There have been many reports, newspaper articles, books, etc. written about the disaster that occurred at Egg Island Lighthouse station November 2nd, 1948 – none of which tell the true story. A few of the newspaper reporters of that time interviewed my father, many more got their stories second, third and fourth hand. None of the authors of the books written since have ever interviewed or talked directly to my father, Robert Laurence Wilkins, my mother, Ada Marie Wilkins or myself, Dennis Edward Wilkins. I mention the names in full to finally get the characters of the story straight.
Many of the stories in print are, in themselves, very interesting and intriguing – lacking only in the fact that that is not what or how it all happened. The fault may not lie with the various authors; the Government of Canada did much to avoid the truth from being heard then and later. Now that both my mother and father are dead, and most of the other players in the story are long since past, I feel reasonably safe in documenting the story.
The purpose of this record is primarily for my family and friends, who have always shown a greater fascination for the story than myself (perhaps since I was there). Secondly, there may be the odd other person who has heard the story before and would appreciate knowing just what really happened that day.
To start the story, some background is required to set the scene. I will start just before the move to Egg Island early in 1948.
My parents had been keepers of the light for some years at Green Island Lighthouse Station and had transferred to Egg Island when a vacancy came up. Egg Island, being more remote, paid a better salary. As part of the bargain, my Mom received a few new luxuries; a kerosene-driven refrigerator, a gas-powered washing machine and a blond oak bedroom suite. I did not fare as well.
My dog, “Porky”, did not make the move from Green Island and my parents bought a new dog, “Boots”. The new dog
was a cocker spaniel with the brains of a box of hammers, and I did not take to the dog at all. This may seem like a minor thing except that “Porky” was my only companion, friend and buddy. At the age of nine this was like loosing a brother. My father had believed “Porky”, being raised on Green Island, would fare better there with the new keepers. Unfortunately, I learned a few months later “Porky” had pined away and died. This did not sit well with me, left with the mutt “Boots”. The family cat, “Smoky”, did make the trip so I did have one friend. But being an adult cat, she wasn’t much fun.
The lighthouse supply ship “Alberni” made her run to Egg Island every two months (with luck), and Mom having dealt with the iffy one month service of Green Island brought enough supplies to last at least four months.
As the “Alberni” and the previous keepers sailed off back to Prince Rupert , we settled into the new home and duties.
Egg Island consisted of three islands, the main island, about a city block wide and two city blocks long humped up in the centre and covered with an old growth forest of hemlock, spruce, and fir. At the back (east-end) there was a small harbour with a boathouse. The boathouse had the usual 16-foot lifeboat. A motor of, course, was out of the question since the Dept of Transport was very frugal. A series of a couple of hundred stairs ran from the boathouse up to the back of the island and a trail ran through the woods to a large clearing at the west-end.
The clearing had been used long past to raise chickens, and the wooden fence for the run, the coop and a small brooding coop still existed. From the clearing a wooden footbridge spanned the 100-foot ravine to the smaller rock island with the lighthouse and its auxiliary buildings. And, in front of this island was a smaller reef-like island that acted as a breakwater and offered protection to the lighthouse tender “Alberni” as she off-loaded the supplies.
The lighthouse itself sat about 100 feet south of the footbridge. It was a wooden building, built originally in about 1896, down closer to the water and a few feet further south on the island and later moved. At the back (east side) of the building was a large porch-like area built on
pilings, this was used for laundry and my schooling. From there you entered the kitchen (there was no ‘front door’ as such in the building.). South of the kitchen was the pantry, which stored all the supplies and could be used for food preparation. West of the kitchen was the front room with the radio equipment tucked in a corner (I use the term radio loosely, even in 1948 the equipment was long past its prime). By the front room door, a hallway ran south to my parent’s bedroom and the stairs to the second floor.
My bedroom was at the top of the stairs in the northeast corner, a hall ran south with one bedroom on the west and one more on the east side. At the west-end of the hall stairs ran up to the third floor with the workshop for the light, and from there a spiral stair to the light itself.
