In the early twentieth century there were many navigational lights on the British Columbia coast maintained by individuals under contract. These were not lighthouses but pylons, piles, posts, rafts, or dolphins of wood or cement, or metal tanks made from disused military mooring buoys.
Upon these moorings was placed a kerosene (coal oil) lamp which would have to be tended. Some of the lights in accessible locations were lit before sunset and extinguished after sunrise, daily, weekly, for years, and with little pay.
Other lights were supplied with a two day lamp that remained lit for two days (the extent of the fuel reservoir) and then were changed over with a full, clean lamp. A later invention was a low maintenance, thirty-one day coal oil lamp. This also proved useless as it carboned up and was not very bright.
For example, before the real Capilano lighthouse (aka First Narrows) was established 1913 at the mouth of the Capilano river – List of Lights #394 – near the entrance to Vancouver Harbour, a black cylindrical tank was installed on a dolphin or piling, and a man was hired to row over and maintain the light and also wind the fog bell when it was installed at a later date. This was not an easy job because tides and fog competed with the Capilano river outflow to hamper any but the strongest of men.
When the Capilano lighthouse was automated in 1969, the lighthouse, complete with the engine room and residence on its wood pilings was burnt to the water and again a light beacon was established on a concrete pillar. This was later replaced with another beacon on a wood dolphin which stands today.
Another local light that was unwatched was Garry Point – List of Lights #333 – off the mouth of the Fraser River. Because of its location, this could be easily be reached by land and so did not require a manned station. It was probably maintained by a man from Steveston.
On the Victoria waterfront, Brotchie Ledge (List of Lights #205) offshore from Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, BC, and the light on the Ogden Point breakwater (List of Lights #204 ) were also unwatched in the early days. The breakwater was not a problem, but the row to the Brotchie Ledge light must have been a challenge with the tides through that area. Credit goes to the men that performed this necessary duty.
On one occassion, because of a shipwreck on the reef , a watchman rowed out to hang a lighted lantern on the foremast. Every morning he went out and took it down again. When the ship was replaced with a beacon in 1898, the light was still lit by a kerosene lamp and a man had to still row out twice daily to extinguish and light the lamp. This carried on until November 1900 when power was finally supplied.
– see Brotchie Ledge by Janis Ringuette
Further up the coast near Tofino lived Fred G. Tibbs (1886 – 1921) who was appointed keeper of the harbour lights after returning from World War 1 in 1917. These required his attention every other day. He was well-known for his eccentricities, but he is also well-remembered as an early pioneer of the Tofino area.
Tibbs owned an island just off the Tofino shoreline named Arnet Island “by the government to honour Tofino’s early pioneer of Norwegian decent” and also known by Tibbs as ‘Dream Isle’ and called by the locals ‘Castle Island’ and ‘Tibbs Island’. – Ken Gibson, Tofino historian.
In the early nineteen hundreds “they [the harbour lights] were all coal oil lamps at that time, big flat wooden floats with tripods on them and the light on the top of that.” – Trygve Arnet in “Settling Clayoquot” by Bob Bossin
Meares Spit light buoy (List of Lights #126), known locally as “Mission Point Light”, at the west end of Heynen Channel was one of the lights tended by Fred.
On July 5th, 1921, Fred Tibbs was tending the lights. On the first harbour light he took “a new lamp out and put it up” and took “the old one home to refuel it.”
“Well, anyway, that morning he’d attended to the first one and he went out to the far one off Mission Point. He just pulled the prow of the [flat-bottomed] skiff over this wooden platform float. Well, evidently there was a swell coming in from the ocean. While he was up doing the light, the skiff slipped off the float”.- Trygve Arnet in “Settling Clayoquot” by Bob Bossin
Fred was a good swimmer but circumstances proved too much. He eventually died from hypothermia while swimming after his boat.
“They say he finished the lamp before he tried to get his boat. He was so determined, you see.”- Alma Sloman in “Settling Clayoquot” by Bob Bossin
Fred Tibbs would be amazed to see his island today,and very surprised to see how much it is worth! $1,600,000 CDN!
I Need Your Help . . .
There is one problem that I would like your help with. I have located numerous BC locations associated with lights but no one seems to have mentioned them. Most of these unknowns were just lights (aids to navigation) looked after by local contractors who lived nearby – lit them at night and put them out in the morning.
Some of these, especially in the Fraser River were looked after by the Department of Public Works (DPW) from Steveston. Some of these unknown keepers moved onto manned lighthouses later on.
If you have any information on the following lights and/or their keepers please let me know.
Information in the table below is what I have collected so far on these unknowns, most of it from the British Columbia City Directories 1860-1940. If I have located a keeper’s name associated/working with these lights I have recorded them as well in the full lightkeeper database and marked the light with a star (*) after the name – the same as I have done in the next table.
Most of these locations (marked LL, plus number) are taken from the Canadian Government publication List of Lights and may not be the actual location of the tended lights for which I am searching.
The dates shown are for the periods when I have found data showing these lights were tended, not the length of time they were in service.
If you have any stories on these keepers or lights, please contact me.
Click on the photo below to access the Unwatched Lights list.
For a full list of lighthouse keepers from 1800s to present, including the keepers of the Unwatched Lights, please check the BC Lighthouse Keeper Database.