in the French language "phare" to this day, after one of the wonders of the classical world, situated on the island of that name. This was a mighty tower of white stone, believed to have been 450 feet high, surmounted by an open fire intended to guide shipping to the ancient Egyptian port of Alexandria. Possibly the fire was screened by some kind of roof from the effects of bad weather; under favourable conditions, it must have been an imposing sight in the night sky. Even in modern times, the replenishment of such a tower would present something of a problem possibly calling for the use of helicopters. In 280 B.C., when this "tower conspic.," was established at Pharos, fuel for the fire was carried up thousands of steps by slave labour; the mind boggles at the prospect.

Beacons with open fires were never used in Canada, at least among those officially listed, although they were established in the early days of Boston, Massachusetts, and probably in the colonial period of Spanish South America. Such beacons were extremely inefficient and, if romantic to look back on, were open to doubt as aids to navigation even when, under the most favourable conditions, they could be seen at a distance. It was never clear to strangers whether the signal invited mariners to enter a safe harbour or warned them against danger. The casualty rate was very high in all classes of ships for centuries after the introduction of these crude braziers, and one can only conclude that they effected little improvement in the safety of those unfortunate enough to take to the sea.

Bad as the braziers were, at their infrequent best they might well have been better than the early oil or candle lights which superseded them. The first lighthouse in Canada, the stone tower at Louisburg built in 1733, was lit by a circle of oil-fed wicks carried in a glazed wooden chamber on top of a 66-foot column. The danger of fire was always present in such an arrangement and, when the inevitable happened, a masonry top was substituted in 1737. This structure lasted until the second siege of Louisburg in 1758 when it was damaged and subsequently fell into decay. In 1842 another lighthouse was established, with a wooden tower and better illuminants, to be replaced in turn by the present concrete structure. The original lighthouse of the French period is now being rebuilt as part of the Louisburg historical reconstruction scheme.

Reflectors began to be used in lighthouses towards the second half of the eighteenth century and a milestone was reached in 1781 when the Carlsten Lighthouse, in Sweden, was fitted with the first revolving apparatus in the world. In this case the oil lamps and reflectors were attached to a vertical shaft which was rotated by clockwork. Many improvements were introduced in England and France about the same time, and it was in the following year, 1782, that a philosopher in Geneva made a notable discovery which set a standard for years to come. The use of lamps and candles had hitherto involved a smoky and incomplete combustion with continuous trimming of the wick; this technique was greatly improved when Aimi Argand discovered that an oil lamp fitted with a circular wick like a stocking, when contained in a burner of two concentric brass tubes, permitted a free flow of air on the inside of the wick and gave a better light. Subsequent refinement, including a glass chimney which enabled air to pass both sides of the wick, and a device for turning it up or down, led to the invention of the Argand burner which became, for many years, the standard source of lighthouse illumination.

The early light stations used whale oil and the success of the Argand burner in many different applications was of great benefit to the whaling industry. When the British naval blockade of the Napoleonic wars cut off the supply of whale oil to France, the French turned to colza oil, a vegetable derivative. As it transpired, colza oil gave a much brighter light than the whale oil, and by 1845 it had achieved a wide acceptance in European and British lighthouses.

Image: Profil et Elevation de la Tour de la Lanterne, Louisbourg

Profile and elevation of the Tour de la Lanterne, Louisbourg.

Between this time and Confederation many light stations were built in Canada, mostly of wooden rather than stone construction, as this was cheaper and more suited to the needs of the country; among notable exceptions, the Race Rocks light tower in British Columbia was constructed of stone which had been quarried and cut in Scotland and sent out by sailing ship around Cape Horn. A list of the early Canadian lights will be found as an appendix to this work. These light stations used colza oil with the Argand burner until it was superseded by the introduction of mineral oils. Colza oil had been cheaper than whale oil, but mineral oil was cheaper than both and its use was extended after the development of a multiple wick burner, invented by a Frenchman, Captain Doty, for the consumption of hydro-carbon oils. The Doty burner was used in lighthouses till the end of the nineteenth century. In this connection it may be said that the new burner took some time to achieve full acceptance and a report of 1872 states that:

"There were here two Doty lamps burning on trial, one of which was intended for the light at one end of Sable Island; but their performance was unsatisfactory, with low smoky flames, and the foreman lamp maker could get no better results."

Photo: Lighthouse delivery run

Lighthouse delivery run - A Canadian Coast Guard helicopter approaches the light-house at Race Rocks, B.C., near Victoria, to deliver mail and supplies to the lighthouse keeper.

In fact, the Doty lamp was not the first to burn mineral oil, a distinction which belongs to Nova Scotia. This early development was due to a country doctor from Cornwallis, in the Annapolis Valley, who gradually turned from medical to scientific pursuits. Dr. Abraham Gesner (1797-1864) was a true scientist; sent to England as a young man to take his medical training at Guys and St. Bartholomew's Hospitals in London, his enquiring mind knew no boundaries and, by 1838, he had been commissioned to make a mineral survey of New Brunswick.

About this time, Gesner met another of those extraordinary people who, by sheer ability and thinking power, were able to reach beyond the limitations of their times. Thomas Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald, had been in Halifax as a naval officer he was one of the most brilliant fighting leaders of all time and had discussed a common interest with Gesner, the production of mineral oils and gas. Cochrane had invented and patented a lamp to burn oil extracted from Trinidad pitch he was always an enthusiast for pyrotechnics and he encouraged Dr. Gesner to experiment with coal which was then being mined as a result of his surveys. By 1846 Gesner had succeeded in getting mineral oil from Nova Scotia coal and in using it to illuminate the Maughers Beach lighthouse at Halifax. Gesner was a better business man than Cochrane, who was always getting into the most incredible adventures, and eventually made a fortune from development of his ideas, founding the North American Kerosene Gas and Light Company. Abraham Gesner was a distinguished Canadian who deserves to be remembered for his contribution to marine aids to navigation.

