Life on First Narrows Lighthouse and Fog Station c. 1915+

Capilano Lighthouse behind the Empress of Japan - photo Dudley Booth

 

– a letter written by Dorothy Mawdsley (Harris) Harrop (daughter of first light keeper, George Alfred Harris, at Capilano 1915 – 1925),  with special thanks to Alfred Harrop, grandson of George Alfred Harrop, for letting me post the text of the letter.

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This letter is a bit long, as people were prone to write a lot before the advent of computers. If you have the time, this is a fascinating story of life way back then. – JAC

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Perhaps my grandchildren will take time to read this when I am long gone. We came to Vancouver  in 1909. I had just turned my 13th birthday. My father could not get work of any description. He had a Chief Engineer Ticket from Liverpool [UK]  but owing to the B.C. laws he was not allowed to work as an engineer even on a small tug in the inlet. It must have been very hard on both my father and my mother. 

Along about that time my brother had a tubercular gland taken from the side of his neck, I had an abscessed ear and my mother had blood poisoning. Had the doctor not come to see us and notice that she was not well it would have been the end of her. He took her in his horse and buggy to the hospital and my grandmother came and looked after us. 

In spring of 1915 he (father) got a job to look after the boiler at the Anvil Island Brick Company plant at Anvil Island . I should have said by this time he had sat for his 3rd class ticket. Whether he ever got his 2nd class I do not know but imagine he had. 

We left Mt. Pleasant  and went to live at Anvil Island, for at least the summer. We had not been there but a week or two when he was given the First Narrows Light and Fog Station  [aka Capilano]. I cannot remember but have a notion it was end of April 1915 when he took over. The light was first used May 17,1915 the day after my 17th birthday. The Fog horn was started June 1, 1915. 

Capilano lighthouse at low tide - photo Dudley Booth

It must have been rather hard him living there by himself. I do not know the dimensions of the lighthouse but it was full of engines. Two engines were the same and were there in case one broke down, then an air compressor which was linked with belts to pulleys from the engine to the wall and then up to a higher pulley and across to the compressor, hence by pipes to the fog horns. Cannot remember how often it went but the people of West Van called Pt. Atkinson  the old cow and our horn the calf.

He had a small coal oil stove to cook on and had a canvas bag sort of affair with a single sized spring fitted into it and a mattress and his bedding. In the day time this was pulled up to the ceiling and at night , if I remember rightly it rested on part of one of the engines and the small table he had to eat on. If it was foggy he could not have his bed down and used to cat nap sitting in an old wooden rocking chair with a high back with his feet on what ever was handy. Mother made some sort of a pad to go on the back of the chair because he was so thin the wooden rungs made his back sore. 

Mother, my brother Leslie, and I left Anvil Island late in the summer because the plant closed down and we lived at the Woodland Apts on Woodland (Vancouver)  drive the winter of 1913 and spring 1914. Early in the spring the house adjoining the light house was finished so we moved there. My brother went to the Hollyburn school and I was working part time then. 1 had started work 1 July 4th 1910 to help out at home and received the princely sum of $15 a month. My mother would only take half. I had not worked the summer of 1913 tho but went back part time when we came back to Vanc’r. 

While living at the Woodland Apts. I had my first auto ride. Some man wanted some typing done and Miss Mansfield (the public Steno I worked for) was not at home and her sister said I could do it. The man said he didn’t care who did it as long. as it was done so he took me down to his office. Needless to say I had lots to talk about my first ride. Can’t even remember the man’s name now. 

Back to the lighthouse story now. I was laid off the end of the summer of 1914 and from then on all I did was row back and forth to 17th St. Wharf’ trolling for any fish that would commit suicide. Really cannot remember any fish being that foolish. When I look back on that time I wonder how I put my time in. Of course I spent most of the time messing around the engines with my father and I knew how to start them to make the horn go. 

Can remember one time my father was so proud of me. Cannot remember what year but my brother must have been working. At least he was not at home and my parents had gone to town and I was left to hold the ‘fort’. When any of us were coming home on the ferry the Capts would give a little toot as they passed the Lighthouse and gave somebody time to row to the Point and pick which ever of us it was up and bring us home. This particular day I saw this dark cloud out towards Vanc’r Isl. I knew it was fog and kept a watch on it. Gradually it came closer and I knew the horn hard to be started soon. I had never starter’ them without my father being there but this time I had to depend on myself and what I knew. Got one engine going and then there was this long belt to get onto the fly wheel. That done. Now to get the other belt back to the compressor. That done and then to run for a minute and then two or three tap affairs to open for the horn. The ferry tooted just as everything was ready to go and my father heard the horn as the ferry had passed. Unless the wind was blowing from the west one could not hear the horn east of the house. I didn’t think much of what I had done because it was just part of my life being around the engines but my father was so proud of me that it was painful to me. 

Could go on and on about things, not as drastic as that but other things that happened there. One day my brother brought a friend home for supper and we had tripe and onions. This boy had never tasted that dish and asked my mother about it. He had liked it and wanted to know more about it. When he found out what it was he made a beeline for the door and lost all his tripe over the railings. 

Another time we were having dinner just the four of us bickering at each other over some silly thing. My brother sat with his back to the wall and my father was opposite him. We had chicken that night and my father had the leg and he up and threw it at my brother. My brother ducked and splat on the wall. Every year my mother painted the V joint and it was robin egg blue at the time and needless to say the splat made quite a mark on that wall. 

