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

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Light Keepers

In the two and a half centuries which have elapsed since first the Louisburg lighthouse flickered to the dark ocean, generations of Canadians have tended lights. The worthwhile occupations of life, particularly in former times when people were self contained, branded their devotees with a special character. If this distinction has dimmed somewhat in modern days and a career occupied, let us say, with the mass production of small wares can hardly stamp a man with the attributes of a village blacksmith the business of keeping lights, now requiring an accompanying technology of diesel engines, compressors, radio and electronics, yet requires a singular dedication. It brings, as a reward, a certain philosophy of life. Some families, reared in isolation on a windswept rock, have benefited more surely from the highest values than others who, apparently in more favourable places, have been swamped by the complex and conflicting demands of urban society.

It is not easy for an outsider to enter the world of light keepers. At its highest the occupation is distinguished by a singular attribute which can only be described as "quality"; at its worst, and not all light keepers are suited to their task, the life is one of privation, hardship and personal loneliness, which assuredly leaves its mark. An excellent account of family life in a lighthouse, and a little known gem of country literature, is the book We Keep a Light written by E. M. Richardson and published by Ryerson in 1945. Evelyn Richardson, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter of light keepers and wife of Morrill Richardson who kept the Bon Portage Light off the southern tip of Nova Scotia, writes with an intimate knowledge and understanding of the joys and sorrows of the lighthouse service.

In pre Confederation days, when the St. Lawrence route and the shores of Nova Scotia were first lighted, the life of the keepers was lonely indeed. The Campbell family for instance, who in three generations rendered 72 years of unbroken service on the Island of St. Paul, left diaries which bring the times to life. There were storms of course, shipwrecks, rescue, illness and death; but all the time, in fair weather and foul, in sickness and in health, the endless routine of work went forward to one end the preservation of that never failing beam of light.

In the northeast corner of St. Paul's Island lie the graves of three children of an early keeper. There is a story that they were wiped out by smallpox. According to this tradition, a large sailing ship stood close in to the island on a summers day in 1856, her decks crowded with immigrants eager for a sight of land. Across the narrowing strip of intervening water came the sounds of a fiddler playing for those well enough to enjoy the view, for there was smallpox on board and many were dead and dying. The three St. Paul's children, attracted by the sights and sounds of a world which they had never seen, stood hand in hand in wonderment at the edge of the cliff as the vessel ghosted by in light airs. In a short time they too were stricken by smallpox and, with no medical attention, one by one they died. Heart-rending as this coincidence must have been, medical knowledge asserts today that infection cannot have been transmitted from a passing ship. More likely, and unsuspected by the distressed keeper and his wife, the disease was carried by survivors from other infected ships which are known to have been wrecked on the island about that time.

On the whole though, it was a healthy life. Spending their entire working lives in the service, many of the keepers lived to a remarkable age. William B. McLaughlin, appointed as assistant at Gannet Rock, N.B. in 1845 at the age of sixteen, held only two positions in nearly sixty years, the other being at Southwest Head, Grand Manan. When young McLaughlin first went to the Gannet his brother David was head keeper, William succeeding to the charge in 1853, transferring in 1880. There may be some today who remember Mr. McLaughlin, for his retirement in 1905 is well within the threshold of living recollection. As an indicator of the nearness of history. McLaughlin relates that his father had fought in Wellingtons army at the battle of Waterloo and a crony, who used to visit young William with the father, had actually been present when General Braddock was defeated in the war of American independence. A Marine and Fisheries officer who called on William McLaughlin, Captain Smith, was a mere youngster who could only recall, in 1887, that he had served in the Royal Navy as a midshipman during the Crimean War.

A man of methodical habit and principle, William McLaughlin kept a logbook which alternates between handwritten remarks on wind, weather and passing ships, and thoughts of a more personal nature, sometimes expressed in verse. Always, at the end of the month, the keeper would tally the quantity of oil remaining on the station and the number of wicks and chimneys in stock. In his young days on the Gannet, McLaughlin recalls sending two of his sons to live on the mainland, a distance of seven miles. Father and mother could see the boys going to school each day, using the station binoculars, but they had no means of communication. Occasionally, in a one way system attempted in desperation, letters were floated off in a sealed can with flag; sometimes they were actually received.