It was in the west bedroom that I found the log that told of the moving of the lighthouse (and what was to prove the final downfall of Egg Island Lighthouse). Lighthouses, like ships, keep a daily log. Usually, these are as boring as watching grass grow, but in one entry in about 1912 (the log of course is long gone) the entry told of a severe storm that flooded the first floor and caused considerable damage to the outside of the building. To avoid this from happening again, a new foundation was built further up the island and closer to the fog alarm building. This was the situation we had inherited.
The fog alarm building was still in its original location, equipped with two Fairbanks Morse kerosene-fueled single cylinder engines, which had belts that drove an idler pulley and then onto a compressor. At the end of the building stood two large tanks for the compressed air. The grandeur of this is lost until you understand that these two sets of devices completely filled a building that would make an excellent barn for the average prairie farm. The engines themselves towered over my father, and their flywheels over me.
Watching them run was impressive for a nine year old boy, and watching the belts fly and wheels spin I gave them the due respect. But, not without a cost. Everyone works on a lighthouse, and my job (when there was fog, and the engines ran) was to climb the stairs past the BRRRRUUUURRR of the horn, into the attic, along 2×12 planks to fill the maze of oil cups that lubricated the two engines. Those engines drank the oil like a two year-old with Kool-Aid in the summer.
It wasn’t all work, and in the summer of 1948 I discovered an old shed made of hand-cut cedar shakes in the ravine that had been destroyed by some storm. With a little work, a few of my Dad’s nails and an old hammer and saw I had enough material to build myself a shack in the clearing of the main island, complete with a bunk, a lantern and some old blankets.
Next I found there were wild rabbits on the island, and with the help of my Dad I built traps to catch some of the rabbits. Within a few days I had two adult black rabbits, and a young gray. I used the old chicken coop and run for my rabbit pen, and finally I was feeling at home. It wasn’t always lonely on the island; often fishermen would stop over at night, sometimes with their families. On one occasion, a fisherman left his son on the island for the day.
Two young boys left to their own judgment are likely to do crazy things. We lived up to those expectations. After a few minutes, seeking some thrills, we decided to circumnavigate the main island. The trip was full of risk, most of the shoreline dropped steeply into the water, parts of the trip were made clinging to a shear rock face with a six inch ledge for a path.
Finally, halfway around the island we came upon a small cemetery with a large cross and three names. It is common knowledge that three men on a lighthouse will lead to trouble, common except to the DOT (Department of Transport). After allowing three men to work the light, the tender arrived to find the boat and all three men gone, no one sure why.
Nearby, there were stairs from the boathouse – however, in-between was three-foot crevice in the rock which dropped out of sight to the sea below. Three feet is not much, until someone tells you “You must make the jump!”. The other boy was older and taller, and made the jump easily, I looked for a long time and then made my try – there was no choice. We were both safe, but decided to abort the rest of the trip in favour of getting something to eat.
The summer passed and my parents started to work on getting the lighthouse to look like a home. My Mom had prided herself on her front room. It was her piece of civilization in the wilderness of the seascape. But, in this old building the room was a challenge. The walls consisted of three-inch vertical Vee-board. Very hard to do anything with. After much thought, she advised my Dad that he would be painting every other board a different colour – one a light pink, the next a dark dusty rose. And, after much labour the room took on a classic look, almost like it had been wall-papered. It was the end of October, 1948.
The weather was typical for early November, a moderate sea, rain, and wind. It was election time in the USA, and this was something to occupy the minds of my parents. November 1st, the election results were stunning. Truman was beating Dewy. It was so engrossing that my Dad forgot to make the nightly report by 2-way radio to Bull Harbour . But, this wasn’t a big deal, the radio seldom worked anyway – so that is how it would be logged. And, I went to bed.
About 2 AM my Mom woke me and told be to get dressed NOW and get down stairs. I am not sure why I responded so quickly – whether I thought it was morning or if I understood the fear in her voice. In any case I did as I was told. I soon found out why.
A sea had broken my parent’s bedroom window, washed both of them, their bedding and mattress onto a soggy sea soaked floor. There was no need to analyze the situation, they knew there was serious trouble so my Mom threw on a coat and came for me while my Dad surveyed the damage.
A sun-room was located off their bedroom, so he went to go out there to get a better look. It was gone. It was a shear drop twenty feet to the rocks below, and he could see the seas had swept the island clean of vegetation and equipment.
