Harvey Leonce Huskins was a man of many stories. It’s hardly surprising, considering his experiences as a lightkeeper on one of the most remote and inhospitable rock piles off the Nova Scotia coast. In 1942, a young Leonce spent a month on Little Hope Island, south of Port Mouton on Nova Scotia famous South Shore. The island is little more than a ragged cluster of rocks struggling to stay above sea level.
The government of the day established a small wooden combined lighthouse/dwelling on the island in 1865. Keeper Alexander MacDonald, who arrived in 1872, often gathered his family in the basement of the structure, as the sea hurled massive boulders over the island.
When the wooden tower burned down in 1906, the Department of Marine and Fisheries (Canada’s lighthouse authority at the time) built a state-of-the-art buttressed concrete tower, soaring 30m (98 feet) above the rocks. Workers topped the whole affair with a massive first order lantern and lens. The keepers lived in a house at the tower’s base – hunkering down in the fall and winter as storms swept clean across Little Hope.
After his inaugural month on the island, Leonce returned in 1946 for another hitch. Although he later went on to other work, lightkeeping had gotten under his skin, and in 1954, Leonce, his wife Marion, and their son Robin moved to Spectacle Island in Port Mouton Harbour. Six years later the family moved to Battery Point in Lunenburg, where Leonce retired in 1987.
But back in 1942, Leonce’s lightkeeping journey was about to begin as he headed for Little Hope to tend the light with keeper Frank Langille:
Well, it all started in 1942. They needed a helper on Little Hope. Later on it was called an assistant because the government paid ‘em. [In 1942] there was no money to pay ‘em so they used to feed us. The island is off the end of Port Mouton Island, and it’s a god-forsaken rock that nobody shoulda been onto!
It was so small a bad storm washed right across it. Not in ’42, but in ’46, when I was back onto it, my brother was on there with the keeper, and they forecast a storm. So, they hauled the two dories up on the verandah and made ‘em fast. There was huge oil tanks outside next to the house and there was an alleyway about 60 feet long, from the house to the lighthouse so you didn’t have to go outside. After the storm was over, the dories was gone, the verandah was gone, that alleyway was gone, and them tanks full of oil was gone!
The head keeper, he was in bed and my brother was on watch at night, and he heard a crash, and he ran into the bedroom where the keeper was, and a big rock come through the window. They had to carry it out through the door to get it outside!
Heavy weather also created other challenges for Little Hope’s keepers, as Leonce found out one night as he and Frank prepared to light up for the night.
We had to carry oil up every night for the old system that burned the light. There was a bucket of oil in the lantern almost full. I was crankin’ up my weights and I said to Frank, “Why did you kick that bucket for?”
He said “I didn’t kick it, why?”
“Well,” I said, “the oil’s sloppin’ out!”
“Oh,” he said. “The light’s movin’ that much!”
I said “Man, you’re crazy!”
But it did. The lighthouse was swayin’ enough that it slopped that oil outta that bucket!
Frank and Leonce were also responsible for an explosive acetylene fog signal which they operated during thick weather. Despite the inherent danger of such an apparatus, Leonce’s brother (who also worked as a keeper on the island) decided to try an “experiment” with the fog signal one day.
When I went on the first time with that (acetylene fog signal) there, I said “I’ll never be able to stand that noise!” And I wasn’t there five minutes and I had to listen to see if it was goin’! It sounded like a dynamite explosion. Just the same as a cannon. She exhausted out through the roof. Anyway, my brother and the fella that was on with him, they were a pair of hellions and they decided to see what a baseball would do in the fog gun. They crawled up on the roof and dropped a softball into her when she was goin’. I guess the softball’s still goin’ and so’s the exhaust!
The “hellions” also enjoyed a challenge on the water.
They used to go out, the pair of them, in a dory and ride the seas when the wind was comin’ from one way and the sea was comin’ from the other. They’d go up as high as a house and first thing the sea would come out from under ‘em –down they would go, upset the dory –they’d crawl back in and go at it again!
