Search Website Design and Content © by Eric Krause, Krause House Info-Research Solutions (© 1996)
      All Images © Parks Canada Except Where Noted Otherwise
Report/Rapport © Bill O'Shea  --- Report Assembly/Rapport de l'assemblée © Krause House Info-Research Solutions

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

herilogo.jpg (2311 bytes)

Heritage Notes
No. 16 March 2003


The Louisbourg Lighthouse 
(Part I - constructing the light 1923/24)  - 
Bill O’Shea

The present-day Louisbourg light came into service on February 1, 1924 after a fire eight months earlier destroyed the lighthouse built in 1842.[i] It was constructed in reinforced concrete by E.M. Dickson of Sydney for the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries. Abutting the tower is the base of the 18th century French light.  A short distance away is the foundation of the 1842 lighthouse. The modern light continues a tradition of navigational security on the east coast of Cape Breton bridging four centuries. The 3 lights together represent a significant heritage resource.


A fire on June 3, 1923 destroyed the wooden lighthouse built in 1842. Almost immediately a temporary light was erected on the roof of the nearby fog alarm building to ensure the safety of shipping. The temporary structure stood 45 feet high and was topped by a white occulting (covered briefly at regular intervals) light flashing every 12 seconds and showing 3 seconds of light. It was visible 10 miles out to sea.[ii]

With the short-term problem solved, the Marine Department in Ottawa wrote to C.H. Harvey, its Agent in Halifax, suggesting the construction of a double house and a concrete light tower.[iii]  The Department of Marine’s district engineer, J.A. Leger, recommended  “. . . that a tower similar to the one erected on Georges Island, Halifax Harbour, be put up.”  He also wrote that  “About 1/3 of (the) remains of the old French light will have to be removed, (and the) chimney of old (1842) dwelling pulled down.”[iv]

Responding to Leger’s advice, the Superintendent of Lights, P.C. Johnson, wrote that since the temporary light was working well, it could be the model for a new type of Louisbourg light. Rather than build a new tower, he felt that a 500 mm. lantern mounted on a structure similar to a larger buoy would be appropriate. He further reasoned that because the light and the fog alarm could share the same location, only a single dwelling need be built for the one engineer who could watch both facilities.  Fortunately for Louisbourg, Harvey’s superiors did not agree with his cost-saving idea. There is a note in the margin of his memo stating that  “This would be replacing a 40,000 CP light by a 500 CP one and would not be recommended.”[v]

This reaction is not surprising since Louisbourg was important to Cape Breton’s economy. Beginning in 1895, with the arrival of the Sydney & Louisburg Railway, the town shipped millions of tons of coal to the rest of Canada, Newfoundland and New England. Even after 1919, when shipping from the harbour was largely limited to the winter months, Louisbourg was a significant location with its annual influx of coal boats, ships coming to refuel and fishing vessels.[vi] In 1925-26, for example, a total of 342 vessels entered the  harbour.[vii]  And, in addition to its role as a guide for  ships entering the harbour, the Louisbourg light was important to coastal shipping since navigational technology was still relatively primitive in the early twentieth century.

Please click on the image
to enlarge it

Louisbourg Light, south elevation – 1917, Department 
of Marine & Fisheries Plan (Fortress of Louisbourg NHS)

The plans for a new light moved forward using the design for a reinforced concrete tower drawn in 1917 by the Marine Department.[viii] Public tenders were called for the light and the double house and, by early September, two bids were submitted. The Standard Construction Ltd., of Halifax did not include a deposit cheque with its bid and was disqualified, and so the contract was given to E.M. Dickson of Atlantic Engineering Works of Sydney for $18,100.00. This amount was actually the lower bid submitted by the Halifax company and not Dickson’s original bid.[ix]

Dickson set to work quickly and the Superintendent of Lights, on a visit to Louisbourg on September 28, 1923, wrote that he  “. . . found that the contractor was busy engaged at the foundation for the new light.”[x]  In spite of his energetic approach Dickson was anxious because he had not received a formal contract. On October 3, he  telegraphed the government purchasing agent asking for plans and specifications while confirming that he had material assembled and ready.[xi] The plans were obviously sent as requested, for by October 22 the contractor was writing to the agent to say that the tower was partly constructed and that he would like to be compensated for $5,000.00 worth of work. He also wondered when the Order in Council authorizing his contract would go through. The contract would not pass and be forwarded to the Agent in Halifax until October 25, but Dickson continued working, apparently assured that the project was his.[xii]

