Reprint – A Light on the Past

Reprint – A Light on the Past

A light on the past

with permission from Rosalind Duane, North Shore News, August 05, 2012

Elaine Graham remains the only resident among the historical buildings at Point Atkinson Lighthouse. Photograph by: NEWS photo, Lisa King

ELAINE Graham was raised in the slums of London, far from the multi-hued green of nature.

“There was nothing on my street when I was growing up,” she recalls. “I had lots of play-friends, loads of kids to play with, but there wasn’t even a geranium on a windowsill.”

Many years later, Graham is now surrounded by 75 hectares of the largest first-growth stand of coastal-elevation trees in the Lower Mainland. Her home is nestled among the remaining structures at the base of Point Atkinson Lighthouse, which stands on a craggy promontory at the edge of Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver.

She has spent half her life here, and is eager to tell the story of her neck of the woods.

Graham moved to the Point Atkinson Lighthouse station with her husband Donald and two young sons in 1980. Donald became the last of the lighthouse keepers at the site (along with senior keeper Gerry Watson) when the lighthouse was automated in 1996.

The Grahams stayed on in one of the two keeper’s houses, she as a park attendant and he as a groundskeeper.

“He loved working outdoors,” says Graham of her husband, who passed away in 2003. She still lives in the house they shared, which sits in the shadow of the 18.3-metre tall tower of the still-working lighthouse.

Driven by solar panels and batteries in the base of the tower, the motor that turns the small light in the tower run on 12-volt batteries.

“It’s a small motor and a tiny little light bulb,” says Graham.

This year, the little light in the large tower celebrates its 100th anniversary alongside West Vancouver’s centennial, and Graham is hoping to bring attention to the ailing site.

Point Atkinson Lighthouse was constructed in 1912, replacing an earlier wooden structure that was built in 1875. Its hexagonal, reinforced-concrete design was considered an innovation for lighthouses at the time, and it’s because of that the lighthouse eventually received official designation as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Unfortunately, that designation doesn’t come with federal funds to maintain the site.

“It’s appalling how the station looks now in comparison to when we first came here years ago in 1970,” says Graham. “It (was) like a tightly run ship. All the railings had to be smartly painted red. The buildings were red and white. There was constant painting inside and out of the buildings.”

In addition to painting, all of the equipment for the light and the foghorn had to be kept clean and serviced.

“In the early days, lightkeepers had to shovel coal to raise steam to make the foghorn go,” explains Graham.

Once the fog had cleared, the keeper had to wipe everything down, clean off all the equipment and then get the coal ready for the next time the fog rolled in.

“It was an enormous amount of physical work in the early days.”

That work was gradually reduced over the years, and Graham often found herself filling in as a relief keeper during her family’s time there. She helped paint, maintain the grounds and file regular weather reports. The information was reported via VHF radio to the coast guard.

Both sea and sky conditions were reported, and so was visibility.

“I can see across to UBC, so it’s one-five, that’s 15 miles,” says Graham giving a sample report.

Lightkeepers also reported wind conditions, which were recorded on an anemometer, a device that measures wind speed. Point Atkinson still reports wind conditions for maritime traffic based on recordings from an anemometer at the base of the light tower, but the information is now transmitted digitally.

These days, Graham provides a fire index for Lighthouse Park, but instead of going up to the tower and reading the anemometer, she just phones in to the coast guard to get the reading.

“I could actually probably guess the wind speed by now after 30 years.”

As a park attendant, Graham picks up litter, refills maps in dispensers, leads interpretive walks and assists school groups, among other things.

She often meets park visitors who tell her about the foghorn they hear bellowing its low and slow call across the inlet through the pea soup of gloomy winter evenings. She has to inform them it’s not the Point Atkinson Lighthouse horn

they’re hearing; it’s a ship’s horn making that noise.

“The foghorns were part of the Vancouver soundscape for about 100 years from 1888 to 1998. Since then it’s been silent,” explains Graham.

Point Atkinson became known for its diaphone foghorn, with its deep and powerful two-toned warning. That was replaced by an air-chime foghorn, which was eventually replaced by an electronic foghorn. The electronic horn was triggered by an electronic beam projected over the ocean. If the beam was interrupted at two miles, it automatically triggered the horn.

