John Sylvester, Country Magazine May 15, 2014
Having grown up in Nova Scotia, I have fond memories of scrambling over the curved granite whaleback rocks below my aunt’s cottage near the community of Peggy’s Cove.
Even though that’s the home of Nova Scotia’s most famous landmark, Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, I didn’t pay much attention to the lighthouse in those days. The tide pools and shallow caves of the whalebacks were more enticing. As an adult, however, I’ve grown to appreciate and cherish these beautiful beacons and the maritime tradition they represent. . . . more
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As long as humans have sailed the oceans, we’ve needed navigational aids to warn of hidden shoals and dangerous headlands. The earliest warning lights were coastal bonfires. The first known lighthouse was built at Alexandria, Egypt, around 280 B.C. The British built North America’s first one at the entrance to Boston Harbor in 1716. The French followed 15 years later with Canada’s first lighthouse near their fortress at Louisbourg on what is now Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
In sailing’s golden age, from the 1700s to the mid-19th century, lighthouses proliferated along the Atlantic coast. In Atlantic Canada alone, nearly 500 still stand along 33,000 miles of mainland and island coastline. A few miles up the coast from Peggy’s Cove, North America’s oldest continuously operating light, Sambro Island Lighthouse, stands on a tiny granite outcrop at the entrance to Halifax Harbor. Built in 1758, its eye-catching 80-foot red-and-white tower has been the first sign of land seen by countless sailors, immigrants and ocean liner passengers—including the Titanic survivors—as they approached the safety of landfall.
During the heyday of maritime activity, lighthouse keepers and their families lived in homes either attached to or close by the lighthouse. They often had to fend for themselves in isolated circumstances, growing a garden and raising livestock in addition to their full-time duties tending the light. Every evening, in fair weather or foul, the light keeper climbed a narrow, winding staircase to the top of the tower to light the lamp, located behind a powerful Fresnel lens that magnified and transmitted the beam far out to sea.
Light keepers eventually lost their jobs to automation, and in recent years sophisticated GPS navigation systems have rendered lighthouses redundant. Some have fallen into disrepair, but many have been rescued by local preservation or historical societies and converted into museums or tourist attractions.
Thanks to broad grassroots support, the federal government passed an act encouraging lighthouse preservation. But Natalie Bull, executive director of Heritage Canada The National Trust, notes that the legislation ultimately says it’s up to communities to protect their lighthouses.
“It’s very challenging, but residents of the Maritime Provinces are resourceful,” she adds. “Community groups have long been willing to take on these preservation projects, even before the act passed. New Brunswick’s Cape Enrage Lighthouse is a great example.”
The Cape Enrage keepers house was slated to be torn down when, in 1993, a group of local high school kids and their physics teacher started renovating it. Two years later the Coast Guard transfered ownership to the province, and the site is now the hub of a thriving adventure tourism destination that includes kayaking, rock climbing and horseback riding.
The wonderful thing about lighthouses, of course, is that they’re invariably built on beautiful coastal stretches. Some have been converted into inns where you can rent a room overlooking the ocean, listen to the waves lapping the shore and imagine life in a bygone era. You can now find lighthouse inns in all five of the provinces on Canada’s Atlantic Coast.
A few years ago I clambered into a small fishing boat that transported me to remote Quirpon Island off the north coast of Newfoundland, where I stayed in a cozy inn that was a former light keeper’s cottage. I spent two glorious days exploring the island, watching whales and sculpted icebergs drift by, and being pampered with Newfoundland’s renowned hospitality.
But even when I can’t spend the night, I rarely pass up a chance to visit one of these inviting beacons. On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, my wife and I drove out to Peggy’s Point Lighthouse on a beautiful autumn day. We joined tourists from all over the world wandering among the same whaleback rocks that fascinated me as a child.
We lingered through the afternoon, enjoying the timeless wonder of waves breaking on the rocks and sunlight sparkling off the ocean while one of Canada’s most beloved symbols of a proud seafaring tradition stood watch. And this time, I knew enough to appreciate it.
John Sylvester is an author and photographer based in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He specializes in photographing the people and places of Canada, and has published extensively on the Atlantic region, including the great lighthouses.