Games aside, landing on Little Hope was tricky and dangerous at the best of times. Given the light’s exposed location and quickly changing weather, the sea could be flat calm one moment, and a boiling cauldron the next.
You had to have it perfect. I went on there in ’46 and they was repairin’ the light. I went on to help first, with the intentions of when they repaired the light that I’d get a job on there. My brother had a 46 foot boat and he took all the supplies down. We had a winch to haul everything up the landing, a flat-head, two headed Pontiac. Frank, the Head Keeper, he ran that and I stood next to him to signal when they wanted to go ahead. Well, they landed a bunch of stuff and a fellow went to put some stuff on the sled attached to the winch line. The signal was when they wanted him to go ahead you put your hand up.
Well, he lost his footin’ and went down in the landing. Up went his arm! Frank had that Pontiac runnin’ about half open. He dropped the clutch and ran over the fellow’s leg and broke his leg. They blamed it on Frank, but it was no fault of his, ‘cause I was standin’ right next to him.
They got the stuff landed and they asked Frank to take the mail out to the boat, to send it ashore. He took it out and they offered him a cup of coffee while he was aboard the boat. He had a cup of coffee and then he said “It’s getting’ rough!” and he jumped in the dory. Every third sea there was a calm one. He counted seas and counted seas and he said “I’m goin’ anyway.”
I was there with a hook, ready to hook on the dory. He got in and dropped the oars and jumped overboard and let the dory go. Smashed the oars and he swam ashore. And that’s what it was like getting’ a boat in on Little Hope.
In between his two stints on Little Hope, Leonce served overseas in the Second World War. In 1954, a position came up on Spectacle Island, just off his home in South West Port Mouton. Leonce, his wife Marion and their son Robin moved out to the island, where the quality of life was a far cry from that on Little Hope.
Spectacle Island is about half a mile from Carter’s Beach. It was a good island. It had a good landin’ It had a good little harbour. You had to walk from the harbour across the marsh, across the hill through the woods I built a plank walk 600 feet long, four planks wide to go to the house. That’s where the young fella learned to drive a bicycle, on that walk!
The Huskins’ had a two story house near the little wooden tower on Spectacle Island. There was no electricity, although a Delco battery in the basement allowed operation of a two-way radio. The lighthouse held a small dioptric lens with a two-wick burner which Leonce lit at dusk and extinguished at dawn. The station also had a bellows-operated hand fog horn used to answer the occasional call from a vessel in the fog. And on one occasion, there was a call from another source.
One night, oh, it was foggy! So close to rain. I went out and I heard a heavy diesel runnin’. It sounded like he was goin’ ahead and goin’ back. I figured something had ran ashore over towards Summerville (on the mainland), so I ran up to the light, and he blew his horn again. I got the horn out and I answered him. He kept blowin’ and I kept answerin’. I had nothin’ on. My wife brought me up some clothes and I stood behind the light answerin’ that horn. After I while I said “This is not doin’ me no good, ‘nor him either. If he’s ashore I can’t help him. So I’m goin’ to bed!”
So I left and went to bed. In the mornin’ we come off the island to see what it was. What do you suppose it was? It wasn’t a boat! The railroad ran across Summerville Beach and there was a train goin’ east that night, and he blew an engine. He called Halifax and a wrecker come up to pick him up. And that’s what I was blowin’ the horn at!
I must have blew that horn three or four hours…too long, I’ll tell you! But everybody got a good laugh out of it, anyway!
The years passed and life went on fairly uneventfully for the Huskins. But there were always reminders that lightkeepers lived in an exposed and sometimes dangerous environment. Leonce was never keen on thunder and lightning, and he got his fill early one morning when the sky opened up.
It was just breakin’ daylight good. Thunder and lightnin’ – I was always scared of it and I asked my wife and the young fella if they was gonna get up. No, they wasn’t gonna get up, so I dressed and started downstairs. I just got on the landing half way down when it hit. It shook me, it drove me sideways and them fellas got ahead of me before I got to the bottom of the steps!
