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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada

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Heritage Notes
No. 13 March 2002

The 1842 Louisbourg Lighthouse - Bill O'Shea

 The French Louisbourg lighthouse, lit in April 1734, was a victim of the siege of 1758. 1 The ruined tower stood as a landmark for passing ships for years, 2 and Cape Breton’s coast remained dark for more than two generations.

After 1826, the General Mining Association consolidated the mines around Sydney harbour and shipped coal to ports on the Atlantic coast. 3 In support of this effort, a lighthouse was built at Low Point in 1832 to aid vessels entering Sydney harbour. 

In the same year, a wooden beacon was erected at Louisbourg on the site of the French lighthouse. 4 Lighthouse commissioner James Tidmarsh had recommended a ballasted white-painted pyramid, rising 15 or 20 feet from an 8 foot square base. He wrote that the Louisbourg beacon pointed out the true passage of the harbour and served as a guide along the shore. 5It cost £26.5.0. 6

The beacon was not much better than the wooden cross that French fishermen erected on the nearby point over 100 years before. It was not visible in bad weather or at night. The challenge offered by the harsh Louisbourg coast was graphically described by Tidmarsh who wrote of one tour of inspection.  “As our route from Main a Dieu to Louisbourg on our return lay chiefly on the seashore taking nearly the course of the beaches, it gave us a melancholy view of the numerous wrecks with which the shore is strewed, the whole coast is covered with pieces of the wreck of ships and in some coves there is an accumulation of shipwreck nearly sufficient to rebuild smaller ones. The number of graves bore strong testimony also that some guide or land mark was wanting in the quarter to guard and direct the approach of strangers to this boisterous rugged shore.”7

The danger of an unmarked coast was underscored by the loss of the ship Astrea on Lorraine Head, near Louisbourg, in 1834. The tragic deaths of 237 Irish immigrants on the Astrea, and the many other wrecks on the coast, convinced the Imperial Government along with the Maritime governments and Lower Canada to build landfall lights and life saving stations on St. Paul’s and Scatarie Island in 1839.8  

Coastal lights were also important and, in 1842, Thomas Jost, of Sydney, with fellow ship owners and mariners asked Halifax for a light at Louisbourg.

Their petition states that the trade of Sydney, Main-a-Dieu, Bras d’Or, St. Anns and Cape North took place with areas lying west of Louisbourg, and that

“ the vessels engaged in that trade are frequently obliged by contrary winds to put into the same harbour, more especially those coasting vessels which carry the supply of coals for Halifax, which are very often compelled to take shelter in Louisbourg both in going and returning, the form of the coast being such as to make a change of wind generally necessary for the prosecution of the voyage on reaching that port.” 

The petitioners emphasized that “the entrance of the harbour of Louisbourg is difficult and dangerous in dark and stormy nights even to those seamen who are perfectly acquainted with it, and many shipwrecks have occurred there at different times attended by loss of life and property.”

The Louisbourg Lighthouse 1842-1923 View from the south.

Please click on the image 
to enlarge it

The Louisbourg Lighthouse 1842-1923
View from the south. The lighthouse was white with a  
black vertical line on three sides. The height was 35 feet to 
the vane on a 29 foot square, stone foundation.
Photo taken after 1889.

Jost and his colleagues were looking for a low fixed light, visible for 6 to 7 miles, that would not be mistaken for the higher, flashing light on Scatarie Island. The Scatarie light, a landfall for European ships bound for the St. Lawrence, could be seen for 30 miles.9

Planning for the lighthouse was already underway,10 and the completed, operating light was advertised in a Notice to Mariners in the Nova Scotian beginning on October 20, 1842. The notice stated that  “a new light house has been erected where a beacon stood, on the site of the old French light . . . and will exhibit a plain white light visible on the seaward side from Gabarus Point westerly to south eastern extremity of Cape Breton easterly. The lantern is 85 feet above the sea level, is placed in a square building about sixty fathoms from the shore, painted white with a perpendicular black stripe on each side, to distinguish it from other Light Houses in day time and to render it conspicuous in winter when the back land is covered with snow.”11

The building was constructed by Samuel Crawford and the lantern by Amos Pedlar, at a cost of £1140.7.4.12  It was not a unique design since the North Canso light used the same plan and the same people may have worked on both buildings.13 The Louisbourg light was seen from 16 miles out to sea.14

