Life on the Lighthouses c. 1950s to 1960s

Nootka light

I receive links to lighthouse stories in the most unbelievable ways. This one arrived in the middle of an email addressed to someone else, which was then passed on to me.

After contacting this first writer I was passed on to another. To keep track of all my contacts I think I will soon need a secretary!

The first writer was Ms. R. Dawson, and her grandparents were on five British Columbia lighthouses for a total of twenty plus years staring in the 1940s. Ms. Dawson describes herself as an activist and I believe she is onboard with the lighthouse keepers against automation as she says: “Lighthouses have been under attack for decades by federal government politicians who have no idea as to their worth and see them as an easy target.”

After contacting Ms. Dawson, I was told that her Aunt Juanita was older and had more stories to tell, and that Aunt Juanita is the sole surviving child of Ms. Dawson’s grandparents/Juanita’s parents. So, Ms. Dawson contacted Aunt Juanita, and I then received an email from Juanita’s husband Roy DuLong.

I am guessing he was the secretary for his wife’s tales which I am passing on to you. In the email letter Aunt Juanita told me in her own excited words:

Art and Rita Swanson spent a lot of years on the lights.There were five (5) postings beginning at the tiny Fiddle Reef, and retirement from Cape Mudge. A span of roughly 20 years, and many memories.

 

I well remember the afternoon I first heard the word “Lighthouse”. Dad always checked the mail box at the bottom of our driveway when he got home from work. On this day, as usual, I rode the running-board of our old car, as we bumped up the driveway. Dad had a large envelope on the passenger’s seat, and a big wide smile on his face. Would you like to live on a lighthouse, Snooks’?!

 

Four year old children have little concept of actual dates and time. But it seemed no time at all before we’d exchanged our little house in Langford for the even smaller quarters at Fiddle Reef. My mother seemed less enthusiastic than Dad and I at first. But soon the little tower’s living spaces became cosy and homey. She [mother] manned the hand-operated foghorn, tented the lamps, took her shifts as any assistant did.

 

Between Fiddle Reef and Cape Mudge came Sister’s, Pine Island and Nootka, in that order.

 

The years on each of these postings shaped our lives. We went from lighting lamps (and babying mantles) to electricity. Once the engines could be started by switch or button, Mom could start or stop them. The early beasts needed to be started with a heavy (and determined) foot on one of the great wheels. Each foghorn had its own “voice” and rhythm. Each light had its own revolution and “code” of flashes. Of all the horns, Pine Island was the loudest!

 

It was, for the most part, a solitary life. My older brother,Tom, occasionlly pinch-hit as assistant. My sister Helen and family visited at the less isolated stations.

 

My schooling was by correspondence, except for two partial years “out”. At Nootka there were other children to play with. I did a couple of semesters at the Reserve’s two room school house. Here too, we met a family from the tiny island of Savaedra.

 

Each of these stations have memories and stories. My parents are long dead now. But their legacy to me was a love of the outdoors, self sufficiency and never-ending curiosity about the eagles, sea lions, whales and the others that I saw every day. Life, undiluted, and non-computerized! As most lighthouse folk will say “I’d go back in a minute!”

 

In the beginning dialogue with Ms. Dawson she also related a story from one of her days as a child at Nootka:

My grandfather and grandmother were the keepers of the light back in the mid-60’s.  Granddad had a float plane at the time . . . took me up in it and we flew down the coastline and back.  Just before the turn to head back to the light Granddad went silent . . . before that we were hollering back and forth to each other over the roar of the engine (felt like Snoopy and the Red Baron). . . He said, “Reet, we’re heading back now”.
 
Unknown to me, at the time, oil pressure had dropped suddenly . . . turned out to be a cracked block.  Anyway, when Granddad landed, it was rough.  My Dad, standing at the light and watching, later said he knew something was wrong ’cause Arthur (Granddad’s name) always landed soft.  So I was the last one up that day, my sister Toni, never got to go up.  The end of joy rides.
 
Granddad and Granny were also the keepers at the Pine Island station, off the northern tip of Vancouver Island…also Quadiaski Cove on Quadra and later somewhere down in the Victoria area.
 
Ms. Dawson ended with: “Well, that was a little trip down memory lane”, and she says she has many more.
 

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