Another time we had one of the old fashioned coal oil stove that you could carry by a handle from room to room for heat. This day my mother lighted it and put it in the hall, right in the middle of the house. It had never acted up before but this time it smoked and it wasn’t noticed till my bedroom, and my brothers was hanging thick with hairy soot. It took my mother days to clean everything up. 

I have forgotten all about the light. Well from the engine room one climbed a ladder to the light and then dropped a trap door affair down. The lamp was a lovely brass lamp that held a certain amount of coal oil that would last so many hours. It was kept polished like a mirror. Around the outside of the lamp was very thick glass. I don’t know how to describe that though. If I remember rightly there were 4 sections to these lenses and they were connected to a gadget that had to be wound up and it revolved slowly round to make an on and off appearance. Everything was cleaned and shone to perfection. All this had to be set down in a sort of log, time lighted and time turned off. My father wrote a beautiful hand and I would dearly love to have the book that he kept the times in. Just like copper plate writing. A separate book was kept for the on and off of the horn. Around the top outside the light was a platform and the thick plate glass there was cleaned every day. The salt coated it when the wind blew or it rained and was streaky.

Perhaps at the end of this I will write some of the things seen from the walkway around the outside of the light. 

My brother was drowned from the Princess Louise on her return maiden trip to Alaska and not very long after that, about Armistice day, if I remember rightly my father took to his bed. He knew his time was limited but kept going by sheer willpower. That was in 1924. March of 1925 he passed away at the lighthouse with only my mother there. I had made arrangements with her to go to town to buy a new hat. Was getting dressed when I noticed Cappie Edwards walking along Ottawa St. I hurried into my dress and as he came to the door I said “Am so glad you came, now you can give me a lift down to the wharf.” He just stood and looked at me. I knew by the look on his face that my father had gone. I walked into the other room until I could get hold of myself. Then we went down to the car and dropped daughter Dorothy (Budge) off with Auntie Lillle and he took me to the Lighthouse. 

Saw Frank (my husband) standing at the wharf but asked Cappie Edwards to go on. Then I remember that before Frank went to work that morning Mr. Gisby had come up and was talking to him outside, Frank went off to work, as I thought. Then Cappie Edwards took mother and I over town to make arrangements for the funeral. He was a wonderful help to us and I have never forgotten what he did. 

The funeral people came to the Lighthouse. Don’t remember who rowed them over but they had a basket thing to carry father in. They got it to the davit to lower it down and mother and I watching from the window. None of the men knew how to tie a knot that would’t slip. It was very thick rope and rather hard to tie, I must say. Ended up that I went out and tied it so that they could lower it into the row boat. Just had to forget that it was my father in it. What and how they managed after that I haven’t a clue. Father had wanted to be cremated and his ashes thrown into the narrows or else be buried in Capilano cemetary. 

Mr. Gisby was Reeve at the time and he tried and tried to get permission to have him buried there but the survey had not been completed so he was taken to the Moose Plot in Ocean View. About. 6 mths later Old Mr. Almas died and he was buried in Capilano Cem. and later they found they had buried him in a path. Instead of moving him they diverted the path and his grave is in the middle of the piece of ground. 

Capilano lighthouse now - the buoy at lower right!

There are so many things I could write but don’t suppose they would be of interest of any one. Now the Lighthouse has been burnt it has brought back such lovely and rather nasty thoughts of the years I spent there. Time goes on though and everything is forgotten by others. Only the ones that the things happen to remember. No doubt who ever reads this will think I am a doddering old so and so. Wait a few years and each one of you will be doing and thinking just as I am now, of your past life. Wonder whether yours will be any better than mine. That cannot be answered because each of us has our own way of looking, and thinking of things. All I can say is I wish I had done one thing especially that I didn’t do and my folks wanted me to. My life would certainly have been very different. Better or worse is hard to say. Just leaves a longing in my heart for what might have been. Any of you will be thinking just the same as I am. 

Won’t write more just now, but if I get the urge again sometime may add some more. Could really fill pages and pages. Wish I could write a book about it and change the names and places. Alas I am not clever so this will have to do. God Bless any who read this. 

Mother 

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Not to make a long story longer, but Dorothy had also written a small story about when she was alone on the lighthouse and had to start the foghorn by herself. – JAC

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My Father Was so Proud of Me c. 1918 

Can remember one time my father was so proud of me. Cannot remember what year but my brother must have been working. At least he was not at home and my parents had gone to town and I was left to hold the ‘fort’ (First Narrows Lighthouse – aka Capilano). 

When any of us were coming home on the ferry the captains would give a little toot as they passed the Lighthouse and gave somebody time to row to the Point and pick which ever of us it was up and bring us home. 

This particular day I saw this dark cloud out towards Vancouver Island. I knew it was fog and kept a watch on it. Gradually it came closer and I knew the horn hard to be started soon. 

I had never starter’ them without my father being there but this time I had to depend on myself and what I knew. Got one engine going and then there was this long belt to get onto the fly wheel. That done. Now to get the other belt back to the compressor. That done and then to run for a minute and then two or three tap affairs to open for the horn. 

The ferry tooted just as everything was ready to go and my father heard the horn as the ferry had passed. Unless the wind was blowing from the west one could not hear the horn east of the house. I didn’t think much of what I had done because it was just part of my life being around the engines but my father was so proud of me that it was painful to me. 

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