The new lighthouse was a major addition to the quiet harbour, for Louisbourg in 1842 was no longer the busy community it had been when the French were here. A census taken in 1827 recorded only 141 people in 23 households.  Yet, the new light underlined Louisbourg’s importance in coastal navigation and it immediately became a tourist attraction, the captains and crews of ships in the harbour visiting regularly.15

The first description of the light apparatus, in 1857, records 4 catoptric lamps with reflectors and 4 Argand lamps without reflectors. The lantern and building were in good condition though both needed some repair.16

In 1864 there was a call for 6 new catoptric lamps and a table for the lantern. The roof of the light house leaked and the foundation walls needed work.17

 With Confederation, in 1867, the responsibility for lighthouses passed from Nova Scotia to the federal department of Marine and Fisheries. An 1870 report noted that  “the light at this station (Louisbourg) is a very important one both as a harbor and a coast light. The harbor is much frequented, being the only safe one between Scatarie and Arichat.”18  Louisbourg was one of 59 lights in Nova Scotia, all of which, with the exception of St. Paul’s Island, had catoptric light systems – a number of large oil lamps with reflectors to focus the beam of light. St. Paul’s light had a dioptric system - a single source of light and a ground glass lens to focus the beam. Beginning in 1864 kerosene replaced seal oil as fuel for the lamps since kerosene burned brighter and was less expensive. The old lamps were kept and converted to the new fuel. By 1870 round wicks were being tested in fixed lights. Housed in larger lamps, the round wicks used more kerosene but they were more powerful, replacing 2 or 3 older lamps.19

In 1875, the Louisbourg light consisted of an "Iron lantern 10 feet in diameter, with eight sides, glazed with 17 x 11 inch glass . . . The lantern is dark towards the land side; and the illuminating apparatus consists of four circular-burner lamps with 20-inch reflectors, and five A lamps with 12-inch reflectors . . . The annual consumption of oil is about 530 gallons.” By this date the lantern was considered old and due for replacement and the roof and ceilings of the lighthouse needed repair. The foundation walls had been “rebuilt in places,” new porches and water spouts had been installed, and the buildings painted. There were 5 oil tanks on hand and an oil storage building was needed. The boat landing near Nag’s Head rock required improvement and a new boat was wanted to replace the one lost in the August gale of 1873. In addition to the lighthouse there was a barn on the property.20  The height of the building was 35 feet to the vane.21

 By 1877, it was reported that  “A new 10 ½ foot iron lantern with plate glass 33 x 60 x 3/8 has been supplied for this station at a cost of $971.54. It will be erected next season.” The building was still in poor repair and needed major work. It was suggested, though never implemented, that the tower be increased in height by 10 feet. The report goes on to acknowledge the growing economic importance of Louisbourg  with the arrival of the new railway from Sydney.22

 A year later the new lantern was delivered though not installed and it was expected that a new lighting apparatus would also be supplied once the lantern was in place. In general,  “ The condition of things is unsatisfactory, arising mainly from the dilapidated state of the lantern and from want of proper store room for oil and the larger stores.” The oil was stored in the cellar under the light house.23

The new lantern was probably installed shortly after. There is no mention of the new lighting apparatus at the time, but the Superintendent of Lights for Nova Scotia, writing in 1906, notes that “this light is not a small one, by any means. The illuminating apparatus consists of 11 mammoth flat wick lamps fitted with 22” x 12” reflectors in a 10 foot iron lantern.”24 Somewhere along the line the round-wicked lamps had been replaced.

The narrow-gauge railway, begun in 1874 by Frederick Gisborne, linked Louisbourg to the coal mines around Sydney harbour. Economic growth was expected and a “New Town” was surveyed and laid out on Havenside, including several buildings and a wharf. But cost overruns and forest fires, which destroyed the bridges in 1883, ended this experiment in developing the harbour. By 1895, however, there was a revival of optimism after H. M. Whitney consolidated  many of the mines, purchased or leased a fleet of coal boats, and built the Sydney & Louisburg Railway, ensuring that coal could leave Cape Breton year round through the ice-free harbour.  A period of prosperity came to Louisbourg that would last until the 1920s.

