LIFE AS A LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER ON ISLE HAUTE (August 1/03)

I barely touched on some of the more interesting aspects of the Bay of Fundy’s Isle Haute when I wrote about it here two weeks ago. For example, Isle Haute, or high island, was aptly named by Champlain since its stupendous cliffs tower some 300 feet above the ocean. Due to these rugged cliffs there are only a few points where access to the island is possible.

As noted, I based my column on marine historian Dan Conlin’s Nova Scotia Museum curatorial report, prepared following an expedition to the island in 1997. In the report Mr. Conlin included details about the manned Isle Haute lighthouse which existed there for almost 80 years. Following are some of the highlights of the lighthouse history.

As shipping traffic increased in the Bay of Fundy in the 19th century, it became obvious that a lighthouse was necessary on Isle Haute. While first suggested in 1855 and “strongly recommended by the Royal Navy in 1857” due to a hazardous ledge west of the island, the lighthouse on Isle Haute wasn’t erected until decades later.

The lighthouse was established on the island in 1878 and its first keeper was Leon Card. This was a 53 foot, four storey wooden tower with an attached dwelling. From the shore to the lighthouse Card constructed a mile-long road “on a grade that will permit stores etc. to be hauled to the station.” The keeper cleared and cultivated fields around the lighthouse, built a wharf and shed and a 33-foot schooner.

One would think life as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island would be a dreary, lonely existence with little work to do and little if any recreation. However, Conlin’s account tells us Card and his family, wife and daughter, joined him on the island and they ran a productive farm. “The island eventually proved quite productive with regular exports of sheep, cattle and hay leaving the island in boats and barges,” Conlin says. There was even a short-lived experiment by a New Brunswick company to set up a fox farm.

Card and his family did have periods of serious isolation. In wintertime ice, tides and storms cut them off the mainland for weeks at a time. The keeper created a system of communication with fires which could be seen from Advocate, the nearest mainland community. “One fire meant all was well,” Conlin writes. “Two fires meant someone was sick, while three meant a doctor was needed. Four fires meant a death.”

Ironically, Conlin says, the isolation of winter was replaced by large numbers of visitors in summertime. “At the time when the Bay of Fundy was ringed by busy fishing and shipping ports, the island provided an ideal gathering place for Sunday picnics and special outings known as ‘Bay Parties’.

“At the turn of the century up to 300 people would arrive on the island on a single day with July 12 gatherings organised by the Orange Lodge fraternal order. A gathering took place in 1881 when two boatloads of guests arrived on the island for the marriage of the keeper’s daughter, Ida Card.”

Human occupation of the island came to an end in 1956 and was replaced by an automated light, Conlin says. Today a solar powered light serviced by the Canadian Coast Guard now warns mariners of the hazardous reefs around Isle Haute.

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