Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Island of Tragedy

By Timothy Harrison


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The 1870 Rocher aux Oiseaux Lighthouse as it ...

Recently an old page from a July 8, 1951 newspaper came into our possession with a few photos of life at the Rocher aux Oiseaux Lighthouse, a remote lighthouse on one of the Magdalen Islands in the Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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Lighthouse keeper Alfred Arsenault and his family ...

The story was one page with five photos and very little text. This was apparently part of the Sunday newspaper magazine insert, which was very popular in those days.

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The Rocher aux Oiseaux Lighthouse as it appeared ...

The photo that immediately caught my attention was of lighthouse keeper Alfred Arsenaut and his family gathered around the kitchen table at the lighthouse playing cards. The caption read, “With no place to go in the evening, the light keeper amuses himself at cards with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson. He’s unworried about the isle’s dire legend.”

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A gannet is shown here in 1961 guarding its nest ...

I thought of all the people who met tragic deaths while serving at this lighthouse and yet, according to the caption of the photograph, the keeper was unworried about repeating the consequences that befell those who served here before him.

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What I found even more amazing is that after either the reporter and the photographer for the newspaper found their way out to this remote and dangerous island lighthouse, the newspaper only saw fit to publish five photos with almost no text to tell the story of the lighthouse, which, to say the least, has quite a tragic history.

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The Rocher aux Oiseaux Lighthouse as it appears ...

The man who was appointed the first keeper in 1870, upon seeing where he had to go, refused to take on the assignment. And why would he? The flat topped island rock, which resembles an aircraft carrier, has cliffs on all sides with the highest point being 115-feet straight up or straight down, depending on where you are.

Things did not go well for the next man who arrived on the island. After enduring all that Mother Nature could throw, and while enduring the isolation of the post, after two years on the job, the man who was brave enough to become the first official keeper went insane and had to be removed from his post.

In April of 1880 lighthouse keeper Whalen and his son died when they got trapped on an ice floe. A year later, in August of 1881, keeper Charles Chiasson and his son were killed when the fog cannon blew up. The force of the blast literally blew the assistant keeper into the sea. Although he survived and went on to become the keeper, he lost part of his hand when another fog cannon blew up, and later after becoming injured in a fall, he resigned his post and left the island.

Tragedy struck again in March of 1897 when three men including the assistant keeper became trapped on an ice floe in another storm. Two of the men, including the assistant keeper, died during the night and a third man eventually walked 60 miles for help, but died a few days later.

When Pierre Bourque was appointed the keeper in the winter of 1896, bad weather prevented him from getting to the island until May of 1897. Shortly after his arrival, his assistant keeper was severely injured when the fog cannon was ignited.

Wilfrid Bourque assumed the position of head keeper when his father quit and left the island in 1905. He should have left with his father. One day when he didn’t return from hunting, his nephew and the assistant keeper went out to look for him. They found him dead, but standing frozen upright in the water at the edge of the sea. How he had come to die in such an unusual stance will remain a mystery until the end of time.

For years the keepers and their families had complained about the drinking water at the lighthouse, a complaint that was finally taken as truth in 1922 when lighthouse keeper Bourque, his brother Albin Bourque, and assistant keeper Philias Richard all became violently sick. Although lighthouse keeper Bourque survived, his brother and the assistant keeper died from the contaminated water.

A writer who visited the three-acre island in 1903 said that he was nauseated by the stench of the birds “that swarm like locust.” Although no one seems to know how they accomplished it, one keeper brought a cow to the island so the family could have fresh milk. The keeper claimed that the birds drove the cow insane and it finally jumped from the island to its death. Another keeper told how he had to wash his hair twice a day from the bird dung. The keepers always had to make sure that all the doors and windows remained closed to keep the birds out, but the birds keep breaking the windows. The keepers told the writer that, other than a government official and a few local fishermen, he was the first person the keepers had seen from the mainland in two years.

Additionally, the keepers said that as well as the problems with the birds, the wind never seemed to stop blowing and they swore it blew twice as hard on the island as it did on the mainland. Luc (Luke) Arsenault, who served as one of the last lighthouse keepers on the island, told a reporter, “Sometimes I just wanted to stand at the edge of the cliff at night and howl at the moon.” Obviously no matter who they were, how rugged they were, or in what time era they served at the lighthouse, life there was always a struggle.

The last of the lighthouse keepers were removed in 1961. Before long, lacking proper care and maintenance, the structures on the island will soon revert back to nature.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 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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