 The increased shipping traffic associated with both railroads encouraged changes in the navigational aids. Louisbourg was declared a port in 1879, with Patrick O’Toole the first harbour master,25 and a pilot  service was established.26 A storm signal was erected by the weather service in 1875,27 leading lights built on the north shore in West Lousbourg in 1897,28 a fog siren in 1902,29 and a Marine Hospital in 1905.30

             The fog alarm was the greatest change at the lighthouse since its compressors required expertise not possessed by the keeper. The light keeper remained in charge of the station but an engineer had full charge of the fog alarm machinery.  In 1902, reflecting the new technology, the engineer was paid $500.00 a year compared to the $350.00 paid to the light keeper. This was a source of irritation, and when light keeper Philip Price was asked to assist the engineer, and thereby increase his annual salary to $470.00, he refused. His indignant response prophetically echoes comments about changes in Louisbourg’s foghorns for the next 100 years. Writing to the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1902 Price states, “The fact is I would rather not have anything to do with the present whistle at any salary as it is my opinion it is almost worthless and will never do . . . it is constantly getting out of order and some parts of the machinery breaking, but the worse fault is it cannot be heard any distance.”31

 Friction between the light keeper and the engineer would not end until the two jobs were combined under William Covey when he became keeper of a newly-erected light in 1924.

World War I brought the last major change in technology in the lighthouse. This consisted of a 4th order dioptric lens and 35 mm burner installed in 1915/1916. It was a “clock-gear” operated, revolving, incandescent petroleum vapour light costing  $1,227.63.32  For the first time Louisbourg had a flashing light rather than a fixed light.33

The lighthouse ended its life dramatically, on Saturday evening, June 2, 1923, catching fire and burning to the foundation. Louisbourg diarist Melvin S. Huntington wrote that the fire started at 7 p.m., but for some reason the alarm was not sounded until shortly after 8 p.m. and “by that time the fire had gained so much headway that it was useless to try to save the building.”34 The major concern of those who reached the lighthouse, including the fire fighting crew from the government ship SS Lady Laurier, was to keep the fog alarm buildings, located several hundred feet away, from burning.35 We’ll never be sure how the fire happened. It may have been the result of human error when the light was being lit for the night - there had already been several small fires at the Louisbourg light.36  Or it may have resulted from a break in the chimney which was not visible until it was exposed by the fire.37 Whatever the reason, after 81 years of service and 6 keepers, the 1842 light was no longer a part of Louisbourg.

Until the present-day lighthouse was built in 1924, a temporary light was erected on the roof of the nearby fog-alarm building.38

The ruins of the 1842 lighthouse and the nearby 18th-century French light were excavated and stabilized by Parks Canada in 1986, and have interpretive panels telling their story.39  Both ruins are important national cultural resources. Along with the 1924 reinforced concrete light, still in operation, they reflect the unique contribution of Louisbourg to the history of light keeping in North America.  

The Light Keepers

There were six Louisbourg light keepers between 1842 and 1923. Maintaining the lights was demanding work for keepers, their families and assistants.40 Politics, as well as ability, played a role in who got the job. When the governing party changed, it was not unheard of for a charge of political partisanship to be laid against a keeper and his place taken by someone sympathetic to those in power.

Laurence Kavanagh III (1790-1862) was born at St. Peter’s. The Kavanagh family had lived in Louisbourg but moved to St. Peter’s in 1777.41  He was light keeper between 1842 and 1860/62.42 His father, Laurence II, was the first Roman Catholic in the Nova Scotia legislature. Laurence III was also a member of the legislature representing Cape Breton County (1830-1836) and Richmond County (1836-1840). In 1843 Kavanagh was paid £100 plus a fuel allowance of £15. He married  Catherine Murphy in 1820. Their children were Laurence IV, Maurice, Wallace, Margaret, Catherine, Frances and Anne.

Laurence Kavanagh IV (c 1823-1898)  was born in St. Peters but lived in Louisbourg from the 1840s. He was the light keeper from 1860/62 until 1889 when he retired to St. Peters.43 His annual salary was $460.00. He also received $80.00 as collector of customs and a 10% commission on postal dues. The 1881 census lists his occupation as Justice of the Peace.

William Burke, born in Main-a-Dieu, was appointed light keeper in Louisbourg on 26 June 1889.44 He was here for less than a year, trading places with James P. Burke, the Fisheries Overseer in Main a Dieu, on the recommendation of MPs McDougall and MacKeen.45

James  P. Burke (1853-1921), born in Main-a-Dieu, was the light keeper in Louisbourg from  27 May 1890 until November 1897.46 The 1891census records Burke, his wife Jane (Hart) and William Riley, a shoemaker. Based on an inquiry initiated by Dr. Arthur Kendall,47 Burke was replaced.48 Though Burke was appointed during a Conservative administration he denied that he was partisan in politics.49

Phillip Price (1853-1912), born in Louisbourg,  was appointed on the recommendation of Arthur Kendall, MLA,50 and was light keeper from 1897 to 1912 when he was dismissed for alleged political partisanship. Price had been appointed under a Liberal regime and by 1912 the Conservatives were in power in Ottawa.51 When he died, in March 1914, the newspaper noted that he was a man of quiet and agreeable disposition and a good neighbour.52 Price married Annie MacIntyre.

