Digest>Archives> September 2005

Keeper George Simms of North Penguin Island, Newfoundland

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Keeper George Simms was the keeper of North ...

North Penguin Island (often referred to simply as Penguin Island), in Hamilton Sound, off the east coast of Newfoundland, Canada, was once a breeding ground for the now extinct great auk or “Le Grand Pingouin.” There were many shipwrecks in the vicinity and pleas for a lighthouse were frequent. In January 1889, the Twillingate Sun newspaper laid out the case for a navigational aid: “The islands are so exceedingly low, that it is difficult to discern them on dark nights or in thick foggy weather, until being too close to them to make a retreat... There are hundreds of vessels from all parts of the colony, especially the smaller ones, that would hail with joy the erection of a light on the Penguin Islands.”

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North Penguin Island Lighthouse, Newfoundland, ...

Finally, in 1890, a 55-foot cylindrical cast iron lighthouse was erected on the island, with a fifth order Fresnel lens exhibiting a fixed white light. The lighthouse was destroyed some years ago, and information about its history is scarce. But we now have information on one of the light’s keepers; thanks to his great granddaughter.

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Back row: Cora May (Eavis) Simms, wife of Keeper ...

George Simms was born in 1884 in Muddy Hole (sometimes spelled Muddyhole), Newfoundland. Just two years later, the little fishing community was renamed Musgrave Harbour after Anthony Musgrave, governor of Newfoundland and later British Columbia. About 1906, Simms became the lightkeeper at North Penguin Island, about five miles offshore from his hometown.

Simms married Cora May Eavis and the couple had six children born on the island: George Jr., Louise, Ivy, Marion (who died in childhood), Thomas

and Florence. George and Cora’s eldest daughter, Louise, was born in 1910, and it was her granddaughter, Rhonda Vercellini, who sent us this information and the accompanying photos of George and Cora Simms.

Rhonda recalls her grandmother telling her that the keeper’s house was often filled with the survivors of shipwrecks. There was at least one wreck, in 1921, when Keeper Simms was credited with the rescue of everyone onboard. Louise also spoke about “little linen packages” that she was instructed to bury. It was only later that she realized these packages contained fingers and toes lost

by shipwreck victims due to frostbite. Despite the harsh weather, isolation and dangers to navigation around the island, Rhonda remembers that her grandmother did have some fond memories of life there as a girl.

In 1922, George Simms fell ill with what was believed to be stomach cancer and died en route to the mainland, still only in his thirties. Cora took her five surviving children and

a nephew with her to Boston. It must have been a culture shock for them after lighthouse life on a small island, but the family put down roots in Boston and has been there ever since.

Our thanks to Rhonda Vercellini

for sharing this information. She’d

love to find out more about her

family’s lighthouse legacy and North Penguin Island, and so would we.

If you have anything to add, please email editor@lighthousedigest.com and we’ll pass it along to Rhonda.

This story appeared in the September 2005 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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