In 1872, a committee from Trinity House, England, made an extended visit to study the fog signals and lighthouses of Canada and the United States. Their report to the Minister of Marine and Fisheries provides an excellent summary of the state of Canadian aids to navigation at the time. After paying their respects to the Governor-General, the committee, Sir Frederick Arrow the Deputy Master of Trinity House and Captain Webb, were received by the Deputy Minister, Mr. William Smith, and escorted on a tour of the St. Lawrence lights in the Napoleon III which they described as:

". . . a powerful iron screw steamer, designed for and wholly employed in the light and buoy service, with proper fittings for the latter."

The Napoleon III cruised leisurely round the lower river and visited a number of lights and lightships, while the party inspected apparatus with the detached professional interest of a leading authority. Nothing escaped attention and remark and, to test the range of sound signals, the Napoleon steamed round and round, in various conditions of weather and fog, to windward, to leeward, in night and in day, recording the audibility of the steam foghorns.

"At 7 am arrived alongside the Manicouagan Light vessel; weather calm and fine. She is painted black, name on stern, built of iron, of about 550 tons, by Richardson Duck & Co., of Stockton-on-Tees. . . . Her two lights, carried one at each masthead, are small 6th., order dioptric, . . . the oil burnt is petroleum, in an ordinary oil burner. The crew of the light vessel consists of the master, mate, engineer, and six seamen, all of whom remain on board during the season (from June to December) without relief."

The steam whistle on the lightship was actuated by a boiler which burned wood fuel at the rate of 30 pounds per hour, the whole apparatus requiring an engine room 25 feet by 12 feet between the bunkers. The foghorn was kept going until the Napoleon, at a distance of twelve miles, crept slowly out of range. The visit must have provided a welcome topic of conversation for the crew of the Manicouagan in their lonely six months vigil: six months is a long time to maintain watch and watch at anchor, without the benefits of wife or child or garden, as in the more spacious stations ashore.

Continuing their investigations, the committee landed at Red Island and found that:

". . . . the lighthouse was in charge of a young woman, the keeper, her husband, being away. The tower, of stone, white; the dwellings apart from it. The light, red, fixed, catoptric, with 24 lamps and reflectors illuminating the whole circle, by Wilkins & Co., London."

The maidservant was cleaning the reflectors when the committee went into the lantern and they noted that, although there was only one keeper, he and his wife and the maid kept the whole place scrupulously clean and that the petroleum was kept in cisterns in a wooden outhouse some 80 yards from the main buildings.

On passage back, the visitors were in praise of the system of leading lights on the St. Lawrence River, of which they wrote:

". . . . . It enables vessels to make night passages in safety, and is carried to a much greater extent than in any place in England; the shoal places are very frequent with sudden changes, and a light, which in conjunction with another, clears one obstacle, is used with a third for a different line of bearing to clear another."

The Trinity House visitors were taken to Petrolia, Ont., to see the petroleum refineries there. On their voyage up Lake Ontario, they noted that the:

". . . False Ducks fixed white light, catoptric (Canadian) was also observed, clear and strong at a distance of 15 miles. The strength and efficiency of these lights, and indeed of all the lights under the management of the Canadian Marine Department, struck the Committee forcibly, as indicating the high value of their illuminant."

One wonders if they ever went to bed.

They were much impressed by the production of mineral oils at the Petrolia refineries from where the Department purchased their oil supply, and were shown round by Mr. Fitzgerald of the Union Oil Works and the Mayor of Petrolia, Mr. MacDougall. The production of mineral oil was then very much a frontier business, not without hazard in the early stages of a booming industry.

"The scene was a most remarkable one: everything rough and practical, the roads in a fearful condition, the whole aspect of the district comfortless and strange . . . . the buildings are as slight as possible, and detached from each other, so as to diminish the spread of damage in case of fire or explosion. This is not of uncommon occurrence; and Mr. Fitzgerald himself had just recovered from the effects of an explosion, by which he must have suffered much pain and inconvenience."

After a visit to see the lights and buoys of the United States, during which they were received for an hour by the President, Sir Frederick Arrow and Captain Webb returned to England and wrote their report. To this day it remains a fascinating and objective document, genuinely concerned with the means by which Canada had applied the techniques of marine science as an aid to navigation in her enormous and growing shipping routes. The committee was critical of the mode of appointment of light keepers, then largely a matter of patronage as was much of the public service for many years to come.

"The office of light keeper is looked upon as an ordinary unskilled occupation, requiring no special knowledge or training, and the keeper has neither increase of pay, promotion, continuance of service, nor pension in the future, to look forward to as an incentive to good behaviour."

Despite this, and as always, the Department was well served by the loyal and dedicated care of their employees, afloat and ashore.

In its final summation, the Trinity House Committee concluded:

"The Canadian system is one of simplicity and economy; there is no lighthouse Board nor any professional advisers save an engineer, whose time is very much taken up in other public employment; the administrative and executive duties rest entirely on the Minister of Marine and his officers, and they prefer to employ simple and easily managed apparatus rather than use scientific arrangements requiring careful adjustment or attention. Relying on their own natural products of mineral oil and wood, their buildings are easily and quickly erected at small cost and a higher ratio of illuminating power is obtained from mineral oil in catoptric lights than in any other arrangements."