Life on a Lighthouse by Grandma Stannard c. 1927

Life on a Lighthouse by Grandma Stannard c. 1927

– Elizabeth Kate (Stannard) Smithman (Wife of Henry Herbert Smithman who was Senior Keeper at Sisters Island 1927 – 1929) 

Ballenas  and Sisters  Islands 

I thought you might be interested to hear about “Life On a Lighthouse”. 

We lived on them for about 5 ½ to 6 years and I guess we would have stayed and made a lifetime job of it but Bert [my husband] got very sick and had to be taken off to hospital where after a lingering illness he passed away. 

Well some folks think it must be very lonesome life but there’s too much to do to get lonesome and besides, it’s a wonderful, interesting life. 

We were on two different lights. The first one was the best as it was a bigger island and we could have a garden and there was lots of room for the children to play, however I took sick and as we thought lighthouse life did not suit me, Bert asked to be replaced by another light keeper. 

We moved to Parksville, [Vancouver island, BC, Canada] where we had been getting our mail, etc. 

Anyway I was no better (for awhile anyway) but after some time I improved but we had learned that it wasn’t being on a lighthouse that caused my sickness so we put in for another. 

It wasn’t long before we got another but it was not as good as the first one. However the government promised Bert that if he took this one, we would get a bigger one as soon as there was a vacancy. We were going to make a move to a beautifull lighthouse in 6 months when Bert took ill and went to hospital. We were going to Point Atkinson Lighthouse near West Vancouver and the boys could have gone to school on land. 

Ballenas Island c. 1929 - photo Allen Smithman

Both lighthouses we were on were in The Gulf of Georgia. One was 30 miles up from Nanaimo and the other 45 miles. The first was Ballenas Island and the second Sisters Rock and it was well named too for it was bare rock alright – nothing would grow there. 

We took a cat and a dog with us but both got sick and took convulsions and Bert had to shoot them. They went crazy because they could get no green grass. (There had been two lightkeepers go crazy on there too – not because of not getting green grass of course, but too lonesome). Each had lived alone and never saw anyone. 

Sisters Island c. 1927 - photo Allen Smithman

Sisters Rock was about 100 yards long, about 75 ft wide and only 10 ft above high tide. It was nothing for the waves to come splashing up against the kitchen windows, and in a bad storm the waves would hit the bedroom windows on the second floor. Anything around loose would be washed away, but of course one got wise and never left anything lying around loose. (One light keeper had 6 tons of coal washed away). 

The houses and building have thick cement basements built deep down into the rocks. Every window has a storm window built in and every door has storm doors. Each walkway, (such as the walkway to the light tower and to the fog alarm building) has an iron railing on both sides and believe me they are sure needed. You may have noticed too, a light tower that is surrounded by iron railings. The light keeper lashes himself to this railing with rope on a stormy day or night when he tries to scrape away ice and snow from the tower windows. 

The fog alarm has to be kept going when it is foggy or snowing a blizzard. This alarm is also use when it is smoky in summer from forest fires. In the fog alarm building there are two big Fairbanks-Morse gas engines. It only takes one to run the fog alarm but when one breaks down the light keeper has to get the other one going. He then must fix the one that broke down in case the other fails, for the fog alarm must be kept going when it is foggy. The engine compresses air and when it gets to a certain degree it sends out a heavy blast at certain intervals. The Ballenas had 3 blasts in succession and The Sisters had 2 blasts in succession. These blasts are a guide to Mariners as well as a guard (or warning) for they know where they are by the number of blasts. 

The same applies to the light. Each lighthouse has a different number of flashes it sends out. A person might think on looking at the flashes of the lighthouse that the light or lamp itself is going around but it is not. The light (or lamp) stands still but there is a revolving reflector that goes around the lamp and it has a very strong magnifying glass. The Sisters had 2 and The Ballenas had 3. When this goes past the light itself, well, it sends out the flashes. The fuel used for the light is petroleum vapour (or coal oil) [kerosene] and is pressure fed through a tube. Someone has to be on watch all night. A clock mechanism which has to be wound every 2 ½ hours rotates the lens. 

We had a tube burst one night and if no one had been on watch I shudder to think what would have happened. The whole lighthouse would have burned down for this one just had three minutes start and the whole tower was ablaze. If the one on watch had not the quick sense to turn off the flow of oil, well, we would sure have had the whole thing ablaze – tower, house and everything would have gone up in smoke, (for the tower was in the house but up oodles of stairs.) 

