Digest>Archives> May 2010

My Childhood in the Lost Wolfe Island Lighthouse


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Wolfe Island Lighthouse from artwork by Pam ...

These memories in the following story describe the author’s childhood when she was living on Nichol Island, also known as Wolfe Island, which is at the entrance to Ship Harbour, about 35 miles east of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her father, Harold Palmer, was the lighthouse keeper of the Wolfe Island Lighthouse, which was also sometimes referred to as the Ship Harbour Lighthouse.

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An issue of Ladies Home Journal was the only ...

The lighthouse in the story was torn down and no longer stands. Photographs of it are elusive. It was built at the same time and closely resembled the Gillis Point Lighthouse on Cape Breton Island. At Gillis Point, the keeper’s house no longer stands, but the tower remains. This is an historic first-hand account of life at a remote island lighthouse, telling of a way of life that will never again be able to be repeated in the annals of history.

Although we have been searching, on and off, for a number of years for photographs of the Palmer family, we were never able to locate any, and we finally decided to publish the story. Hopefully, some photographs will surface after the story is published, as they often do after stories come out.

This story has not been seen in print since it was originally published in the May, 1961 edition of The Instructor. It is being published again for the first time since then in the pages of Lighthouse Digest by special permission of Scholastic Instructor

By Kathryn Palmer Webber


Duck shooting was my father’s favorite sport. He used two methods. For one he made a blind from bushes and hid in it, but it was the other method that fascinated me. We children would watch for sea birds feeding near the shore. When we saw one, we told him. Father immediately took his gun and ammunition and called Fan, his water spaniel. They stood inside the kitchen door until we reported that the duck had gone under water. Quietly they slipped out, ran a short distance, and then crouched motionless until the duck dived again. Each time it came up, it saw no movement.

Finally, Father was on the shore. When the duck popped up, the gun flashed. Fan leaped into the water, seized the duck, and swam back to her master.

My father was very careful about guns, and when my brother began hunting, he was always cautioned, “Never load a gun until you see something to shoot.” When Father retired, a young man, Jim Hutt, took his place, and he was fatally wounded in the mid 1940s while duck hunting at the age of 33. He had slipped on a rock, and the gun discharged. His wife and son found him, but they could not carry him up the steep, rocky hill. They built a fire, and stayed with him until he died. Then they rowed inland to inform the community of the tragedy that had happened on Nichol Island.

Magazines and books

Mother subscribed to Needlecraft and Ladies Home Journal. To me, a child, the outstanding features of the Journal were the paper dolls, a series of famous paintings, and some Bible pictures. MY older sister and I did love those dolls! The paintings were my introduction to the great artists, and I made crayon copies of them.

While my brother and I gazed at a Bible picture, Mother told us the story. Father had the Country Gentlemen, and I still remember the Penrod covers! A number of Zane Grey’s novels appeared in serial form.

When we helped Father haul the boat up over the slippery rocks after a trip to the post office, we knew that Mother would read an installment of “The Man of the Forest” to us after supper.

Visitors often thought we led a lonely life, and would send us huge rolls of magazines. None of those people will ever know the impact that reading had on our lives. We had a good library, and Mother exchanged books with the minister’s wife, and other book lovers on the mainland. These went back and forth as baskets of books.

At Christmas we always gave each other books. Dad would receive a Zane Grey or a Joseph Lincoln and Mother would get some classic or poetry and the children were always generously supplied.

Harbor Ice

It was a three-mile trip across the water to the post office, so weather, wind, and tide determined the time of the crossing. In winter, this was often a hazardous trip.

One bright winter morning, Father left early to get the mail. He had not returned at dusk. Mother appeared unusually quiet as she went to the light room, made necessary preparations for the night, and served the evening meal. He was never away at bedtime, but to bed we were sent. When he finally opened the door at 2 am, three little people scampered down the stairs to hear his story.

He had been to the post office, visited some friends, had dinner, heard all the local news, and then started for home. The wind shifted, and soon a strip of ice lay between him and the island. Rowing a boat, alone, through the ice cakes is a difficult task. The rower must often go with the ice. The task seemed impossible, so he reached a small island, and built a fire. He walked out to a point of land, thinking mother might see him from the light tower. (She did, but had not told us.) Later in the night he succeeded in reaching our island, thoroughly chilled and hungry. He had only one piece of mail, Mother’s Ladies Home Journal.

Once in the forty-odd years my father was a light-keeper, the three-mile strip of water froze into thick ice. Two young men skated out to see us, and my father and older sister walked across it. The following day there was hardly a bit of ice in the harbor. Truly, the sea can be treacherous.

Christmas in a Lighthouse

Probably the first sign of the holiday at Nichol Island was the preparation and baking of Christmas cakes. Later, we sampled the huge pot of mincemeat. Then came the ordering of gifts from a mail-order catalog.

After that, the mail became a mystery. Now Mother must see it first, and parcels were quickly whisked away before we could see size or shape. Weather could play tricks, and sometimes gifts arrived long after Christmas.

One Christmas stands out clearly in my memory. We were always turning our eyes seaward and one day we noticed a ship slowly approaching. It had a flag, and we thought it needed a pilot, but Dad said the flag was distress signal. He went out to the ship with the launch. It was an American tern schooner bound from Maine to Nova Scotia. The steering gear was broken, and the ship had to go with the wind. It was off course, provisions were exhausted, and the crew was glad to make our harbor. Father fastened his boat to the schooner, and towed it into the harbor for safe anchorage. How proud we were when he took the captain to the mainland to telegraph the ship’s owner and to obtain supplies from the local grocery store. The captain’s wife, a nurse, had made many trips with her husband, including one to Ireland. She came ashore to visit with Mother. We were impressed, for Mother cut the Christmas cake when she served tea, and it was not Christmas yet!

Captain Rogers smuggled a big box of chocolate into the house for us, and we invited the entire crew to have Christmas dinner with us. We children were disappointed when a tug arrived on December 24 to take the ship to Halifax for repairs. The ship never reached her homeport. On the way back to the United States, she was wrecked, but we heard that no lives were lost.

This story appeared in the May 2010 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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