Digest>Archives> June 2007

Memories of Grindstone Island Lightstation

Edited by Jeremy D'Entremont

By By Mary Russell


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A recent view of Grindstone Island Lighthouse. ...
Photo by: Kelly Anne Loughery

Grindstone Island is a small island in the mouth of Chignecto Bay, on the south coast of New Brunswick, Canada. The island is heavily wooded except for the western tip, which is where the lighthouse is located. The light station was established in 1859, and the present lighthouse was built in 1908. It has been abandoned in recent years and is endangered.

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The 1859 Grindstone Island Lighthouse, seen here, ...

James Merrill Russell succeeded his brother, George, as the lightkeeper in 1899, and he and his family remained on Grindstone Island until 1913. The following account was written by James Russell's daughter, Mary, some years later. We're grateful to Mary's nephew, Kurt Nelson, for sharing this with us.

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Grindstone Island Lightstation circa 1960s, ...

The Lighthouse

At that time, the lighthouse contained four oil lamps with huge reflectors behind them. The lamps faced north, south, east, and west, and were lighted at sunset and extinguished at sunrise. The chimneys were polished and cleaned and the wicks trimmed each day, and such a beautiful trim father got on those wicks. The flame must be perfect, no points or the chimney would get smoky and the light dimmed. The chimneys were long and narrow, so we children were often invited to clean them as our small hands could easily reach inside. When we were not available father used a stick with a cloth on the end.

After the cleaning, a curtain was pulled all around the inside of the “lantern,” as this part of the lighthouse was called. A close watch was kept on the light during the night in case one light might go out. In the mornings we used to find beautifully coloured moths and often birds that had been killed by striking the glass when attracted by the lights.

The Engine Room

The fog alarm was run by steam, which was generated by coal fires. The fires were never allowed to go out and every child in the family could read the steam gauge and knew how much steam was required to make a clear blast of the horn.

Many the trip we kids made to the engine room during the nights that we had to keep watch, and shovel coal into the boiler. It was often cold, dark, foggy, and always windy, but it was so cozy in the boiler room that it compensated for all the misery of the trip out.

Many who came to visit complained about the foghorn keeping them awake nights, but I can remember being awakened when it would start in the night and then dozing off to sleep with such a comfortable, safe feeling. We were safe and were helping to ensure the safety of those at sea who might be in hearing distance of our horn.

The water for the boiler came from a tank under the boiler-room floor, and I can remember looking into that deep dark hole and shuddering. Why some of us never fell in I will never know.

Everything in the lighthouse and engine room was kept immaculate, brass polished, window shined, floors washed, ready for inspection at any time.

The House

The dwelling-house was small: a kitchen, two pantries, washroom, living room, three small bedrooms, and a small sun porch. Two bedrooms had one bed each. The other had one double bed and two double bunk-beds. Somebody always slept in a cot in the living room. The upstairs was not high enough to sleep in.

In the kitchen was a large stove on which all the cooking was done. All meals were served there, the table often filled several times, depending on the number of visitors. Lottie [sister] and I also washed dishes on that same table, continually from morning till night. Our only respite was a trip to the lookout, which was located on the edge of the bank 100 feet or so from the house.

Usually, Harry [older brother] would pass by the table as we worked, pulling our hair and taking our ribbons. Then we would chase him for a half hour or so. With these distractions, we managed to survive the monotony of the dishwashing.

We usually had a vegetable garden, which helped during the summer. This was often invaded by rabbits, which were very plentiful. Many of the rabbits Orpah [younger sister] kept as pets. She named them all, and they were great company for her.


The water lying between the island and the Albert County mainland was called the Five Fathom Hole. This was an anchorage for ships from England and other European countries. Many came from Norway and Sweden. The same ones came time after time and we knew all their names.

Often, the captains came to the island to pay us a call while the sailors got fresh water for the ship. Then, later, Father would take some of us and go out to return the call. While he and the captain swapped yarns over a tall drink, the sailors would show us over the ship. Getting aboard those ships from a small boat was to me a scary experience, but it was a real highlight in our young lives.

Often late in the fall after the big vessels had stopped coming, we would look out some morning, the water blue and sparkling cold, to see a trim little schooner that had slipped in during the night. After looking through his spyglass, Father would say, “I think she is an apple vessel out of some Nova Scotia port.” At that, the boys would take off in the big boat, go aboard the vessel, and buy two or three barrels of apples, mostly Gravensteins. Were they good!


We children were forbidden to fish off the reefs, but Henry and Lottie and I got brave one day and disobeyed. So intent were we on our fishing that we failed to note how fast the tide was rising on our rock. In a very short time, we were surrounded by water, with no way of getting off, and we were not able to swim.

Just as we were getting pretty desperate, we saw Arth [brother] coming round the end of the island, in the small sailboat. He had not seen us until he rounded the point. He came up to the rock and we were not long climbing aboard. He didn't scold us; in fact, he never spoke to us and, to my knowledge, never told on us. As a family were pretty loyal to each other, and very close.

