Digest>Archives> March 2004

There was No Hope for Little Hope

Storms destroy lighthouse

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Little Hope Island Lighthouse in August 2003.
Photo by: Jeff Tutty

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After surviving for nearly a century through the worst imaginable weather, the storms of the fall of 2003 proved too much for Nova Scotia’s Little Hope Island Lighthouse. After significant damage was inflicted by Hurricane Juan in late September, the 77-foot concrete tower was demolished by a powerful northeaster on December 7. “There’s nothing left but the rocks,” reported one fisherman, according to the online Queens County Times (www.queenscountytimes.ca).

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Located a couple of miles from Nova Scotia’s south coast in the vicinity of Port Mouton, Little Hope Island is barely an island. It’s simply a heap of rocks marking a dangerous shoal. Before a lighthouse was built in 1864 to replace a small wooden beacon that had been in place for about 20 years, the area was the scene of a number of disastrous wrecks — hence its name. E. H. “Rip” Irwin’s book Lighthouses and Lights of Nova Scotia tells us that the first lighthouse consisted of a tower on the roof of the keeper’s dwelling, and that one of the early keepers, Alexander McDonald, lived with his family at the isolated and dangerous station for an incredible 20 years.

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In his 1873 History of the County of Queens, James More described the precariousness of Little Hope Island Lightstation: “As the territory of Little Hope is compose chiefly of sand, and is not much larger than a good-sized croquet ground, elevated but a few feet above the sea level, and guarded only by straggling low-lying boulders, it can easily be imagined how some Saxby tidal wave [the so-called Saxby Gale of 1869 caused great destruction in the region] could effectively wipe out from the face of this creation this lonely islet with its lighthouse, lighthouse-keeper, his wife and all.”

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The addition of seawalls held the storm tides somewhat at bay, but it was a hard life for keepers and their families. Rip Irwin reports, “At times the lightkeeper and family had to take refuge in the cellar when rocks as large as 500 kilograms [over1,100 pounds] were washed on top of the island and up against the lighthouse itself.” Mary Mouzar of the Queens County Times adds, “I just cannot imagine what it must have been like being a lightkeeper at Little Hope, except scary.”

Chris Mills of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, a former lightkeeper himself, comments, “The keepers on Little Hope were inundated by the sea on many occasions, and yet all they got for protection was the four walls they lived within, and a small wooden seawall.” Mills says that he’s proud of the tradition of “toughing it out on these little rockpiles,” and adds, “I’m sure the folks who lived there felt no romance for lighthouses and their surroundings. They just went about their lighthouse life in a pragmatic way.”

Mouzar says she is descended from a family of master mariners who were involved in 19th century trade in the West Indies. “I’m sure when they were returning,” she says, “that light was a welcome sight, knowing they were just a few miles from their homeport of Liverpool. So that light was very, very important to both local fishermen and those who traveled far.” She adds that Joshua Slocum on his famous voyage around the world (1895-1898) would have passed Little Hope Island Light.

Ironically, it was fire rather than wind and water that caused the demise of the first lighthouse in 1906. A temporary light served until a new lighthouse was constructed in 1908. According to Irwin, the new lighthouse was built by Steel Concrete Co. Ltd. of Montreal at a cost of $7,250. The graceful white tower had six vertical ribs on its exterior and a tall, round iron lantern bringing its total height to about 95 feet. The lantern was later removed, leaving the tower far less attractive.

A concrete keeper’s house was constructed at the same time as the new lighthouse. One of the keepers of the new light, Alan Langille, lived on the tiny island from 1927 to 1945. His family lived there with him for four years, but — not surprisingly — they opted for life on the mainland at Port Mouton. An assistant was provided for Langille, but he often had to survive long stretches on his own. During one 29-day period he had only his dog for company.

The lightstation was destaffed in 1948, but the island remained a dangerous place for visiting workers. In the early 1950s a Department of Transport worker and two Port Mouton fishermen went to the island to repair the light. After the three departed from a larger boat and landed on the island in dories, the seas became so rough that they couldn’t be picked up by boat. They took refuge in the keeper’s house, and the next morning the man who had taken them to the island lashed a barrel of food to the bottom of a dory and sent it toward the island where the hungry men were able to intercept it. Late that same day they were taken off the island by an Air Force search and rescue helicopter.

Rip Irwin recalls visiting Little Hope in September 1991, landing his boat with some difficulty. “I best remember the horrible stench from the guano that totally covered the islet as it had been taken over by gulls after destaffing,” he says. “I didn’t see any sign of the tower being undermined by the sea at that time but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that was the cause of it falling. There is no doubt that the sea rolled completely over the entire islet very often.”

By the time Hurricane Juan battered the area in late September 2003, the keeper’s house, outbuildings and seawalls were long gone. The hurricane left the tower leaning and with major damage to its concrete floor, and Canadian Coast Guard technicians said it was too unsafe to enter.

Even before the hurricane, the Coast Guard was aware of the erosion problem at Little Hope and the danger to the lighthouse. Carl Goodwin, superintendent of aids to navigation for the Maritime Region of the Canadian Coast Guard, says that surveys had estimated the cost of restoration at around $300,000 dollars for a short-term fix and in excess of $1 million for a fix that would last fifteen to twenty years. The Coast Guard was still evaluating the situation, although Goodwin says it looked like repair was “not a cost effective option.”

Nature finished the demolition job on December 7. The first reports of the tower’s demise came from local lobstermen working in the surrounding waters. Mary Mouzar says she was listening to marine band radio on the day after the storm and heard one of the lobstermen comment, “It sure looks funny — not being there.”

Jeff Tutty of nearby Hunts Point was probably one of the last people to photograph the still-intact lighthouse in August 2003. He comments, “The lighthouse will be greatly missed by the fishermen as they used it as a landmark when setting traps and nets,” adding that there is “a shallow reef that runs out a long way from both ends of the island, so they will really have to pay attention.”

Carl Goodwin points out that there’s a large whistle buoy to the south of the island that provides adequate marking of the shoal to the south. One possibility is that a lighted whistle buoy will be added on the north side of the island. “We are currently considering this option as opposed to a fixed aid to navigation of some sort on the island itself,” says Goodwin, “but we will be consulting with local users before any final decisions are made.”

“I’m very sad to know that this tower is gone,” says Rip Irwin, who points out that before its lantern was removed, it was the second tallest lighthouse in Nova Scotia. And at 77 feet, it was still the third tallest. The storm also did quite a bit of damage to walkways, tables and benches at Fort Point Lighthouse Park in Liverpool, NS. But for lobstermen and other local residents, the December 2003 northeaster will be remembered as the storm that took their Little Hope.

This story appeared in the March 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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