Of course all light towers are not in the house – only where there’s not room enough for a separate house and tower. (On Ballenas the house and tower were separate as there was more room to build). 

Light keepers have to take a four-month supply of food when they go on as there’s no way of getting anything otherwise. No stores to run to and no neighbours to borrow from, ha ha. 

The government boat called a lighthouse tender [probably the Estevan] calls around every 4 or 5 months. Light keepers ordered groceries from wholesalers in Victoria and it is delivered to the government wharf and loaded on the tender and they bring it when they are coming up that way. 

Of course, if help is needed for sickness, when a light keeper gives 4 blasts on the fog alarm, any boat within hearing distance must come as that’s “A Distress Signal”, and if they don’t well, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes for it is a very strict offence. 

We were going to give the distress signal one afternoon. Bert had gone out and got the engine started but he sure hated to bother anybody. He kept coming out of the engine room listening in case the lighthouse tender might come. We had been expecting it for weeks. He came running into the house to ask me to come and listen very carefully and say if I could hear anything. Sure enough, he had heard the old diesel engines of the tender and we were so glad. 

What we needed help for was Leverne. He was suffering terribly with a bad abscess on his knee. It was getting worse every day and I had done all I could to treat it. I had given up completely and he was crying with the pain all the time. We waited for 4 hours and then the tender came. You see we could hear these diesel engines for miles and miles off. 

The mate and a deck hand rowed in with a row boat for no big boat could come close to the rocks. Bert met them at the boat slip and asked them to take Leverne to Nanaimo to the hospital. They turned the tender around and Leverne and I got in and went to Nanimo with them. We took a taxi from the wharf to the hospital and they operated on his knee right away. They said it was only just in time as infection had set in. 

We were there nearly three weeks and it was two days before Christmas then. I wanted to be back on the lighthouse for Christmas as Bert was there with the other three boys. 

I phoned The Government Office to see if any boats were going up that way, but everyone was off on Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I went all around the wharf looking and asking anyone with a boat to please take us up to the lighthouse. No one wanted to go at any price! They knew the old gulf too well and didn’t want to risk it. I kept going back and asking them to please take a chance and go. At last an older chap said “alright we will start out but I don’t think we will make it.” 

I went and got Leverne and my packages (for I had been Christmas shopping). I also had a big pack of fresh meat as we could not get fresh meat and had had none for so long at the lighthouse. 

Well we got started out and it wasn’t long before we got in a storm. He wanted to turn back but I begged him to keep going and that we would make it. I felt many times in the next few hours that I should have let him turn back, for I was sick and the boat was rolling terribly. A person couldn’t sit down or lie down. We were tossing about terribly, and then it began to get dark and believe me, you have to be on the water and in a small boat to realize just what it is like to be tossed about without it being dark too. We just had a headlight on the front and we had a lantern in the little cabin. It started to thunder and lightning outside as if we weren’t going through enough as it was. Well after hours of going through a little H—, we eventually saw the light, but even then we did not know if we could make it. If we did, the next thing was “How were we going to get out of the boat, and where?” 

When we got closer to the light the old chap started to toot his horn for all he was worth and at last Bert came out with a lantern making signals in semaphore saying “Whoever we were not to try landing.” The old chap sent the signals “I have your wife and son.” His answer came “For God’s sake on a night like this – better try landing, but come around to the other side.” 

Bert had a lasso ready, and pulled the boat in as close as he could. He told us to jump as the waves took the boat up but I told him we had packages also. He said to throw them to him and he would lay them on the rocks and then for us to jump. I told him I had not got enough money to finish paying the old chap. He said for him to go across to a bay with his boat and anchor ’till it got calm then come over and get his money. (You see he couldn’t leave the boat at the lighthouse, for it would get battered to pieces on the rocks, for lots of boats had done just that). 

The old chap had to make it across 5 miles to a bay and come over after it calmed down so it was a couple of days before he could come back. We would like to have had him in for Christmas dinner but he could not come in. Bert went out to him and paid him and took him some Christmas cake, oranges, nuts, and a bottle of ginger wine I had made several weeks before. It cost me $20 to get home but it was worth it to be home for Christmas. 

