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

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At the time of Confederation, there were upwards of a dozen lightships stationed in Canadian waters, most of them between the lower St. Lawrence and the Lakes. The earliest ones, which were built of wood, were often converted from local craft. As late as 1905 a replacement for the Sand heads lightship in British Columbia was converted from a schooner which had been purchased by the Department for $3,000; the lantern was electrically lit and consisted of an anchor lens on top of the stump foremast showing a fixed white light 56 feet above the water. She had a mechanically operated fog bell and was well equipped; this vessel had been built originally as a San Francisco pilot schooner the Mermaid, and had come to the BC Coast to engage in sealing. The entire conversion was completed for $10,000, a very reasonable price even for those days.

Photo: The White Island Reef lightship

The White Island Reef lightship under tow in Quebec harbour in 1914. Square rigged on the foremast, she depended on sails for emergency power, the steam engine being for the foghorn only.

The first iron lightships, such as the Manicouagan, were built in England, and were fitted with a steam foghorn and the necessary boiler, but had a sturdy rig as two masted schooners, with a square topsail on the fore. This rig was intended for emergency use, but they had no other means of propulsion. Then came self-propelled light vessels built and designed in Canada, first with steam reciprocating machinery and latterly with diesels, which would complete the development of an extremely interesting type, now almost extinct.

The decision to acquire self-propelled lightships came about as a result of a terrible gale in 1873, when the Red Island lightship was wrecked and the Manicouagan gallantly attempted to rescue the crew of a ship in distress. On November 21, the Napoleon III was about to leave Quebec on the last trip of the season, when word was received that the lightships were in trouble and that the master and one of the crew of the Upper Traverse had been drowned. Pushing through heavy fields of ice in the Napoleon, Mr. J. U. Gregory, the marine agent at Quebec, came across floating debris and spars in the position where the ship should have been, and came to the conclusion that she had been lost with all hands. By this time a gale and drifting pans of ice had made the River a nightmare for shipping and, feeling very anxious for the safety of his men, Gregory pushed on to tow another lightship, the Lower Traverse, to shelter. It later transpired that the wreckage had been the masts cut away from a full rigged ship, and that the missing light vessel had managed to reach Eboulements wharf with all her crew safe.

Meanwhile, on the 18th, the Red Island ship had weighed anchor to run for shelter at the Brandy Pots, ". . blowing a terrific gale and not safe to anchor anywhere else."

Captain Levesque, the master of the lightship, recorded that:

". . . the sea was running very heavy at the time, so thick that we could not see anything before us. I rounded the ship to on the port helm and let go the anchor; took in jib and foresail, all the canvas that was on her at the time, and gave her chain as fast as we could; ship driving to leeward fast with gale; at 8:15 the ship was driving close to the breakers, which I now saw for the first time. I let go the second anchor, after which the ship commenced striking heavy, and saw that she was leaking in the engine-room."

Despite every precaution, the Red Island ship became flooded completely in the heavy pounding she received, and the crew were forced to lash themselves in the rigging, swept constantly by icy breakers. When the weather moderated briefly later in the morning, the men took to their one remaining boat, which had been secured to the rigging, and made sail, baling for their lives, to Cacouna. The master made his way back to the agency in time to join the Napoleon in her search during which, on the 23rd, strenuous efforts at salvage failed, and the Red Island ship was abandoned for the winter where she had struck, half a mile below White Island.

While all this was going on, the Manicouagan lightship had been having a strenuous time. Early in November, a succession of gales with driving snow had accompanied the freeze-up and, on the 13th, Captain Thomas Connell of the Manicouagan sighted a sailing ship aground near his lightship which by that time was totally surrounded by ice. Despite repeated attempts, efforts to drag his lifeboat to the rescue failed, and Captain Connell had to content himself with sounding the foghorn to encourage the crew of the stranded ship. On the 15th, the master made one more desperate try himself, was able to discover only that the crew had not been rescued, and it was after great difficulty that he managed to regain his ship.

After several more boat attempts, as it was fast becoming unsafe for the Manicouagan to remain on station, Captain Connell decided to weigh anchor and get as near as possible to the wreck in his lightship, under sail.

"I then stood down for the wreck, but at 10 a.m., before I got down, the wind, coming in from the east, fell light and being flood tide I drifted to the westward, still blowing fog alarm signals to endeavour to get an answer from the crew of the wreck. At noon, finding all exertions unavailing, and being aware that the people on the northeast end of Manicouagan, abreast the wreck, are provided with small flats, by means of which they could render any assistance that was possible, I deemed it useless to remain any longer."