Winter Evenings

Another thing we will never forget were those winter evenings around a huge open coal fire in the living room, all eleven of us. Father would select a book, get comfortable in the big easy chair, usually with Orpah (then the baby) on his knee. As he read in his conversational tone, she thought he was talking to her, and she, in her baby way, would try to answer him.

He was a wonderful reader, perfect diction, expression, and such a soft, pleasant voice, a pleasure to listen to. He made the stories come alive and I remember many of them yet. As we listened, we consumed dozens and dozens of apples, and what better type of evening could anyone wish for?

When Father's voice grew husky, he would say, “Well, I guess that's all for tonight,” put his book away, and we would scatter in all directions to our beds, to dream no doubt of the characters portrayed in the stories.

School Days on the Island

During that winter when Father's arm was in a sling (he had broken his collarbone), his work was done by the boys and he had too much spare time, so he decided (much to our chagrin) that we would have school, which we did in good order.

We had a log cabin, which he built for us as a playhouse. It was a good large cabin, containing a stove, two beds, table and chairs, plenty of windows, very cozy and built among the trees.

We all sat around the long table with Father at the head, and there was no fooling or waste of time. We really worked, and we went back to school in the spring, we were able to take our places in class with the other pupils and passed our grading papers in June.

My father was a very remarkable man. He was well read and could converse on about any subject, and he loved people, loved to talk to them, was very fond of his family and was happiest when we were all together.

Mother was also a most wonderful person, and I do not know how she survived all those years of worry and lived to be 93.

Orpah and Nettie Take Charge

On one occasion, only Arth, Father, Orpah, and Nettie were on the island. Nettie was about 10 and Orpah 5. Suddenly, one day Father had an attack of lumbago, and his back got so bad that Arth decided he had to have a doctor. The fog was thick and the whistle running, but he had no choice but to go, leaving the children in charge and Father helpless in bed. They knew the fire had to be kept in order to keep steam up so they worked faithfully.

Arth left about noon and did not get back until nearly dark. Nettie said, “Orpah cried, but I just shoveled coal.” Orpah says

she remembers seeing Dr. Carnwath putting cups or tumblers on Father's back to ease the pain.


Someone once asked, “What did you do to amuse yourselves?” True, there were no movies, radio, TV, or telephone, but I never remember being bored. We certainly had to entertain ourselves, but with nine lively youngsters, that was no problem.

We played a lot of croquet, also some baseball, but that was not too successful as the ball usually went over the bank into the tide. Hide and seek was a popular game. We played crokinole and pocket carom using the same board for both games. We also played a variety of card games: Forty-fives, Euchre, Old Maid, Pitt, and Flinch.

But probably best of all, and surely the most unique, was one played with Sunday School cards. These cards had been given to us by at Sunday School by our teachers, who were good, pious Baptist ladies. They were the best, and they would have died of shock had they ever learned the fate of the highly respected cards. One one side of the cards were questions on the day's lesson, together with the “Golden Text,” while on the other side were pictures of the people portrayed in the lesson story.

I don't remember all the rules of the game, but I do know that the cards having the greatest number of people were high cards, and took the tricks. Pere always seemed to be the lucky one, holding the high cards, which he would keep until the very last, getting the rest of us all frustrated. One night, he was having his usual luck and finally Arth sings out, “All right, Pere, now trot out your big disciples.” Of course, that meant the Twelve Disciples. Apparently, we didn't have the “Feeding of the Five Thousand.”

During the summer, groups of people came to picnic for the day. We always enjoyed those times and the visitors certainly enjoyed the island.


There was the constant day and night watch for fog. During the day, if we could see Cape Maringouin and Cape Enrage, all was well. At night, we watched for Cape Enrage and Apple River lights. When these lights could not be seen, the foghorn was started. The first watch lasted till midnight and the second till daylight.

If the older boys were there, one of them usually took the first watch and Father the second. If neither Pere or Arth were on hand, Harry would usually take the first watch, but he was a very sleepy person so usually Lottie and I had to stay to keep him awake.

Those were busy nights and we had lots of fun. We played games and lunched continuously. We also had fudge, which we never allowed to cook or cool properly, so we usually ate it with spoons.

Then there were the trips to the engineroom to keep fires and steam up, and always watching for the lights down the bay. When Father went to bed in the evening, he would tell us to call him at 12:00 or before if the fog came in.

He never seemed sleepy or grouchy, just bright and cheerful, just got quietly up and went on to the engineroom, very often singing as he went. He would read the rest of the night.


She was the most unselfish person I have ever known, never thinking of herself, always her family. She was not demonstrative, yet in her quiet way she made us feel how much we meant to her. She was stern, a disciplinarian, and we respected her all the more for that. And she had great courage.

One night she fell downstairs in the house in Shepody and dislocated her shoulder. When Joe (Dr. Dobson, married to Orpah) told her she should go to the hospital, she refused, asking him if he could do what was necessary at home.

He felt it would be too painful, but she insisted, so he put it back in place. Not long after this, a friend suggested she take a cane when she went out. “Indeed,” she said, “I am not going hobbling around with a cane like an old woman.” She was then nearly 90. And she never did use the cane. She would not resign herself to growing old. It was this spirit that kept her young at heart, keen and alert, as we like to remember her.

This story appeared in the June 2007 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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