In a bold and sweeping move, the Canadian government recently declared an amazing 976 historic lighthouses as surplus property. Half of the lighthouses that have been declared surplus, although automated, are still active aids to navigation and the other half are lighthouses that have been discontinued. Fortunately, the fifty lighthouses in Canada that are still staffed by lighthouse keepers have not yet been declared surplus.
The announcement has drawn outrage from local communities, politicians and preservation groups, especially in the recent on-again controversial discussions and debates on whether the last of Canada’s keepers should be removed from its few remaining staffed lighthouses.
The move is similar to what has been going on with United States lighthouses that have been and are being given to local communities and nonprofits while others are being auctioned off to the highest bidder, leaving only the wealthy to own a lighthouse for much less than it ever cost the taxpayer to build.
Money is at the root of the problem. The Canadian federal government does not have or does not want to spend the money to maintain historic lighthouses when they could be cheaply replaced by a light on a pole or an offshore buoy.
Amazingly, one of the 138 lighthouses in the province of Nova Scotia to be declared as surplus property is the world famous Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, one of the most popular tourist destination lighthouses in all of Canada. Because of tourist revenue the lighthouse could generate, it is highly likely that a local group or the community could easily take ownership of Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse and maintain the structure. This would be also be the case with some of Canada’s other popular tourist lighthouses.
However, this is not the case with many of Canada’s lighthouses that are located in remote areas with tiny communities, or the lighthouses located offshore on islands that are difficult to get to and maintain. One example of this is the Chebucto Head Lighthouse in Duncan Cove, Nova Scotia where there are only 15 homes. The locals who want to turn the keeper’s house into a community center suffered a setback when the house was destroyed by a fire. While they’d like to have the tower, they wonder how such a small group can afford to maintain it.
Another example is the magnificent Gannett Rock Lighthouse located on a small, barren, and rocky island off the south coast of Grand Manan. With nearly 1000 lighthouses to choose from, the list could go on and on.
Just because the nearly 1,000 lighthouses identified as structures that will or can be excessed does not mean a lighthouse will be saved. If the lighthouse is not already a legally declared heritage site, an application for the designation must be filled out and applied for and sent to Parks Canada. Then the local community must prove that there is a financial commitment to save the lighthouse. This process could take two years or more.
Unfortunately nearly 500 of these lighthouses have already been abandoned and many are already in a rapid state of deterioration. Obviously some lighthouses will be saved, but it would appear that some, perhaps a large number, of Canada’s lighthouses will also be lost forever. Larry Ostola, director general of historic sites for Parks Canada, said the agency already manages 14 lighthouses and they have no interest in taking on any more. This makes it obvious that if the local communities or nonprofits don’t step forward, the results could be disastrous for many lighthouses.
And finally, the plying question remains. How will all of this affect the last of the manned Canadian lighthouses, most of which are in remote locations where the keepers are the only vestige of human life that is available to quickly help mariners in distress? Removing the keepers from those locations would jeopardize human safety. Additionally, fifty more lighthouses, without ongoing maintenance, would be left to rapidly deteriorate to the elements and be subject to vandalism.
This is a story that will be ongoing for many months ahead; a story that will probably take more twists and turns than a soap opera. In fact, it has already been determined that some of the lighthouses that are listed as excess are no longer even owned by the Canadian government.
However, in the meantime, many of Canada’s historic lighthouses are likely to be lost forever, and with the demise of the towers, the history and memories of family life and acts of bravery and heroism associated with these historic structures is also likely to disappear into the pages of time, lost forever.
This story appeared in the
August 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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