Yes, the old Gulf of Georgia can get pretty rough, Many a time Bert and Teddie, and sometimes Stanley, had started out for the mail (6 miles over to the Post Office and Store) and before they could get started back it would come up awfully rough. I would watch for them and so often have thought a big wave had swallowed them up, then I would see them again, and I would feel so relieved. Then another big wave would come and my hopes were dampened again. At last, nearly dark, I would hear Bert calling and there they were waiting for the boat carrier to be let down so they could get the boat up to safety, for it would never do to leave it in the water as it would get battered to bits. It was a big huge row boat and 2 people were needed to row it, or should I say work it or handle it. Then they would unload the boat and if they had to get groceries, for sometimes a person runs out of things of their four months supply which they are supposed to have on hand. Sometimes if they had got flour or sugar it would be soaked with the waves going over the boat, but a person thinks nothing of that so long as they get home safely. 

Believe me, a person doesn’t go over for mail anymore often than they can help. When it gets to be a month or 6 weeks and no mail, well a person takes a chance and goes over for it. 

That is one thing disgusting about the Government. Why should a light keeper have to go and fetch his mail and take his life in his hands that way? I never understood why a light keeper is the lowest paid Government employee. He should be the highest. No fooling! For the risk he has to take and all the responsibility he has! 

The lightkeepers never got holidays at that time. In the later years the light keepers all amalgamated and demanded holidays with pay and they got it. The government would keep a man employed as a relief man to light keepers and he would go to first one lighthouse and then another until they had all had their two week holidays. 

Talking of getting mail reminds me how we used to get fishermen to mail letters for us during fishing season. Bert would tie the letters in a big bundle and put a big rock on with them. He had to throw them on to the fish boat as he couldn’t get near because of the swell they were making. They were big fish boats going back and forth from Seattle up to Alaska. We never put stamps on the letters in case they were mailed in U.S.A. so we put monev in with the letters. Sometimes we would catch a boat that was going maybe to Victoria. We never knew just where some of them were going but we did know they would always mail them for everybody was glad to do anything for a lightkeeper. One time I had a couple of letters I did so want to get them to Qualicum Beach as soon as I could for I had had them waiting ready for so long. Bert went out to a boat which looked like a Canadian fisherman and threw the letters onboard. When he came in he said “Well, your letters will soon be there now for their first stop is San Francisco”. (Qualicum Beach was about 8 miles from us. Ha Ha). 

The boys and their daddy used to do quite a bit of fishing in good weather in the boat and lots of times Teddie and Stanley used to fish off the rocks. One day they were fishing off the rocks and had no shoes or stockings on and Teddie happened to look down at Stanley’s feet and there was a young Octopus just starting to put a tentacle on his toes. Teddie grabbed him and pulled him away quick, for those darn things sure have some powerful suction cups on those tentacles of theirs. Bert caught one one day – speared it with a pike pole. They are awful looking creatures and gee can they hold fast with those suction cups as they are called. 

That reminds me – one day we saw a whale. We heard it coming for miles, as it was being chased by a sword fish and a thrasher, as they are called. I will explain how these two brutes kill a whale. The thrasher has two long arms and it brings up one of these and whoops it over the whale. The thrasher is on top of the whale and the sword fish is underneath, so when the thrasher whoops it with its arm it sends the whale down on the sword fish. When the whale strikes the sword fish it lets out such a mournful wailing, or howl, or painful grunt. It’s pitiful to hear it. Well they kept this up for hours as far as we could see, and then we went indoors. They must have circled back, because when we went out again we could see blood all in the water so I guess they killed it. 

Another thing which was amusing – not terrible like watching a whale getting killed – was how dog fish used to come around in droves (shoals is the right word for fishes I guess). Anyway, they were so thick in the water and so close to the rocks that the boys used to go down the slipway with poles and push them around in the water and have lots of fun. Another laughable thing the boys used to do was follow the small fisherman in their row boats and pick up the deep sea cod which the fisherman would throw overboard and bring them indoors to cook. They were good eating, but the fisherman did not want them, as their live tanks were not deep enough for them, so they just floated up and died. These live tanks are where they put the fish they catch and keep them alive until they go and unload at a cannery. These deep sea cod are red all over outside but the meat is a pale pink and delicious. 

