Surviving on Fiddle Reef Lighthouse c. 1950s

Surviving on Fiddle Reef Lighthouse c. 1950s

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On January 21, 2012 I wrote about a family that lived on the lighthouses in the 1950s up to the 1960s, all in the days of no electricity – only kerosene lamps. I now have another installment from Ms. Juanita (Swanson) DuLong. She was only four years old at the time on Fiddle Reef, but memories are hard to erase – especially Lighthouse Memories!

List of Lights #215 - Fiddle Reef Sector

The map above shows the location of Fiddle Reef (1898 – 1978) just off Oak Bay, Victoria, BC. The lighthouse was on the rock under the green arrow. The lighthouse is long gone and is replaced with a white cylindrical tower with a white light and a red sector.

Here in her own words are the memories of Juanita as a child on Fiddle Reef:

Fiddle Reef was just that, a reef. At high tide only the tower and boathouse stood above water, connected to by a wooden walkway. The boathouse was also the bathroom. One corner contained a plank with two holes. For a four year old the holes were just about the right height as viewing ports!

I saw a lot of sea life from that rather unsavory look-out. I never did tell my Mother that’s how I saw the big octopus, or the cormorant flying under water.

At times of very high tides and big storms, the boathouse-bathroom had a surprise reserve. Bottoms needed to be quick to avoid an ice-cold bidet! Other than the bonus bidet, Fiddle Reef’s plumbing was a cistern and a hand pump. Cold water only.

Juanita Swanson, aged 3 or 4

It was around springtime when we first stepped ashore at our new home. As in most early stations there was no phone, electricity, or modern plumbing. Coal oil lamps were our lighting, as well as in the lamp room. The prism assembly was a beauty, though it probably rested on a bath of mercury. I know I found the little silver balls fascinating. “Never touch that,” I was told. But oh my, I was tempted.

Groceries came by boat, a lot of times by the station’s row boat. Dad was very overweight when we first arrived. He was slim and fit before we moved again!

I seem to remember a small frig, the cookstove, may have been oil, although there was coal in the boathouse. Baths were taken in a galvanized wash-tub, in as little water as possible. To this day I am still amazed at how much water people waste.

My folks were avid readers, and read to me a lot too. Dad was an amazing story-teller, often acting out voices and parts. His Tarzan yell was as good as in the movies.

Mom taught me board games and began teaching me card games as well. Here and Pine Island were the two places we actually lived in the lighthouse. Quarters were small – my bedroom was just an angle in the upstairs hallway. The lamp room was directly above. I could watch my parent’s feet as one or the other went up to check the light.

Birds were attracted to the light; sometimes I even heard them hit. Most times they were rescued, but many died. It still breaks my heart.

Lamps, especially the chimneys, were regularly polished with newspaper. Vinegar was the usual glass cleaner. Dad sometimes used a little coal oil. I seem to remember him saying “It’s to keep the glass from fogging up”. That had to be important as it would interfere with the strength of the light.

Fiddle Reef today - It looks like it was built on the foundation of the old tower - photo Richard Paddle (Flickr Rap1012)

On one of Dad’s grocery trips a storm came up while he was away. Mom and I watched from inside the lamp room. Spray was breaking over the tower. Mom hoped Dad had stayed over in Oak Bay, but she went out often with binoculars. That night, long after I went to bed she saw something new.

I overheard her telling Dad the next day.”Once the light was lit, I went out and scanned the water. On each revolution the sea was easy to make out, almost to shore. About 2am it had calmed and there was a lot of junk floating around. The sea bed must have been torn up in places as there were floating piles of kelp and seaweed. I saw three sea lions and a couple of blackfish (Pilot Whales)1.

“Then a bigger head came up, and rose on a long neck, maybe two or three feet out of the water.”

“The light reflected in the eyes, yellow, with green too. It manouvered through the driftwood and other junk slowly. It was close enough to see well. I watched for a good ten minutes as it crossed from right to left”.

She stuck to the story despite Dad’s teasing, and he soon realized that it had happened. She only drank tea, and had good binoculars; good eyesight too! My Mother was not one to make up stories, and was happy when we learned of other people’s similar sightings.

Caddy (short for Cadborosaurus2) has been seen by hundreds of people. Affectionately named for Cadboro Bay, she is our B.C. coast’s most beloved sea monster.


[media url=”http://vimeo.com/26222660″ width=”450″ height=”300″]

The above video is from Donald Lawrence’s website where he tries to create a memorial to Fiddle Reef.  The video is a kayak tour around the reef. Pretty desolate place to live.


From the Colonist, 1898-05-06 – Captain Gaudin says that in addition to the lighthouses for which tenders are already being invited, there may be a few new ones built on the northern coast but they will be small. Those which have been called for will be located at Cape Mudge, on Sister I, on Egg I, in Queen Charlotte Sound, on Fiddle Reef off Oak Bay and in Burrard Inlet narrows… 


1I listed blackfish as Orcas as they are known in my time. I was corrected that this meant Pilot Whales in their time! Being the curious type, I looked it up and in a Wikipedia article I found out that there are fifteen (15) different ocean dwelling creatures called Blackfish.

2 More on Cadborosaurus is in Wikipedia. It turns out it was sighted for the first time over two hundred (200) years ago, and all told there have been more than three hundred (300) sightings. Many books have also been written on Caddy.

[private]Email of story saved as ZIP as EML not allowed – http://lighthousememories.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/2nd-part-Juanitas-lighthouse-stories.zip[/private]

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

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