Digest>Archives> April 2000

New Life for an Old Lighthouse


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West Point Lighthouse, PEI, Canada.

Although Prince Edward Island is only 140 miles long, it has 1100 miles of spectacular coastline. For those who love lighthouses, Prince Edward Island is a virtual gold mine. Scattered along the coast are 50 light structures, ranging from small range lights, at the entrance to harbors, to the stately West Point Lighthouse. One of the real advantages to those who explore the coast in search of lighthouses is the fact that all but three of the Island Lights can be reached easily by car. Two of the lighthouses, which cannot be accessed by vehicle, are easily viewed from shore.

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Photographs document the island's history

With the increase in navigational aids available to modern sailors, the lighthouses of Prince Edward Island are no longer such a necessity. The Canadian Coast Guard, in hopes of recovering financial loss, has explored the possibility of disposing of island lighthouses, which might lead to them being owned by private individuals. This is somewhat upsetting to lighthouse lovers because the public and the surrounding community will no longer have access to the site. However, it is more desirable than the other possibility of the Coast Guard retaining ownership of Prince Edward Island lighthouses, while they are left to slowly deteriorate. In Canada we have seen the destruction of lighthouses, by the Coast Guard, when they were no longer needed. However, there are other options for lighthouses, which involve community action, development and restoration.

An outstanding example of preservation of the history and culture associated with lighthouses can be found at West Point, Prince Edward Island. Located on the southwestern tip of the island, the West Point Lighthouse is a square-tapered wooden tower built in 1875 and put into operation on the 21st day of May 1876. In 1982, the members of the West Point Development Corporation, a group of enterprising volunteers in the West Point region of Prince Edward Island, undertook the enhancement of their community for the greater enjoyment of the area's residents and visitors alike. The focal point of their efforts was the restoration of the historic West Point Light. At 69 feet, it is one of the island's tallest and most unique, and one of the few black and white lighthouses in Canada. The lighthouse was manned until 1963 when the keeper, who lived in the attached dwelling, retired. During the 87 years that the light was manually operated, there were just two keepers: William MacDonald from 1875 to 1925, and Benny MacIsaac from 1925-1963. Today, the lantern, in a bright red housing atop the squared conical tower, operates electrically.

Bringing the historic light back to its former glory has included restoration of the shingled tower itself, with its distinctive broad black stripes on a white background, and reconstruction of the attached dwelling from original blueprints. In 1984 West Point Lighthouse was established as Canada's first lighthouse inn, museum, and restaurant. Here artifacts and photographs document the history of the island's lighthouse, with emphasis on the West Point Light. Following an expansion in 1987, there are now nine guest rooms and a full service dining room and seaside patio, that have been thoughtfully furnished to recreate the era of light keepers.

One of the most important aspects of restoring the lighthouse, especially in the early days, was volunteer assistance. People from throughout the community gave their furniture or quilts, mats, or whatever they could contribute to make their lighthouse live again. Volunteers helped varnish woodwork, hang wallpaper and plant flowers. The group constantly looked for ways to include the local people as well as tourists. The local people lobbied for, and got, improvements to Cedar Dunes Provincial Park and to the nearby fishing harbor. "Throughout the whole development, we have looked at what the area has to offer and have sought to improve those things such as the nature trails, parks, harbor, and local crafts. That's really what it's all about, focusing on what you have and making it better without spoiling it," states Carol Livingstone, President of the Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society. The Canadian Coast Guard was also very cooperative in the restoration endeavor, contributing numerous lenses, tools and early types of lighting apparatus.

More than twenty-five people are employed at the West Point Light from late May until the end of September. The West Point Lighthouse has become extremely popular, with people booking more than a year in advance to stay in the "Tower Room." This unique room is located on the second floor of the lighthouse tower, which makes it one of the only inn rooms in Canada to be located in an active lighthouse. Guests are free to explore the museum, dig for the pirate's hidden treasure, roam the nature trails, relax on the sandy beach or browse through the assortment of literature on lighthouses of Prince Edward Island and other parts of the world.

Along with the preservation of the actual light structure, the storytelling and folklore tradition that typically accompanies legendary lighthouses remains a very important part of the Island Lighthouse experience. The Legendary Phantom Ship is often seen from the shores of the West Point Lighthouse. Sightings of the Phantom Ship have occurred as early as 1786, mostly in the spring and the fall, but some people have reported seeing the ship in the summer and even when there is ice on the strait. Some who have seen the Phantom Ship recollect seeing flames and people on the ship's deck. There is really no explanation of the Phantom Ship, just theories of how it came into existence.

Efforts are being made by such groups as the Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society to establish greater interest and concern, for not only the West Point Lighthouse, but for all island lighthouses. The Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society was established in 1996, and is one of only two Provincial lighthouse societies in Canada. The purpose or mission statement of this society is "to aid in the preservation of lighthouses of the area to work with the Canadian Coast Guard and other agencies, both government and nonprofit groups, to achieve the safekeeping of buildings, artifacts and records of Prince Edward Island Lighthouse."

As an incentive and guide to lighthouse lovers, in 1998, the Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society initiated the "Follow the Lights" program. Plaques displaying historical information were mounted on fifteen of the most prominent lights, and in 1999, two more plaques were added for a total of seventeen. Attached to each plaque is a brass block with the society's logo and the name of that lighthouse. At the provincial Visitor Centers, visitors can get brochures and marking sheets. If they visit at least eight of the seventeen sites, they will be awarded a commemorative Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Lovers Certificate.

The other Prince Edward Island lighthouses open to the public during the summer months are East Point, Panmure Island, Cape Bear, Wood Islands, Point Prim, and Victoria Range Light. A real treat for visitors in all of these lighthouses is that they can actually go into the lantern rooms, something not permitted in most lighthouses.

For those who want a meaningful momento of their trip to Prince Edward Island, a number of island-made clothing and craft items depicting lighthouses are available. Holiday Island Production, a Prince Edward Island craft manufacturing company produces fine earthenware miniatures of the West Point Light. Featured on the back of the miniature replica is a scene of the Phantom Ship. Each room at the West Point Lighthouse has a miniature replica on display and these are also available to be purchased by guests and visitors. If you are looking for a place that combines natural beauty, friendly people, and a chance to explore lighthouses, "Follow the Lights" to Prince Edward Island.

For further information contact:

Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society

O'Leary RR#2,

Prince Edward Island Canada, C0B 1V0

This story appeared in the April 2000 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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