On November 10 there was an estimate of the total cost for the lighthouse and dwelling. With the contract set at $18,100.00, inspection costs at $150.00, and the lantern from the Dominion Lighthouse costing $4750.00, the total cost for the light and house was $23,000.00.[xiii]

A new lantern was essential and shortly after the June fire, a request was made to the depot in Prescott, Ontario. The Chief Engineer, in Ottawa, was  told that there was an 8 foot octagonal lantern on hand and the depot was instructed send it to Louisbourg.[xiv] The actual installation of the light would not take place until January 1924 when a Mr. Morrison came to Louisbourg to complete that task.[xv]

Meanwhile, work on the tower proceeded smoothly and, by December 18, an official visiting the site found that the tower was completed except for the entrance door and the trim. The foundations for the house were finished and the structure was framed and boarded with the roof and shingling started. The materials were those specified in the contract and the work judged to be first class.[xvi]

On February 20, 1924, engineer Leger wrote that he had competed the final inspection and taken the buildings over from the contractor. He held back $150.00 of the contract to ensure the cisterns were tight and that the tower received its outside wash when the weather was better.[xvii] 

The new Louisbourg light house was entered into service on February 1, 1924.  The Notice to Mariners describes the light as a petroleum vapour, flashing white, catoptric light showing every 7 seconds. The fixed light was 500 candle power with flashes of 50,000 candle power. It was seen at 12 miles.[xviii]  

The Louisbourg lighthouse measures almost 55 feet high (14.5 metres) from the ground to the top of the vane with  the base 19 feet in diameter (5.8 metres).[xix]  It is an attractive octagonal form representing a classical column divided into a strongly emphasized or rusticated base, a shaft, and a capital consisting of the platform and lantern. There are pedimented caps over the door and 3 of the windows, and decorative brackets support the lantern platform.[xx] The tower is painted white and the lantern is red.

With the completion of the new light the responsibilities of the light keeper changed. Previously, while the keeper had overall charge of the light station, there was an engineer operating the fog alarm who was paid a higher wage. This wage discrepancy caused no end of problems over the years between the light keeper and engineer. The fog alarm began operation in February 1902, [xxi] with D. A. Campbell  in charge. In 1916 he was replaced by William Covey. But it was not until Covey became keeper of the new light, at the end of February 1924, that the two positions were combined in one person.[xxii] This resolved the conflicting roles for the next 3 head light keepers: Wilfred Covey (son of William), M. J. Tanner and Roy Forgeron.

The French Ruins

The construction of the new light tower drew attention to the ruins of the 18th-century French light. District Engineer Leger wrote, in mid October, that in moving the debris of the French tower, which was spread across the top of the hill, he found an outline of the 18th-century foundation, 6 or 7 steps of the stairwell, the location of the door and a number of artefacts, including the lead dedication plaque which was probably placed over the door when the light was built. He also recommended that the foundations be preserved. This was a major change in his plans since initially he anticipated removing all that remained of the French lighthouse.[xxiii] What changed his mind?

Please click on the image
to enlarge it

The Light Station in a June 1931 aerial photograph 
by the Department of Mines & Technical Surveys, Canada. 
The double  house is on the left  and the fog alarm buildings 
to the far right. (Louisbourg Heritage Society)  

An awareness of the historic French ruins had grown over the quarter century before the new lighthouse was constructed.  If  you were to look for a beginning it was possibly in 1895 with the arrival of the Sydney & Louisburg Railway. On its opening day, the S&L carried members of the United States-based Society of Colonial Wars to Louisbourg, along with 1,000 citizens of Cape Breton, to dedicate a monument to the military forces taking part in the siege of 1745.[xxiv]  In 1900 Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier visited Louisbourg and at the ruins of the fortress spoke about the historic ground, “consecrated by the blood of your forefathers, the English, and my forefathers, the French. . .”[xxv] The momentum continued between 1901 and 1907, when industrialist and Louisbourg resident  D.J. Kennelly  stabilized ruins at the fortress site and obtained protecting provincial legislation. Then, in 1918, J.S. McLennan published his well-researched book,  Louisbourg: From Its Foundation to Its Fall, 1713-1758, giving everyone access to a detailed history of 18th-century Louisbourg. 