After a terrible passage, with hurricane winds and driving snow, the Manicouagan was eventually picked up by the Napoleon on November 21. During the intervening period the crew were driven off the deck more than once by sweeping seas and bitter cold, and the ship became unmanageable at times from ice on deck and in the gear. Connell recorded his deep disappointment that he was unable to assist the wreck and felt that, with steam, he might have been able to get her.

". . . if the lightship had propelling power by steam I would have got to the wreck, and could have rendered assistance to the unfortunate sufferers, if any survived, and would have reached Quebec with my ship."

So strongly did Captain Connell feel about the matter, that he wrote an article which was published in the Morning Chronicle. He had a gift for expression, and concluded on a note of thankfulness:

"I feel, Mr. Editor, that I have already trespassed too much on your valuable space, and far beyond the limits which I assigned to myself on commencing; but I really cannot conclude without making it public, that it is to the patent anchor, known as Martins patent, with which Mr. Gregory had provided the lightship, that myself and crew owe our safety. For it was that which enabled us to ride out the gale of the 18th, and saved us off Goose Island reef."

Mr. Gregory, a man of great character who became a legend on the River, had this to say:

". . . arrangements will be made at the opening of navigation next season to place the Manicouagan lightship back on her old station. She is still under the charge of Captain Connell, one of the most experienced pilots of the Lower St. Lawrence, and it is very important that the light vessel stationed at that dangerous place should be under the charge of an able and reliable seaman and good pilot."

After the loss of the Red Island lightship, she was replaced, in the following year, by a similar vessel to the Manicouagan which had been found too small for the Sambro station, off Halifax.

The Sambro had been placed in position in November 1872 some four or five miles to the northwest of Sambro Island. However, in this exposed situation, she nearly foundered from stress of weather and the master signalled for assistance and was brought into Halifax. Here again, the case was made for fitting the light vessel with steam propelling machinery.

"It is not likely that she will be fit to be placed in that exposed position again, as in heavy weather a vessel at anchor there would experience the whole sweep of the Atlantic ocean, and it would probably require a much larger vessel than this one, with a spar deck, and a screw with steam power, to be used in heavy gales, to enable her to keep such an exposed position."

The lightships were eventually fitted with propelling machinery; in retrospect we can see that, despite handicaps, the young Canadian Marine Service, in 1872 but five years old, already had a reputation based on acceptance of hard duty as being all in the days work. So it remains in the Canadian Coast Guard today.

By the turn of the century, lightships of modern design began to be built in Canada and when, in 1903, the Board of Trade at Saint John, N.B. requested that a light vessel be stationed on the Lurcher shoals, it was to Polson of Toronto that the contract was entrusted.

In the event, two vessels were ordered, the first to protect the approaches to the Bay of Fundy at the Lurcher shoal, the second to be moored off the northeast coast of Anticosti Island. The new lightships were 112 feet long, were built of steel, and had two masts and no bowsprit; in common with most steamers of the day, they carried a jury rig of fore and aft sails, but they were fitted with propelling machinery of reasonable power. Best of all, they had oversize mushroom anchors and Lloyds tested stud link cable fitted in a generous hawse pipe merging into the stem. The lights were electric, comprising seventh order lenses at each masthead and showed an occulting light visible at thirteen miles from all points of approach. The foghorn was a compressed air diaphone, supported by a steam whistle as "second wind" and a bell was provided in case the wind instruments became inoperative. In February 1904 the Lurcher light vessel was placed on station.

Photo: Schooner Thomas F. Bayard, ex Mermaid

After conversion from the schooner Thomas F. Bayard, ex Mermaid, the Sand heads lightship is shown on station off the month of the Fraser River, B.C.

Photo: The last Canadian lightship; under way to take up station on the Lurcher shoal, Bay of Fundy

The last Canadian lightship; under way to take up station on the Lurcher shoal, Bay of Fundy.

Some lightships continued to be ordered from England and one of them, Halifax No. 19, was overturned in a gale in 1914 after stranding on a rocky shore at Liscombe, N.-S., in course of delivery. In this tragedy all the crew were lost.

At the time of writing the Lurcher is the only Canadian lightship remaining on station, and may well be the last, although two or three are in reserve. The actual vessel now employed is one of a type built from 1950 to 1959 in Canadian shipyards; 128 feet long, these ships are fully equipped as aids to navigation and have diesel propelling machinery of some 500 H.P. Although very different from the schooner conversions of early days and subsequent types, the lightship is now becoming extinct in Canada as elsewhere in favour of the offshore tower.