Along both shores of Canada’s mighty 700+ mile St. Lawrence River and Seaway, extending out into the broad Gulf of St. Lawrence, dozens of lightstations were established as far back as 1809. Many of these stations presented isolated, difficult living situations for keepers and their families.
One of the more isolated lights on the St. Lawrence was Quebec’s Cap au Saumon Lighthouse, established in 1894 below steep cliffs on the north shore of the river a few miles from the village of Saint-Simeon. The buildings at Cap au Saumon have been abandoned since the light was automated back in 1980, save for a short-lived restoration attempt a few years ago. The remote location makes the prospect of restoring the buildings at Cap au Saumon a formidable challenge few would attempt.
But it isn’t stopping Peter Noreau.
Noreau is a 56-year-old senior captain for Air Canada. He and his girlfriend Odette (they’re married, but Peter says he finds it nicer to call her his girlfriend) also manage a Victorian bed and breakfast in Waterville, Quebec, called La Mère Veilleuse. The name is loosely translated as “Mother who takes care of her guests,” and also suggests the adjective “merveilleuse,” meaning “marvelous.”
Noreau visited the lighthouse at Cap au Saumon as a boy and fell in love with the scenic, rocky location with its gleaming white and red buildings. Years later he was alarmed to find out the station had been abandoned.
Despite the fact that he lives about 264 miles from Cap au Saumon, Noreau saw an opportunity to rescue an important piece of maritime history. He contacted the government and eventually worked out a lease of the property to his newly-formed organization, Corporation du Phare de Cap-au-Saumon, established in July 2003.
There was one earlier attempt to revive the station after automation. Several years ago an organization called the Corporation de Développement des Phares du Saint-Laurent set up a small museum in the fog signal building and attempted to develop the site as a tourist attraction, but the plans never fully materialized. This may have been partly due to the opening of the Manoir Richelieu casino a few miles away, which presented formidable competition for tourist attention and dollars.
The original lighthouse was replaced in 1955 by a typical Canadian white, octagonal concrete tower with a red lantern. The 46-foot lighthouse is still maintained as an aid to navigation, but Canadian Coast Guard crews today make only occasional visits by helicopter to service the automatic light.
For many years the only way to the Cap au Saumon station by land was a steep, narrow footpath leading over rough, rocky terrain for about two miles. Noreau realized that if he was to successfully restore the station, the first thing he needed to do was to improve access so that he could transport materials in and out of the station.
This past summer he hired a local lumberjack and the two men worked seven days a week, all day, for three months widening and improving the road. “I didn’t know my own name by the end of the day, I was so pooped,” says Noreau. The road now is passable in Noreau’s all-terrain vehicle, but public access is still restricted to those who enter on foot.
Noreau says there was a “horrendous amount” of trash and debris left behind on the site. This summer he removed 41 trash bags worth, and there’s much more to go. He’s begun the work of securing and restoring the two keeper’s houses, but there’s a tremendous amount of work remaining to be done. For one thing, the “roofs are leaking like crazy,” says Noreau.
This part of the St. Lawrence River is actually a saltwater estuary, about 11 miles wide at Cap au Saumon. Canadian lighthouse researcher Michel Forand has visited and was impressed by the extreme quiet at the station. “There is no surf, and thus no surf noise,” he says, “only the sound of seagulls and other birds.” Wildlife abounds in the area, with seals, wild ducks and whales frequently seen near the light station. Noreau has seen whales within 50 feet of the lighthouse, and he’s even spotted a couple of rare blue whales, the largest animals on earth.
The Noreaus plan eventually to live at Cap au Saumon in summer, but they’ll welcome visitors. The location will never be a major tourist attraction due to its isolation, but the intrepid hikers and kayakers who do visit will no doubt be pleased to see the buildings being brought back to life.
So far every penny that’s been spent on the station’s restoration has come from the Noreaus. That’s OK as far as Peter is concerned. “At least I will have done something for the area,” he says. “It’s going to happen. And things have happened already.”
If you’d like to learn more or to help with the restoration, you can contact the Noreaus by email at email@example.com or by phone at (819) 837-3075.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2004 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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