We gathered in the kitchen, and got ready to go out through the laundry room to the walkway behind the lighthouse. It was also gone. The laundry room did not exist, and there was a shear drop down to the ravine below. My Dad said not to worry, we would go out the kitchen window and over to the fog alarm building. The kitchen window wouldn’t budge – it had long since been painted shut. No problem, my Dad pulled the table back from the window, picked up one of the wooden kitchen chairs and gave the window a powerful whack.
The chair broke into a dozen pieces, my Mom screamed bloody murder! “You’re breaking my chairs!”, she cried. “I’ll buy you new ones” my Dad replied in frustration as he finally smashed out the window with the second chair (which didn’t survive the ordeal either).
My Dad jumped out the window to the ground below, and my Mom passed me out the window into his arms. Everything had changed. The grass, flowers, even the earth was gone – down to barren rock. The various sheds for paint and fuel were gone. The small engine for the hoist was gone. And, the sea was a continuous roar, like a raging waterfall.
My Dad, worried about when the next sea would strike – rushed me over to the fog alarm building. My Mom, expecting to be helped out of the window next, screamed with fear that she had been forgotten. I was given orders to stay put, and he rushed back for my Mom. He gathered her up, with “Boots” tucked safely under her arm, and made the dash back to where I was waiting (“Smoky”, the cat, remained sleeping on a chair). Once together we headed into the building, only to find that the seas had filled the room up over the height of the engines, about twelve feet (3.7 meters). Clearly, this was not a refuge.
The next plan was to go over to the main island, which was higher and therefore now the safest place. But, when we approached the bridge we found it damaged. For the first fifty feet many of the planks were missing, leaving the three 4 x 12 inch stringers to walk on. Dark, wet, nails and pieces of broken planks sticking up here and there, with the sound of raging waters below, the bridge seemed nearly impossible to cross, and yet equally impossible to remain where we were.
We made the crossing, and my parents decided the boathouse at the back of the island may be a safe refuge. But, once again the seas had been there – the boat had been washed off its trolley and sat on its side against the boathouse wall. Back up the hundreds of stairs to make a cold vigil in the main island forest.
Then the storm changed. Until then there had only been a heavy sea, no wind, no rain. But that changed, with a vengeance. The wind raged, and we could hear trees snapping and falling in the distance, the hail started with stones like marbles which stung like bees through my clothes, it was worse for my parents – they only had their night clothes with a coat.
With the change, my Dad thought it was time to see what was happening back at the lighthouse. So we made our way back to the clearing. My Mom and I waited while my Dad went to the bridge to look over to the small island. In a second he was back, a frantic look on his face and he said “RUN!”.
Later I found out that he had gone to the bridge and saw the light turning like normal in the night. Then, it moved. It tilted, and moved closer as the entire lighthouse rode up on a wave towards the bridge. In a deafening roar it crashed down on the bridge and on into the ravine.
We spent the rest of the night at the high point of the main island in the wind and rain, afraid that the seas might increase again and wash the main island clean. My Mom refused to believe what had happened until she could see it with her own eyes in the morning, and even then the seas continued to sweep over the smaller island; the bridge half-collapsed.
With the few items in my shack, we moved into the chicken coop, the largest of the buildings in the clearing. We sat cold, hungry and scared for two days and nights in the early November weather. By then the seas had subsided, and my Dad made his way back to the smaller island. He crossed the remaining half of the bridge, down the collapsed half into the ravine (at low tide) and crawled up the bank.
On one of his attempts up the bank he slipped and fell onto the rocks, smashing the bones in both elbows. Although he managed to get up the bank, that injury would disable him for life. One of the major items Dad brought back from the fog alarm building was the stove, a 45 gallon drum modified to be a wood burning stove. It gave us warmth, and later the ability to cook food. It made life in the coop more bearable.
Later that day, my parents decided that one of the rabbits would have to be sacrificed for food. Dad killed one of the males. Skinned, cleaned and cooked it on a stick in the stove. While that was cooking, water was taken from a small stream that ran through the clearing. Things might have looked up, but it wasn’t that easy.
The water was contaminated with the salt-laden spray that hung in the air, and either the thought of eating my pet rabbit, or the water, or both, made me violently ill. I lay in a miserable state all that day.