Well I guess I’ll soon quit about lighthouses; it may never be read anyway, but I will mention how light keepers get their stove wood. They caught driftwood as it drifts along and there’s generally lots of bark on it and does that ever burn and throw the heat out. They also catch all the rain water for household use. It is caught in a large cistern drum and then pumped from this cistern when needed. Believe me, we did not waste water on a lighthouse for you might find yourselves without water. If there’s a long dry season the government lighthouse tender would have to bring barrels of water to you. 

I’ll just mention the schooling then I’ll close. Children get their schooling by correspondence courses and lessons are supposed to be sent to Victoria every month if its possible. The parents have to be the teacher. I took on that job for we had to have a plan so all of us could get a certain amount of sleep. We would work it like this: Bert would go to bed right after supper after he lit the light, I would call him about 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. and he would get up and watch from then ’till the light could be put out at daylight. I would go to bed when he got up at 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. and at about 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. he would call me by bringing my breakfast. Bert got it, then we would start schooling and stay at it till about 4:00 p.m. Lots of time though the boys would stay up and give me a change off and then of course they would have to study in the evening. Then too the boys often had to stay in the fog alarm building and keep the engine running if it was a long run of fog or smoke so that Bert could get some sleep. Teddie could run those engines as good as his daddy could. What a boy! 

We were all sorry when we had to leave the lighthouse. I tried to get the Government to let us stay on them even after Bert passed away but a new law had come out. No widows could stay and run a lighthouse. No doubt if Teddie had been a young grown-up man we could have kept on then. Teddie eventually went back on lighthouses as assistant and in the end was running a lighthouse while the light keeper was in hospital and made out swell. Stanley went up and stayed with him during school holidays and helped him. 

The captains on some of the big liners used to toot to me and at night they would signal with their lights. I will never forget the old captain of the liner who used to call in at False Bay where we used to get the boat. If used to go home to New Westminster to visit with my Mum and Dad or go home when I was going to have a baby. Well, I had been home this time I’m going to tell about and I guess I was going back to the lighthouse this night. There was just one boat a week – Monday evening at a quarter to six in Vancouver. I had to catch it but I missed a bus in New Westminster and it sure made heck of my plans as I had just left myself nice time to make the boat if I had caught that bus. Anyway, I had to wait at the corner for the next one and when we got to Vancouver Depot I had just 7 minutes. A taxi came along. I hailed it but there was a gentleman already in it. He made the taxi driver stop and let me in. I guess he took pity on me for it was pouring with rain and I had lots of bundles, and two little kids hanging on to me. When we got to the wharf he said “Jump out lady. I’ve paid for you too.” 

I went half running up along the long gangway to the boat for the whistle had gone for it to pull out. The captain saw me and he called out of his wheel cabin “Don’t run lady, we will wait for you! If we don’t your husband won’t give us any light tonight and we will surely need it.” I went up in his cabin later on and thanked him so much for waiting. He gave me a hot drink as I was soaked through. He always used to signal to me after that when he passed the lighthouse. It was just as if I had visited with him. 

Later, I got to thinking after I wrote about catching the bus to get the boat going to lighthouse that there were no buses as that time, just street cars and the B.C. Electric Trams used to run to Vancouver. A person got the street car and went down to the bottom of 12th street and transferred onto the tram there. That is, the people who lived up the hill like Grandma and Grandad did. Of course people living out in Sapperton or people downtown would get the tram at the old B.C. Electric Depot, at Columbia Street at the bottom of 8th street. It used to take a long time to get to Vancouver those days. The tram would stop at every little place along the line. It used to go Central Park way and cross Kingsway, and on into the depot near Woodwards so you can guess how I worried about whether I would catch the boat O.K. 

Another thing I want to mention is about the time Bert got marooned over on the mainland once when he went for mail. We were on Ballenas Island then and Bert left in good weather to go and get mail and a few supplies as were getting low on eats. We used to get mail at Craig’s Crossing but had to go to Parksville for supplies as it was just a Post Office at Craig’s. Anyway, Bert got his mail and supplies OK but when he got started out in open water it got pretty rough so he had to turn back and go to a cove for shelter. It started to snow and freeze and he had eggs, flour, sugar etc. in the row boat. He had to dig down into the sand deep enough to bury all his supplies to keep them from freezing and he got into an old shed or cabin at the cove for shelter. Next day he thought it was calmed down enough to try it again so he dug up his supplies and loaded them up again and started out, but he had to turn back and do the same thing all over again. He did this three or four times and had to keep turning back and taking shelter. After the first time he went and borrowed some blankets for himself from the Post Office people as he was afraid he might get frozen to death as it was so bitterly cold. Each time he made up his mind to start out he would take the blankets back and then would have to go and borrow them again. 