The advent of radio greatly improved the lot of lighthouse families but introduced another category of solitary employee, the marine radio operator. Alan P. Brown of Montreal recalls the difficulty of making a landing when, in 1931, he joined the marine radio service and was appointed to Kairns Island, B.C. Leaving Victoria in the CPR steamer Princess Maquinna as a passenger, he was awakened early the following morning to find the ship stopped, apparently waiting for a rowboat which, with single occupant, was laboriously crawling into view from an island two miles away. Enquiring idly as to the identity of the boat, he was informed cheerfully that he had better get his bag on deck as this was the retiring operator with whom he would shortly change places. With sudden doubts as to the propriety of this arrangement, but too late to do anything about it, Mr. Brown soon found himself alone in the boat, regretfully watching the Maquinna disappearing in a haze of funnel smoke and the grey seas of a new day in the northern Pacific. Remembering now a last brief instruction to pull for the light where the keeper would hoist him inboard by derrick, and mastering on the way an unexpected problem of tidal set and drift, the lone oarsman was carried towards a rocky cliff in a fearsome ground swell.

On top of the cliff the keeper and his wife, shouting instructions to come in on the next swell, had lowered a wire and hook from the hand derrick. Somehow or other, with no next swell to spare, Alan hooked on to the sling of the boat and, swaying and dripping, a surprised and relieved young man found himself safely on Kairns Island. As he was afterwards told, this apparently hazardous arrangement was safe and nobody had been drowned. In fact the derrick had been installed because three lives had been lost over the years in attempting beach landings. Mr. Brown recalls that the light keeper, Chamberlain by name, was a relative of Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain.

In modern times, landings of this nature are usually made by ship borne helicopter, all the larger ships being fitted with a flight deck and most of the light stations having a concrete landing pad. Landings which formerly took hours, or for which a ship might wait days for favourable weather, are now completed in as many minutes. The lighthouse vessel is able thus to continue her voyage to the next supply position without delay. But in the depression years of the thirties the cheapest way was the best way, and helicopters were yet to come.

Two other lights on the coast of Vancouver Island may be mentioned. Estevan Point light was the only place in Canadian territory to come under fire in the second world war when, on June 20, 1942, a Japanese submarine lobbed 25 rounds at the station; fortunately little damage was done and one shell, unexploded, remained as a nine day wonder to be photographed. The second is at Cape Beale, mentioned previously in connection with the miserable affair of Captain Cooper and Mr. Westmoreland, a lighthouse which later came to notice in a gallant and romantic rescue resulting from the actions of Mr. and Mrs. Paterson who kept the light from 1895 to 1908.

In December 1906, the United States barque Coloma left the Puget Sound with a cargo of lumber for Australia. There was a gale from the southeast and, cracking on to take advantage of this fair wind to clear the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the old wooden vessel sprang a leak when she encountered a heavy sea off Cape Flattery. With her decks awash, and the gear aloft carrying away as she pitched in an enormous swell, the Coloma was soon unmanageable and hoisted her ensign upside down in token of distress as she drifted down to leeward and the outlying reefs of Cape Beale.

In this position, and doubtless having let go her anchors to the bitter end, the barque was sighted from the lighthouse. The only chance of help lay in alerting the Quadra, then under the command of Captain Charles Hackett, which Paterson knew was lying at anchor in Bamfield Inlet, six miles away. The lifeboat, it will be recalled, was not on station at Bamfield until the following year. Telephone lines were down and the light keeper was unable to leave his foghorn which required constant attention. Although the trail was blocked by fallen trees and lay for much of the distance along a rocky shore. Mrs. Paterson at once insisted on making the journey herself. It was then night, and in darkness and dreadful weather she set off with a lantern and her dog, hoping against hope to be in time.

The plan was to get the news to James Mackay at Bamfield who would row off to the Quadra and raise the alarm. Arriving at the house physically exhausted, drenched to the skin and with her shoes and clothing ripped to pieces, it was found that Mackay was away from home repairing the telephone wires. Nothing daunted, Minnie Paterson and Mrs. Mackay themselves launched the boat and came alongside the Quadra as daylight came.

Captain Hackett weighed anchor at once and the Quadra punched her way out of the Inlet against a heavy swell rolling in from the Pacific. Off Cape Beale the wreck was sighted, a boat was lowered under the command of the second officer Mr. James E. McDonald, and the distressed crew were recovered. No sooner had the boat returned to the Quadra than the derelict parted her cables and drove ashore to destruction. Mr. McDonald was promoted to chief officer shortly afterwards.

Immediately after her courageous action, and before the return of the Quadra with the shipwrecked men, Mrs. Paterson walked all the way back to the lighthouse. She had five children to look after and her husband was constantly at work in a period of rain and bad visibility. It was another week before communications were restored, and only then did the Paterson's learn of the triumphal rescue which had resulted. Unfortunately, the results of Mrs. Paterson's tremendous exertion soon made themselves apparent and she never entirely recovered, dying five years later.

If ever it be decided to name Canadian lifeboats in honour of those who have rendered gallant, and hitherto unrecognized, service, the name of Minnie Paterson deserves to be emblazoned with that of Dorothea Dix. The actions of these two women, entirely different as they were, are noble in every way.