William. A. Cameron (c 1856-1934), of Big Lorraine, was light keeper from December 1912 until 1924. The light keeper earned $396.00 in 1916 compared with $1,043.00 by the fog alarm engineer, who paid an assistant out of his income. Cameron was married three times - to Louise Wilcox, Annabelle Spencer and Elizabeth Dickson. He was in charge of the light when it caught fire and burned in June 1923. The fire provided an opportunity to retire Cameron, the M.P., W. F. Carroll having accused him of political partisanship.53  

1 W.O. 34, c. 17, p. 12, Whitmore to Amherst, Louisbourg, 1 March 1759.

2 1798, Louisbourg Harbour Chart, Thomas Backhouse, Fortress of Louisbourg NHS.

3  Hornsby, Stephen J., Nineteenth Century Cape Breton, A Historical Geography , McGill/Queen’s University Press, 1992, pp. 95-110.

4 Nova Scotian, Vol V. No. XLVI, Wed., 14 Nov. 1832, p. 363.

5   Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Vol 311, Papers from the files of the House of  Assembly, 1832-33, Document 81, Halifax, August 28, 1832, Jas. Tidmarsh to Sir Rupert George, or Vol. 337, Papers relating to Cape Breton, 1830-33, Document 60, Halifax, August 28, 1832.

6 Public Archives of Nova Scotia, RG 31-106, 1833, #108, RG31-106, Lighthouses 1830/35, Invoice from Charles McAlpine 1833, #200, Direction to pay the Secty of the Province, 1833, #108.

7 Bush, Edward F., The Canadian Lighthouse, Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History – # 9, Indian & Northern Affairs, Ottawa, 1974, p. 39.

8 Bush, pp. 44-45.

9 Public Archives of  N. S.,  RG5, Series “P”, Vol. 44, #18, 2 Feb. 1842.

10 Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly ( NS), 1841, Appendix 54, p. 150.

11 The Nova Scotian, Halifax, Vol. 3, #42, 20 October 1842, p 335., until 3 April 1842, also the Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly, 1843, Appendix 16, p. 36.

12 Public Archives of N. S., RG 31-106, Lighthouse Papers, Vol.VII, (1840-44), 1842, #17 & #31.

13 Thanks to Colin Purcell, Mulgrave, N.S. Telephone conversation 10 January 2002, also. Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly (NS), 1843, Appendix 16, p. 36.

14  Belcher’s Farmers Almanac, 1866.

15  Laurence Kavanagh Diary 1848 & 1849, McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney, N.S.

16  Journal & Proceedings of the House of Assembly, 1858, Supt of Lighthouses, Dec.’57.

17  Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly, 1864, Appendix 8, Board of Works.

18  Sessional Papers,  ( Canada Sessional Papers, annual reports of  federal departments, specifically the Department of Marine & Fisheries ) 1870,  Vol. 4,  No. 11, Appendix D. Report of the N. S. Branch. . . for the year ended 30 June 1869, pp. 145-185.

19  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1872, Vol. 4, No. 5, Appendix 5, p. 32.

20  Sessional Papers,  Marine, 1875, Vol. 4,  No. 5,  Appendix 4,  p. 116.

21  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1875, Vol. 4, No. 5,  Supplement #1,  List of lights on the Coasts, Rivers and Lakes of the Dominion of Canada, Marine and Fisheries. pp. 36-37.

22  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1878, Vol. 1, No. 1, Appendix 4,  p. 181. See also Brian Campbell, Tracks Across the Landscape – The S&L Commemorative History, University College of Cape Breton Press, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1995.

23  Sessional Papers, Marine, Vol. 3, No. 3, Appendix 6, p. 161.

24  National Archives, RG 42, Marine Vol. 500, file 20453-k pt. 2. Supt of Lighthouses Hutchins to Deputy Minister, 26 February 1906.

25  Port of Louisbourg Proclaimed, National Archives, RG 6  A-1, vol. 36, #468, No 469, Secretary of State Correspondence .