After it sometimes called out unnecessarily when the beam was triggered by bright sunlight or a falling snowflake, the foghorn was disconnected.

The lighthouse’s story intersected with global events when the surrounding park became home to a small contingent of Canadian troops during the Second World War.

“The army was here in Lighthouse Park and was part of the light station,” says Graham. “In fact, the keeper’s wife had to feed the first recruits who were here. It was her job to cook for them and provide their meals.”

Acting as a signal station, the site had a searchlight that lined up with one at UBC. Behind the station there were huts in the park to house the soldiers, as well as a bunkhouse, a dining hall, an ablutions hut, an officer’s mess and a small engineer’s hut.

“There were quite a few buildings in all,” notes Graham. About four of those buildings are still standing.

In the years since the lighthouse was automated, all the ancillary buildings that are part of the station have fallen into disrepair, says Graham.

One of the buildings that deteriorated was the radio building, which served a dual purpose as a fog-alarm building.

Graham says the structure, which housed the original Fresnel lens used for the lighthouse along with other artifacts, was about to be lost.

Then in 2009, after pressure from the Point Atkinson Lighthouse Subcommittee of the West Vancouver Historical Society, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

refurbished the exterior of the building. The roof was replaced, hardy plank siding was added and the windows were upgraded.

It was a welcome move, says Graham, who is a key figure in the lighthouse subcommittee, known as PALS. But the repair brought into focus some of the murkiness around who is responsible for the upkeep of the lighthouse-station-area buildings.

“The light station is really in a kind of jurisdictional limbo,” says Graham.

The park itself is a federal asset. As a working maritime beacon, the lighthouse falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but Graham says it is unclear who will pay to maintain the buildings on the station site.

West Vancouver doesn’t see it that way, however.

“For me, it’s not so much in limbo as the beginning of a long process,” says Brent Leigh, deputy chief administrative officer at the district.

In 2010, the federal government initiated a divestiture process to unload about 1,000 lighthouses across the country. The plan was to sell the lighthouses to businesses or community groups who could pay for their upkeep, and Point Atkinson was on the list.

“Members of our community and the district were concerned that what we call ‘Class A’ lighthouses not be sold off and certainly Point Atkinson lighthouse. So we made contact with both Parks Canada and DFO and we’re in a process with them of withdrawing Point Atkinson from divestiture, and it will eventually move to community ownership,” says Leigh.

Last year the district confirmed the lighthouse would not be sold to private interests, and Leigh says the district is now working in partnership with the DFO and Parks Canada to determine long-term stewardship of the site.

He calls the lighthouse an iconic asset, and when asked if there is any chance the lighthouse could be torn down as its ownership and upkeep scenario are determined, he answers quickly: “Oh my goodness, no.”

Recently, PALS asked the District of West Vancouver to fund repairs to the blockhouse, a small building on the lawn below the tower.

An estimate put the repair cost at $20,000 for exterior repairs only, and the district has agreed to pay $12,000, but has asked the West Vancouver Historical Society to raise $8,000 for the project.

The non-profit group does receive some grant money, but president Ann Brousson notes with various projects in the works, including restoration of Hollyburn Lodge and centennial celebrations, the funds might not be available. The society meets again in September and will discuss the blockhouse then.

Graham says she would like the station to eventually become an interpretive or education centre for the public, but at this point is just trying to save one building at a time.

Right now, the blockhouse is “full of junk and dust and spiders,” but it used to house the engine that powered the searchlight during the Second World War.

“This is a heritage building,” says Graham, adding she hopes more individuals or groups will step forward for the cause.

Although the lighthouse is now automated and the last official keepers are gone, Graham remains the station’s steadfast caretaker.

“I just did this because I’m still here. I know the most, so I’ve become this vessel for the information just pouring through me.”

Graham will be among volunteers showing visitors around the lighthouse station grounds (there is no public access to the tower interior) during tours of the site this holiday Monday on the hour from noon to 3 p.m. The tours are free.

To register, send your name and contact information to pointatkinsonpals@gmail. com.


© Copyright (c) North Shore News

Read more: http://www.nsnews.com/light+past/7044290/story.html#ixzz22igAMPG0

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

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