The next day my Dad went down to the ravine to see if anything could be salvaged from the wreckage. He found a tin of consommé soup, a tin of Prem, and an egg (unbroken, without a single crack). It was the first real food in five days, and it was all that he could find.
Although in pain from his elbows, Dad decide that he would try to row eastward to Bella Bella or possibly meet some ship at sea. We wrestled the boat back onto its trolley, launched it and he rowed off into the heavy seas. But it was no good, even with good arms he couldn’t have made any distance in the seas. He gave up and turned back.
He then tried to signal a passing ship with the last of the compressed air in the fog alarm station tanks. But, the seas were still heavy, and passing ships cleared the island at great distance. Things did not look good.
On the sixth day, Dad noticed a fishing boat circling the island. We rushed down to the boat-house, launched the boat with all of us on board (including “Boots”) and rowed out to try and catch it. The crew of the fishing boat, the “Sunny Boy”, was more than surprised to see us rowing out to meet them. They had come by to see if there was anything worth picking up on the island. They had heard that the light was gone, and “all hands lost”.
We were all given clean clothes, a warm bunk and lots of food by the friendliest bunch of guys I had ever seen. The food smelled great; bacon, fried eggs, hash browns and toast, but after a bite or two none of us could eat any more. It was as if our stomachs had shrunk.
The “Sunny Boy” headed for the nearest port for help, the hospital at Bella Bella . There we were all checked into the hospital, under the care of Dr. Darby. I was in good shape, other than being dehydrated. My Dad had bone fragments in both elbows, which prevented him from fully straightening his arms (a condition he would live with for the rest of his life). My Mom was in the worst shape. She had recently recovered from a mild bout of Tuberculosis (TB), and was suffering from the stress of the experience. She would succumb to a “nervous breakdown”, and never fully recovered her health.
The people of Bella Bella treated us royally, until the lighthouse tender Alberni arrived and “rescued us”. She had been sent down from Prince Rupert when word that the station had been washed away. Steaming at her 10 knots for 8 hours a day (she never sailed at night), she had just reached Bella Bella nearly nine days later. Apparently, there was no need to rush if we were all dead.
A few days later we arrived back in Prince Rupert, the press happy to see us, the government a little embarrassed that we were alive. But we were a family that just had the clothes on our backs. No home, no possessions, no job, no income.
The community helped at first. The government offered my Dad a job shoveling coal – with two smashed elbows. They then offered him a job as a relief keeper back at Green Island, my Mom said “NO WAY!”. Dad went, but even he could not stand it any more. Finally, they offered him a job on the construction crew rebuilding Egg Island.
It was there that he discovered why the lighthouse had washed away, and the fog alarm building, although damaged, had remained.
Back when the building was moved the lighthouse was lifted and placed on its new foundation much like you would move a house today. The building was just placed on the foundation, without any attempt to fasten it in place – not even a single nail.
As the seas swept the island, the building simply floated off its foundation like the boat had floated off its trolley. The fog alarm building, built back in 1896, remained fixed to its original foundation and survived the storm with minor damage.
My parents were trying to reach a settlement with the government, but it was no match. Dad had been warned earlier when offered a radio interview with the CBC, “Don’t discuss Egg Island.” Now they tried to hire a lawyer, but after finally finding one who would take the case he shortly called back saying he had to drop it as he had been made KC (King’s Counsel).
Finally, the government offered them $5,000 for all back pay, possessions, (home insurance was not available for lighthouses), injuries and damages. That finished the relationship with the government and my family.
Almost, that is. In 1949, Revenue Canada demanded income tax for 1948, and my Dad had had enough. He wrote back that he had lost everything – they had lost everything and were even. They disagreed. He wrote his former bosses in the DOT. Revenue Canada backed off.
And then again, nearly six years later when Dad decided he should write this story for Reader’s Digest. Weeks later, a knock at my parent’s door and two large plain-clothes men from the RCMP advised my parents strongly that it would not be wise for them to do anything like that again. Dad destroyed the article, and only told the story to his friends, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Now, nearly sixty years after it happened, it is time for the true story to be told.
– All photos courtesy of Dennis Wilkins (son of the keeper Bob Wilkins – Egg Island 1948 – 1948)