Well this went on for over a week, then one day I was looking though the binoculars and I saw a tiny dot on the water miles and miles away and I said “I think Daddy is on his way home for it is in the direction he generally comes.” You see, we did not know whether he was drowned, or what had happened to him all this time. Talk about being worried (that’s no name for it believe me). We had an assistant light keeper with us at this time thank goodness, for I don’t know how we would have made out for it was snowing a blizzard and the fog alarm had to be kept going all the time as well as the light. Anyway, after a few hours we saw Bert coming over the island from the boat house, it was about ½ mile to the boat house from the lighthouse at Ballenas. Of course I had kept looking at short intervals through the glasses to try and make sure if it was Bert and I wasn’t really sure whether it was him or someone coming to tell us something had happened to him. 

You can guess how happy we all were when we saw it was “Our Daddy” back safe and he was just as happy that he was home after all he had been through. He had a beard and moustache and he sure looked old and different. 

I keep remembering different items I would like to mention in connection to “Life on A Lighthouse” and these one or two things I would like to write down. 

One evening while I was taking the night watch till 2:30 a.m. I was sitting writing a letter and all at once I heard a lot of noise like a big engine and lots of music playing. I jumped up and went outside and I was struck nearly speechless for there was a big Alaska liner so close to the lighthouse, just over the highest reef in the rocks that was there. The music and singing sounded so close. I stood there waiting every second to hear it crash. I thought of the Titanic instantly and I was afraid to even move. My first thought was of course was that the light had gone out but just then I saw a flash go over the liner and I knew the light was OK. It gave me such a scare, I was shaking all over and I went and called Bert to look at the big liner that had just gone right over the top of the reef. He said “My God!” If those people had only known just how close they had come to disaster they wouldn’t be singing like that – of course they would have sung “Nearer My God to Thee” like the people on the Titanic did. (Strange he should think of that disaster too). It was really a pretty sight. (The liner itself I mean) for it was all lit up and it looked like a big long tall Christmas tree. Bert and Ijust could not figure how it was so much off course. The only thing we could pin it down to was “They must have all been drinking.” 

Another night I was taking hot coffee out to Bert at the fog alarm building (as he had been running it for hours) and as I walked along with my lantern and the coffee what should loom right up near me but the mast of a ship. I thought I had seen a ghost at first and I hurried the rest of the way to the engine room and Bert looked at me and said “Whatever is the matter with you dear? Have you seen a ghost?” I said “Yes, I have! Come and look!” When he saw it he did not know what to think about it and there was nothing we could do. The front of the boat was wedged into the rocks. It was too foggy, but when daylight came and the fog lifted it was gone. 

Another morning as I came downstairs after just getting up I saw big logs all over the rocks. The first thing I thought was that Bert had dropped off to sleep and the light has stopped or had gone out. When I asked him what happened he said “The tide had carried them [the tugboat] off course and the boom of logs had stuck the rocks and it broke.” The logs went all over the rocks and they had to hurry to disconnect the boom from the tug as it was hugging pretty close to the rocks too. 

There were generally three tugs with booms that used to travel down the inside passage together but the tide was so strong that one tug was just below the lighthouse rocks and it had struck the rocks and the other was above the lighthouse rocks. Bert said he had been watching them for hours and they kept drifting closer and closer to the lighthouse all the time. He was sure one of them could not help crashing over the rocks which it finally did. The next big windstorm washed them all off again and I guess they would be salvaged off of some beach somewhere sometime. 

Strange part about this thing was when we moved to the mainland. Teddie and the rest of the boys started school there. Teddie was chummy with a boy whose Grandad was a captain of a tug and he started to tell Teddie about a boom of logs his Grandad lost off the lighthouse station and Teddie laughed and said, “Yes we were there and saw it.” 

I’m writing and thinking this particular item over about which lighthouse it was where the log episode happened and it was Ballenas Island Light Station for it was at Parksville School where the chum of Teddie spoke about his Grandad was a Captain and he lost a boom of logs. 

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Retired (2001) British Columbia lighthouse keeper after 32 years on the lights.

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