Digest>Archives> March 2004

The World's Most Traveled Lighthouse

Three French Canadian Women Reclaim Their Lighthouse

By Katherine McIntyre


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The lighthouse at Pointe à la Renommée repainted ...

The world’s most traveled lighthouse, restored to its original site at Pointe à la Renommée, (Fame Point) and repainted back to its original red, rests proudly on the north shore of Quebec’s Gaspé coast, Canada. But without the unrelenting efforts of Marianne Coté, Priscilla Poirier and Blandine Poirier from the nearby village of L’Anse à Valleau, the lighthouse would still be a photogenic attraction, in front of the Canadian Coast Guard Building in Lower Quebec City.

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Marian Coté on the stairs of the lighthouse she ...

Marian Coté explained, “We were worried that our village was slowly dying. The fishing was bad. Our young people, whose families had lived here for generations were leaving for the city. We needed to do something. We formed a Committee of Development to figure out how we could invigorate our community. Tourism was the answer but we needed a focal point to attract visitors. The missing lighthouse could be our feature but the question was “How could we get it back from Quebec City, three hundred miles away?”

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The site is kept in immaculate condition and with ...

There had been a lighthouse on nearby Pointe a la Renommée since 1880. The first, a square wood structure was replaced in 1907 by one of cast iron bolted together in sections. Its beacon with a light sequence of two shorts and two longs shone for a distance of 50 nautical miles. Not only was there a lighthouse on the point, but also until 1966 there were three seasonal fishing villages close by to which the same families returned every spring, year after year. Then as fishing methods changed, the villages were deserted with the last ones in Quebec to disappear.

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A gift shop and museum are located in the ...

But more importantly, it was from this point that Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian physicist, sent the first transatlantic wireless message in 1901. By 1904 James Ascah, the local light keeper had taught himself semaphore and his light station became the first transatlantic maritime telegraph station in North America. His wireless code signal VGF replaced the foghorn, and with this new method of signaling, marine methods of communication were changed forever.

During both World Wars, German submarines lurked under the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Pointe à la Renommée became a strategic and highly secretive communication center. When a submarine was in the area, the Canadian Department of Defense would send the signal A to the light keeper which meant to darken the light and silence communication until the “All clear” signal B was received.

Then in 1975, the lighthouse was decommissioned and replaced by a skeleton tower in the nearby Village of L’Anse à Valleau, with a light that was powered by electricity and solar. The little red lighthouse on the point became the target for vandals and seemed slated for demolition. But the Canadian Coast Guard had determined that it could be dismantled and moved. Against vigorous opposition from the neighboring communities, the headlines of “Cultural Rape” in the local newspaper, it was put on a barge and shipped three hundred miles up the St. Lawrence River, repainted white and installed in front of the Coast Guard building in Lower Quebec City.

It was fifteen years later that Madam Coté and the two Mesdames Poiriers, know locally as “the stubborn Gaspésians,” with no experience in lobbying government, took charge of the repatriation of their lighthouse. They approached the Coast Guard, whose officials claimed that the cost to dismantle and ship the building back to its original site would be $130,000. Too much for their existing budget. Undaunted, the three women set to work to raise the money.

Researching Communications Quebec, a comprehensive list of provincial and federal government departments, they pinpointed Tourism Quebec and CRCS, a regional development program, as agencies that might be interested in their project. It took five years of negotiations, but their persistence paid off. Both government departments agreed to provide some funds, which combined with local money from barbecues, parties and bake sales amounted to $130,000.

With money in hand, the women revisited the Coast Guard office. It was agreed that the lighthouse could be dismantled, and returned to its original site. Back on the barge, it was floated down the river to Pointe à la Renomée, where it was reinstalled on a new foundation and repainted back to its original red.

The three women, exuberant that the lighthouse was home from its long exile, did not fold their hands and say, “mission accomplished.” The site needed more facilities to attract tourists. They envisioned an information center, a museum, nature trails, parking facilities, a shop and seasonal tour guides.

They prepared a rough draft of what they believed would enhance the site and once again approached Tourism Quebec. It was agreed that these additional facilities would draw more visitors and further funds were made available. In the year 2000, a gray-shingled wood building containing a gift shop and a two-part museum was opened. Drawing on its connection with Marconi, antique telegraph equipment lent by former telegraph operators and the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, is housed in one part. Pictures and memorabilia of a light keepers life donated by the families of former light keepers is displayed in the other section.

A park around the site, parking lot and nature trails to the village have been added. In the summer months, local bilingual students, with extensive knowledge of the life of the light keepers, their families and the story of the repatriation of the lighthouse, guide tourists up the tower to view the light and rotation apparatus, idle now but still intact.

Marian Coté comments, “We were never discouraged, we believed in our project although ninety-nine percent of the villagers were skeptical.” They still believe in their project and negotiate annually for operating funds to pay the tour guides. They ensure that the site is kept in immaculate condition and worry that there is no one to fill their shoes when they become too old to do the job.

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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