In 1921, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, the federal government bought land at the fortress to preserve the ruins and prevent artefacts from being removed. This was followed, in the summer of 1923, by a visit from Dr. J. C. Webster and Major J. Plimsoll Edwards, of the Board. They met with Senator J.S. McLennan and Archdeacon T. Fraser Draper of Louisbourg and in August proposed a major initiative for Louisbourg involving the acquisition of all the historic ruins including the lighthouse.[xxvi]  

So when he saw the construction activity at the lighthouse in September 1923, Archdeacon Draper became concerned and  immediately wrote to Dr. Webster suggesting that any artefacts found there should be held in safe keeping and that the ruins be preserved. Webster wrote to J. B. Harkin, director of the historic sites branch, urging that the new lighthouse be built alongside the old and that any “relics” be delivered to Draper’s care. The result of this intercession by Draper was that the 18th-century lighthouse ruins were saved.

To preserve the ruins, engineer Leger estimated that it would cost between $50.00 and $75.00 to point the stone. The historic sites people in Ottawa agreed with this and, though the final cost was $130.00, they paid the bill. 

As for the artefacts, some may have been given to Archdeacon Draper for safekeeping. But there seems to have been concern that they would leave the community and there was an effort to keep the lead dedication plaque in Louisbourg. The plaque memorializes the efforts of engineer Etienne Verrier and civilian contractor Ganet in the construction of the French light and other principal buildings. The local pressure to keep it in town may have come from either Mayor A.A.  Martell or councillor and soon-to-be mayor, M.S. Huntington, who was becoming an advocate of local history.[xxvii] Fortunately, there was also support from the district engineer, Leger, and the local sentiment won the day. The plaque hung inside the tower until the light was automated in 1990. At that time it was transferred to the Fortress of Louisbourg where it is on display.[xxviii] 

The Summer of  1926

 The new lighthouse was the focal point for an important event in 1926. Louisbourg was planning a Come Home Summer and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, at the same time, planned to unveil 4 historic site plaques at Louisbourg – 2 at the lighthouse and 2 on the site of the fortress ruins. Earlier correspondence between the departments agreed that the plaques would be attached to the lighthouse.[xxix]  In March 1926,  Mayor A.A. Martell wrote, to the District Engineer about the “summer carnival”, mentioned the historic plaque unveilings and asked if the case would be ready for the historic lead plaque, which was found in the ruins of the French tower in 1923. Heralding what would become a long-term point of concern between municipal and federal responsibilities,  Martell also asked if the road to the lighthouse would be repaired for the event.[xxx] 

The town celebrated the first day of its Come Home Week on August 10, 1926 with a sports programme and the plaque unveilings. The day opened with a 3 mile race run from old town to the school in the modern town won by Truman Hunt. At 11:30 a.m. the activity moved to the lighthouses where Senator McLennan talked about the history of the site and Mayor Melvin Huntington welcomed the guests before unveiling two Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaques.[xxxi] One of the plaques commemorates the French defenders of the Island Battery in 1745 and 1758, while the other commemorates the French lighthouse and the British batteries constructed in the vicinity in 1745 and 1758.[xxxii] 


[i] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 500 File 20453-k, pt. 2, 2 January 1924 (#262).  Melvin S. Huntington Diary, 1 February 1924.  Bill O’Shea, The 1842 Louisbourg Lighthouse, Heritage Notes, No 13, March 2002, Louisbourg Heritage Society.  

[ii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-k, pt. 2, 16 June 1923, Johnson to Harvey (#253); RG42, Vol. 501, 20453-R, Notice to Mariners No 34 of 1923 (#42), Harvey to DM, Marine, 4 June 1923 (#35),  Harvey to DM, Marine 8 June 1923 (#41)  

[iii]National Archives, Marine, RG 42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, Johnston to Agent, 5 June 1923 (#36).  

[iv] National Archives,  Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, District Engineer to Agent, 14 June 1923 (#s 47-48, 49).  

[v] National Archives,  Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R,  Superintendent of Lights to District Engineer 4 July 1923 with marginal note dated 12 July 1923 (# 58).  

[vi] Brian Campbell (with A.J.B. Johnston), Tracks Across the Landscape – The S&L Commemorative History, University College of Cape Breton Press, 1995. Melvin S. Huntington, Diary, 17 & 19 May 1919.  