When we got down there, the kitchen was filled full of smoke. I ran for the basement ‘cause I thought it was the Delco battery (for the station radio). That was all clear. But along the wall the northern side, there was a cot. Every morning when I finished my breakfast I used to lay down onto it. That cot was out across the kitchen floor! The lightning had hit there, and ran along to the south’ard and lifted the shingles up just the same as if you took a crowbar -- never broke ‘em -- and then went through to the hand pump for the cistern and went to ground. But on the way across it burnt through a tube of toothpaste and it burnt across a can of cure ointment!
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, automation began to catch up with many small harbour lights across Nova Scotia. Spectacle Island was no exception, and in January, 1961, the Huskins moved to Battery Point in Lunenburg. Here they had road access to all the amenities of a bustling fishing town, and Leonce could even drive to the lighthouse along the wooden breakwater than connected it to the mainland.
With the help of an assistant, Leonce maintained the small electric light and fired up the compressor for the fog horn when the weather shut in. In 1960s, there was no question that lightkeepers and their lights and horns were crucial for mariners, even in small harbours.
Before we got the full automation, when the power went off you had to run from the house to the lighthouse and if you was lucky enough that it happened when the assistant was there, one fella would go up and change the light (to kerosene standby) and the other fella would start the compressor for the horn.
We was there one night – my nephew was with me then – and it was dirty. It was a snowstorm and the power went off. We went out and drove ‘er down. I had showed him how to change the light, so he went for the light and I started the compressor. I had just got things goin’ and he run down. “There’s a boat comin!”
We had got ‘er goin’ in time that he heard the horn. He couldn’t see the light, but he heard the horn and when he went by the end of the breakwater I could have threw one of my dogs aboard! It was an American dragger. They used to come in there for a breeze. If we hadn’t been there, he’d have been in a rockpile!
But automation was on the way, and it changed forever the keepers’ job and way of life. Main lights operated 24 hours a day. Fog detectors sent probing beams into the murk, automatically triggering horns in fog and snow. New electronic emitters replaced the old air horns. But they didn’t necessarily do a better job than the old technology. In the early ‘70s the Coast Guard installed a 400 watt Stone Chance horn at the end of the Battery Point breakwater. The electronic horn had a curious tone and a downsweep that took some getting used to.
The people in Lunenburg said it sounded like an old cow bawlin’! When they put the electric ones in, they was gonna put a set facing out to sea, and a set facing up town. Well, the people howled so bad up town, that they didn’t put it there! The one pointing out to sea, the way it was situated, there was times that you got echoes. And you couldn’t tell the echo from the real thing.
Mel Langille come in one day with the Cape Eagle and ran ashore! He was runnin’ for the echo and he ran ashore. My young fella was in his bedroom. He come runnin’ out. He said “There’s a boat ashore!”
I said “You’re crazy! But we looked out the back window and you could see the spars of ‘er. But it was high tide and he backed her off,’cause he wasn’t runnin’ full speed, ‘cause he knew where he was, or at least thought he did!
The years passed. Leonce and his family enjoyed summer visits with tourists from all over. Even with automation, there were still buildings to paint and lawns to mow, and the other chores that come up in the run of a lighthouse keeper’s day. When Leomce and Marion took time off, their daughter Rebecca filled in as relief keeper, keeping an eye on the light and horn.
In 1987, de-staffing came knocking again. Leonce and Marion packed up their belongings and moved back to Southwest Port Mouton. But 22 years later, Leonce says he doesn’t regret one moment of his lightkeeping life.
I’d been on the water all my life, or around it. All my brothers except one was fishermen, and I was fishin’. Well, what was I gonna leave it for? Getting a lighthouse is close as you’d get to it, and you’re getting’ paid for it!
What I liked about it, you knew how much work you had to do every year. You had an inspector come in the spring. You had him come in the fall. As long as your work was done, you didn’t have somebody lookin’ down the back of your neck.
And would he do it all again? With a smile and an emphatic nod of the head, Leonce said:
“Oh, I guess I would! Even at my age, I’d go back onto one of them places some quick!”
This story appeared in the
July 2010 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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