26  History of Modern Louisbourg, 1758-1958, Louisbourg Branch, Women’s Institute of Nova Scotia. Reprinted 1988, pp. 30-31.

27  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1876, Vol. 4, No. 5, Appendix 6, p. 25.

28  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1898, Vol. 9, No. 11, Chief Engineer,  pp. 38-39.

29  National Archives, RG42, Marine Vol. 502, file 20456-7k, 1902 - Notice to Mariners #9, Nova Scotia.

30  History of Modern Louisbourg, 1758-1958, pp. 37-38.

31  National Archives, RG42 Marine, Vol. 500, file 20453-k, pt. 2, Philip Price to Goudreau, D.M. Marine and Fisheries, 14 March 1902.

32  Sessional Papers, Marine, 1917, Vol.13, No. 21, Appendix 1, Chief Engineer’s Report, p. 46. Also, Short History of Louisbourg’s Third Lighthouse.  Fortress of Louisbourg NHS archives, RB#116, File #1- no date or author, folder marked Nov 1964-Sept 1965.

33  Belchers Farmers  Almanac for the Maritime Provinces, 1917, p. 245

34  Melvin S. Huntington, Diary, Saturday, 2 June 1923, also National Archives, RG42, Vol. 501, Marine, 20453-R, Telegram Harvey to Deputy Minister, 4 June 1923.

35  National  Archives, RG 42, Vol. 500, 20453-k, pt 2,  Covey to Harvey, 5 June 1923.

36  Nat.  Archives, RG 42, Vol. 500, 20453-k, pt 2,  Supt. of  Lights to Agent, 20 Oct 1923.

37  Nat. Archives, RG42, Vol. 500, Marine, 20453-k, pt 2,  Wm. Cameron, 6 June 1923.

38  Nat. Archives, RG 42, Vol. 501, Marine, 20453-R, Johnston  to D.M. Notice to Mariners No 34 of 1923.

39  Helen Sheldon, “Archaeological Excavation, Lighthouse Preservation Project,” Summer 1986, Fortress of Louisbourg NHS. The ruins of the 1842 light are almost 29 feet square.

40  See “Rules for the Guidance of Lighthouse Keepers”, Office of Board of Works, Halifax, May 28, 1862, Beaton Institute, UCCB, MG16,7 Lighthouse Keeper.

41  Wagg, Phyllis, “Laurence Kavanagh I: An Eighteenth Century Cape Breton Entrepreneur,” in Nova Scotia Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1990, p. 130.

42  In 1859,  Kavanagh II’s daughter, Bridget Catherine, was married to Robert Martin at the Louisbourg lighthouse, so I assume he was still here. Acadian Recorder, 5 Feb. 1859.

43  North Sydney Herald, 22 May 1889, in Early Cape Breton Newspapers, fourth volume, Mildred Howard, 1999, p. 44. Beaton Institute, UCCB.

44  National Archives, RC 42, Marine, Vol. 500, file 20453-k pt. 2, 27 May 1890.

45  National Archives, RC 42, Marine, Vol. 500, File 20453-k, pt. 2, 9 May 1890.

46  National Archives, RG42, Marine, Vol. 500, file 20453-k, pt. 2, 8 November 1897.

47  Kendall, lived in Louisbourg for several years, was elected MLA in 1897, as a Liberal.

48  Nat. Archives, RG42, Marine, Vol. 500, file 20453-k, pt. 2,  Hearing, 23 Dec 1896  & 27 March 1897.

49  Nat. Archives, RG42, Marine, Vol.500, file 20453-k, pt. 2, Burke to Davis, 3 Nov 1897.

50  Nat. Archives, RG42, Vol 500, file 20453-k, Kendall to L. Hl Davis, 23 Oct 1897

51  Nat. Archives, RG42, Marine, Vol.500, file 20453-k, pt 2, Stanton - Price, 30 Dec 1912.

52  Sydney Record, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 10 March 1914.

53  National Archives, RG 42, Marine, Vol.500, file 20453-k, pt. 2, Carroll to Johnston, 21 August 1922 & Carroll to Lapointe, 4 May 1923, also Secretary, Civil Service Commission to Johnston, 25 February 1924.  

© Louisbourg Heritage Society, 17 Holland Ave., Louisbourg, N. S., Canada, 
B1C 2K7,  ISSN 1183-5834, ISBN 1-896218-13-X

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