Billy Budge was only seven years old in 1955 when his father became the lighthouse keeper at St. Paul Island Southwest Lightstation, a remote, rugged and rocky outpost 12 miles off the northern tip of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. “I had no idea where St. Paul Island was located, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm,” Budge writes in his book, Memoirs of a Lightkeeper’s Son. Billy’s grandfather took him to the shore near their home in Neil’s Harbour and pointed out a distant gray hump on the horizon. That faraway rock, less than two square miles in size, would be the family’s home for the next five years, and their adventure is lovingly depicted in crisp detail in the pages of Budge’s new book.
Located in the Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, St. Paul Island’s history of devastating shipwrecks gave it the well-earned nickname “Graveyard of the Gulf.” The most staggering of these tragedies was the October 1814 loss of the Royal Sovereign, carrying British troops headed from Quebec to England. The ship ran into the teeth of a storm and ran aground, and out of 811 on board only 12 survived.
On New Years Day of 1825, the bark Jessie out of Prince Edward Island came ashore at the island’s Southwest Point. Those aboard made it onto the island only to starve to death during a typically brutal winter. These and other tragedies led to the establishment of two lifesaving stations and two lighthouse stations - the Southwest and Northeast lights - on the island by the end of the 1830s. There were still occasional tragedies, but in 1863 the lifesavers at the Atlantic Cove station saved the lives of more than 550 people in the wreck of a steamer.
For Freddy Budge, Billy’s father, his new job as a lighthouse keeper meant the first steady work he had found since returning to Neil’s Harbour after World War II. But even he probably didn’t realize for the sacrifices and ingenuity that would be required for his family’s new life. “There were always problems to be solved and challenges to be met that the rest of the world could never know,” writes Billy in Memoirs of a Lightkeeper’s Son.
The Budges - Freddy, wife Edith, Billy, his younger sister Ina, and their Newfoundland dog King - moved onto the island in September 1955. They were entering a world with no schools, no electricity and no neighbors, since the keepers at the Northeast Lightstation lived across a narrow channel called a “tittle” from the rest of the island. One of those keepers died in a tragic accident not long after the Budges arrived at St. Paul.
This new world was fraught with dangers, and the Budges had scrapes with illness, fire, ice, and snow among other hazards. “If Mother’s instructions were heeded,” writes Budge, “then survival was always assured. In Neil’s Harbour, she would say to us, ‘Don’t play on the highway - you’ll be run over.’ On St. Paul Island, her advice was similar: ‘Don’t fall overboard - you’ll drown!’” By the very nature of its isolation the island was a risky place to live for a family with young children.
But for Billy, it was a magical place he came to love dearly. He hunted ducks and fished with his father, helped to care for the light and to haul supplies with a tractor. He and Ina even played in the mercury bath that held the lens, something that today would be considered an extreme health hazard. The natural surroundings were harsh but enchanting, as Budge writes: “I often beheld the beauty of the early morning sky, its hues of mauve and purple light preceding the rising of the sun.”
Billy learned how to operate the lighthouse equipment, and it was part of his routine to keep an eye out to make sure the light was burning properly. “It required little effort on my part to lift my head from schoolwork,” he writes, “now and again to cast a glance through the window toward the lighthouse.” One of the most important challenges facing the Budges occurred when a fire damaged the lighthouse’s lens. The entire family pitched in to clean up and repair the damage - including Billy’s 100-pound mother Edith, who hoisted the 750-pound lens using a block and tackle system.
Memoirs of a Lightkeeper’s Son is filled with memorable incidents like the time Billy nearly went over the cliff into the sea with his sister Ina as they rode their father’s homemade sleigh down the snowy slope. They narrowly escaped going over, but the sled didn’t. “Later that evening,” he writes, “I noticed that Mom was visibly shaken by the near tragedy and Dad was still upset over the loss of his sleigh.” The story of Billy’s later efforts to recover his “trusty blue cap” that had gone over the cliff is both scary and funny.
While on St. Paul Island, Billy and his sister were schooled at home, using lessons sent by officials on the mainland. In 1960 Freddy Budge made the decision to move his family from St. Paul Island to a more accessible station so that they could attend school and receive a better education. He soon found a position in Point Bickerton and an exciting time in the family’s history came to a close.
Jack Zinck, author of a series of books on the shipwrecks of Nova Scotia, once wrote, “It will be a sad day when the island becomes fully automatic, for it will not be the same without lightkeepers. Because of these brave men the island has become a legend in marine history.” The 27-foot 1917 iron tower that stood when the Budge family was at St. Paul Island Southwest Lightstation was later replaced by a small, automated solar-powered light, and the days of keepers and families came to a close as it has at almost all of the lightstations in Eastern Canada.
Around 1981, the 1917 lighthouse tower was moved to the Canadian Coast Guard base in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The tower would have been lost to demolition if not for the efforts of Canadian Coast Guard staff. The original lantern had deteriorated beyond salvage and was scrapped, so a new aluminum lantern was installed along with a Fresnel lens. The Dartmouth Coast Guard base is due to be closed in 2004, and some concerned locals are working to have the lighthouse moved to the town of Dingwall, which was home to many of the light’s keepers.
Anyone interested in that effort should email Terry Dwyer of the St. Paul Island Historical Society at email@example.com.
Billy Budge, a retired telephone technician with Maritime Tel and Tel, is also a private pilot, ham radio operator, aerial photographer, sailor and carpenter. Married with three children, he lives in Ingonish, Nova Scotia. Through his new career as a writer he is preserving a portrait of a bygone way of life. His island days are never far from Budge’s mind and heart, and he knows his family performed an invaluable service. “If our light had prevented only one shipwreck, or saved only one life, then we had not served in vain,” he writes.
Memoirs of a Lightkeeper’s Son is available from Lighthouse Depot, item #91358 for $18.95. Call 1-800-758-1444 or visit online at www.LighthouseDepot.com.
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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