Digest>Archives> September 2000

Saving Sambro Light

By Chris Mills


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Rip Irwin has made it his mission to save the ...

Smitten with Sambro Island

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Rip Irwin gets shivers every time he climbs the worn wooden steps of the Sambro Island Lighthouse. The retired Chief Petty Officer has visited this towering red and white-striped beacon dozens of times over the past decade.

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Chris Mills and his daughter on a visit to the ...

Perched on a barren granite island at the southern approaches to Halifax Harbour, the stone tower warns of dangerous ledges which have claimed dozens of ships in the past three centuries. It’s a special place for Irwin — so special that he’s dedicated himself to preserving the 242-year-old light for future generations.

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Irwin served with the Canadian navy for more than 20 years. He regularly got a sailor’s-eye view of the Sambro Light during the Korean War when he served on warships based in Halifax.

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“Sambro Island became a very important part of my life,” he says. “This was the last thing we saw when we left Halifax Harbour and the first thing we saw when we were home.” Irwin says after spending months at sea, nothing stirred him so much as sighting the flash from the Sambro Island Lighthouse.

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But it was another 35 years before Irwin actually set foot on Sambro Island. In 1988, the Canadian Coast Guard was getting ready to automate the lighthouse and Irwin decided to visit the lightkeepers before they left their island home for good. Irwin says he was smitten — with the desolate island and its flashing beacon. “It was just a beautiful spot,” he says. “It was a little bit of paradise.”

Irwin says he was impressed by the massive stone tower, with its narrow, fortress-like windows and five-foot thick granite walls. But it wasn’t until a few years later that he realized the Sambro Island lighthouse wasn’t as solid as it looked and that the light was in danger of falling to pieces. After the keepers left, vandals wrecked their houses. Wind and spray ripped shingles from the tower’s protective sheathing and huge chunks of the concrete lantern deck fell to the ground.

Sambro Light’s history and revitalization

Crumbling concrete and faded paint — it was an inglorious fate for the historic Sambro Island lighthouse. Built just nine years after the 1749 founding of Halifax, the lighthouse was an important beacon for British warships based in the newly established seaport. Workers constructed a thick-walled stone tower to withstand the battering of the elements. The first keeper lit the light — reportedly fueled by fish oil — in 1759, and a light has been shining from the tower ever since.

Today, the Sambro Island Light is still operational, although the island is deserted. On a clear summer day in 1993, Irwin visited the island with friends. He says he was struck by how the lighthouse had deteriorated in the four years following its automation.

“I was wondering why it wasn’t being looked after, considering it was the oldest lighthouse in North America,” he says. “No one would ever come out and say it was the oldest, so this kind of piqued my interest.”

After doing some research, Irwin found that the lighthouse wasn’t even on the national register of historic buildings. In 1994 he drove to Ottawa from his home in Truro, N.S., to meet with the head of the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO). When he asked why Sambro’s light wasn’t a protected building, Irwin says the director of reviews “almost fell off his chair.” He had no idea the lighthouse wasn’t a heritage structure.

Irwin says it was time to do something about saving the Sambro Lighthouse. He lobbied the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Coast Guard for heritage protection of the Sambro Light. And while he was waiting for responses from government agencies, he motored to the island in his small inflatable boat. He spent ten nights on the island on one trip, camping in a drafty, abandoned shed at the water’s edge.

With the help of a volunteer crew, Irwin repaired the roof of the shed, replaced broken windows, boarded up the abandoned keepers’ houses and cleaned up around the deserted buildings. Finally, in late 1996 the Department of Canadian Heritage evaluated the Sambro lighthouse site. They gave the tower top marks for its historical and architectural significance.

But it was another two years before the Coast Guard moved in to renovate the lighthouse. In August 1998, workers arrived to install thousands of kilograms of scaffolding around the 80 foot-high structure. They stripped the rotten wooden sheathing from the tower, re-shingled it and poured a new deck around the lantern at the top of the light.

Four months and $250,000 later, the last worker departed the island, leaving the sparkling red and white-striped Sambro Island Lighthouse with a still-wet coat of paint on the lantern deck.

Irwin was elated when restoration work began on the lighthouse. He says the Coast Guard did a good job fixing it up. The tower probably looks better than it has since the turn of the last century, he says. “But it still seems to me more like cosmetics than actual restoration,” he says. “There’s more to that tower than the shingles and paint.”

Little maintenance for isolated lighthouses

Inside the Sambro Island Lighthouse, a century’s worth of yellowed whitewash hangs from the damp stone walls. Allen Penney peels off a strip and lets it fall to the floor. Penney is a Halifax architect with an interest in historic buildings. He says it’s questionable how much the government appreciates the significance of historic buildings, especially when they are on isolated islands.

“Public interest usually is the spur as to whether government actually does invest money,” he says. “Things like rebuilding [Fortress] Louisbourg and the maintenance of the [Halifax] Citadel are caused by tourism. Apart from that, it’s very chancy whether we do get maintenance on a regular basis.”

Penney says he’s impressed with the restoration work done on the Sambro Light. But he says it’s a mistake to think stone buildings can be left without regular check-ups.

The Canadian Coast Guard does occasional checks on the light, fog horn and emergency generators. But in an age of satellite communications, the Coast Guard’s priorities are changing, and lighthouses are no longer getting the care — repairs, paint, cleaning — they need.

Carl Goodwin is Superintendent of Marine Navigation Services at the Coast Guard base in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Goodwin says the light at Sambro will be maintained for the foreseeable future. But he also says that the role of the lighthouse as a navigation marker is diminishing.

“We’re kind of in a transition period,” he says. “We’re moving the lighthouses from their former role as an aid to the mariner to a new role in the area of heritage, culture and tourism.” At the same time, Goodwin says the Coast Guard is not in the business of preserving historic lighthouses.

The future of Sambro Island Lighthouse

Community groups have developed some mainland Nova Scotia lighthouse sites as museums and tea rooms. But Sambro Island is three miles over rough water from the nearest village, and doesn’t have mainland amenities like roads and power. Rip Irwin says he wants more people to take an interest in preserving Sambro Island and its lighthouse. “Unless communities involve themselves to look after the lights in their own communities, we’re going to lose a lot of our lights,” he says.

Irwin says he doesn’t expect the Sambro Light will ever be lost. But he also says he doesn’t think much will be done with the island unless people come to the island and pitch in to help fix up the site. He says he doesn’t plan to give up on Sambro Island and its lighthouse, though. “It’s a wondrous place to me,” he says. “It’s almost magical. I could go on and stay till I run out of food and water and I think they’d have to drag me off.”

Irwin says he’ll keep fighting for the Sambro Island Light, and he dreams of the day when a restored lighthouse and refurbished keepers’ houses will welcome visitors — with boardwalks, mowed lawns, even a lighthouse keeper. For now, he visits the island when he can, climbing the dimly lit lighthouse stairs to the lantern to watch over the derelict houses, and the ships steaming into Halifax Harbour.

This story appeared in the September 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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