[vii] Dominion of Canada, Annual Departmental Reports, 1925-26, Vol. 3, 59th Annual Report Department of Marine & Fisheries, pp. 78-79.  

[viii] Marine Department plan, Reference No. CR-11840, Designed May 1917, Fortress of Louisbourg NHS archives.  

[ix] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, 6 Sept. 1923 (#77).  

[x] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, 3 November 1923 (#127).  

[xi] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, telegram, 3 October 1923 (#88).  

[xii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, 22 October 1923 (#115 also 114, 119).  

[xiii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, 10 November 1923 (#128).  

[xiv] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, 27 June 1923 and 16 July 1923. It was to be sent with a set of 8 murettes.  

[xv] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, Leger to Agent, 4 January 1924 (#143).  

[xvi] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, Brown to Leger, 26 December 1923 (#141).  

[xvii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, J. A. Leger to Agent, 20 February 1924 (#154).  

[xviii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, Notice to Mariners, No 7 of 1924- Atlantic No 5 (#148).  

[xix] Department of Transport, Lighthouse Data Form, Dartmouth, N.S., file 7952-420, 17 July 1962.  

[xx] M. Coleman, Louisbourg Light tower, Louisbourg, N.S., Building Report 90-267, Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office, pp 3-4.

[xxi] National Archives, Marine,  RG42, Vol. 502, file 20456-7k, Fraser to Chief Engineer, 30 January 1902 ( #152); Notice to Mariners #9 of 1902; RG42, Vol. 500, file 20453c memo to Commissioner of Lights 19 January 1916 (#501); RG42, Vol 502, file 20456-7k, Chief Engineer to Schmidt, 15 August 1906 (#349); Schmidt to Cordeau, 20 Dec 1906; Summers to J. A. Legere, 26 April 1907; Legere to Chief Engineer, 7 Jan 1908 (#s 413-414).  

[xxii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 500, file 20453-K, part 2, Hawken to Agent, 25 March 1924 (#279).  

[xxiii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, J. A. Leger to Agent, 9 Oct 1923.  

[xxiv] Report of the Committee on Louisbourg Memorial, New York, 1896.  

[xxv] Daily Record, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 20 August 1900.  

[xxvi] A.J.B. Johnston, Preserving History: The Commemoration of 18th-century Louisbourg 1895-1940, in Eric Krause, Carol Corbin & William O’Shea, eds., Aspects of Louisbourg, University College of Cape Breton Press, 1995, pp. 253-285. For an 18th-century effort at commemoration see Johnston’s article Commemorating Louisbourg, c 1767 in the same volume, pages 286-288.  

[xxvii] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R,  District Engineer to Agent 9 October 1924 (#91); Telegram, Engineer to Deputy Minister, 15 Oct 1923 (#103); Draper to Webster, 3 October 1923 (#106); Webster to Harkin, 8 October 1923 (#107); Corey to Hawkin – ADM Marine – 12 Oct. 1923 (#109); District Engineer to Agent, 15 October 1923 (#111).  

[xxviii] The last head lightkeeper Roy Forgeron contacted Bill O’Shea at the Fortress of Louisbourg and arranged for this transfer. The plaque is on display in the Bigot House exhibit.  

[xxix] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, ADM Interior to ADM Marine, 2 September 1924 and 11 Sept. 1924 (#163).  

[xxx] National Archives, Marine, RG42, Vol. 501, File 20453-R, Martel to Leger 6 March 1926 (169); Leger to Agent 10 March 1926 (169, 170).  

[xxxi] A.A. Martell was mayor between Feb. 1920 and Feb. 1926. Melvin S. Huntington was mayor from Feb. 1926 until Feb. 1946.  

[xxxii] Sydney Record, Sydney, N.S., 11 August 1926; Sydney Post, Sydney, N.S. 10 & 11 August 1926; Chronicle-Herald, Halifax, N.S.17 July &11 August 1926; Melvin S. Huntington, Diary, Tuesday, 10 August 1926; Louisbourg Amateur Athletic Club, Program, Louisbourg, August 10, 1926 in James Peck scrapbook copy Bill O’Shea.

© Louisbourg Heritage Society, 17 Holland Ave., Louisbourg, N. S., B1C 2K7,  
ISSN  1183-5835, ISBN 1-896218-16-4


Return to the Previous Page

Retour à la page précédente