Since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, Canada’s Cape Mudge Lghthouse has been sending out its warning signal to mariners plying their way through the treacherous Discovery Passage.
Located at the tip of Cape Mudge on Quadra Island, British Columbia, it is one of British Columbia’s twenty remaining lighthouses that still has a light keeper. But it may not be for long. It was scheduled for automation in 2009. Protesters from keepers and the public stated that automation could never fully replace an alert pair of eyes by a light keeper on the water. Automating the lighthouse was postponed for further review.
“The idea was totally unacceptable to destaff the light,” said Jim Abram, a light keeper for twenty years at Cape Mudge and now spokesman for the B.C. Lighthouse Keepers Union.
Currently the lighthouse is not on the hit list but is on the endangered list – to be completely automated. And if automated, the tower may be declared surplus and a smaller “more efficient unit installed.”
According to Dennis Johnson, the affable current keeper, “I have seen plenty of changes. When I started in 1978, there used to be two keepers on the property, but now I am on seven days a week.” Then there are the department changes. “We were under Transport Canada, but now we are governed by the Canadian Coast Guard, which answers to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.”
The lighthouse, a sturdy forty-two-foot concrete tower with a red lantern, was built in 1916. It replaced the original “square wooden dwelling painted red with a square wooden lantern centred atop its red hipped roof that had a fixed white light that could be seen for ten miles.” Now the station is fully automated with s solar lamp, videograph fog sensor, and electronic horn.
Johnson tells of his daily routines. He commented, “Besides keeping the grounds in shape, the grass mowed and the buildings painted, I send out weather reports every three hours. In fact we have weather data going back to 1898 when the first lighthouse was built.” As he is not a trained climatologist, he can make observations about the weather, but not predict. He can say whether the clouds are high or low, but not what type of clouds. He does figure out the dew point from information through a dry and wet bulb, which is useful for pilots. A twenty-three-amp blub casts its light from the top of the tower. His foghorns are automated and broadcast across the channel to the mainland, a distance of about twenty miles, “But when they were manual we were paid more,” writes a former light keeper. Right now Johnson has to make sure that the light and horns are able to work twenty-four hours a day every day, during rain, wind and storms.
He is concerned that if he were not there, it would be up to the public to know where and to whom to send information if something went wrong at the lighthouse. Further concerns of the keeper include who would keep the lenses clean from snow, ice, rain and bugs – and who would protect the building from vandals.
“We used to take tours up the tower,” added Johnson, “when we were with Transport Canada, but when we came under the Coast Guard, liability changed, and the keeper became responsible for accidents – so now no more tours.” The simple fact that the Canadian Coast Guard doesn’t want tours is perplexing to the general public, especially since it would be good PR toward saving lighthouses.
Then there is the continuing concern about exactly will happen to Cape Mudge and other lighthouses if they are all automated and declared surplus. How will they fit into the new Canadian Government lighthouse regulations?
These questions jumped to the forefront when, as previously reported in Lighthouse Digest, Fisheries and Oceans Canada declared nearly 1000 Canadian lighthouses, active as well as inactive, as surplus property. However, another piece of legislation, the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, states that “lighthouses form an integral part of Canada’s identity and history and that measures are needed to protect and designate them for posterity,” which seems to contradict the recent action to discard the lighthouses. Although the Act establishes a process to let the government transfer the lighthouses to new owners, the process is complicated and difficult and may make it nearly impossible for small communities to get ownership to a lighthouse, especially in small isolated communities.
Carolyn Quinn of Heritage Canada, as reported in New Brunswick’s Times and Transcript, said, “wholesale dumping of so many lighthouses undermined the purpose of the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act and creates an even more uncertain future for Canada’s already deteriorating lighthouses.”
Cape Mudge Light is a prime example of how the disposal and heritage acts can create problems. Currently, Cape Mudge Lighthouse is on land owned by the We Wai Kai First Nation. The land falls within the Heritage Act, as there has been a lighthouse on this land for over a hundred years. But the lighthouse itself is not 100 years old and therefore may not be considered a heritage property. The First Nation would probably want to reclaim the land but not necessarily the lighthouse. But the land could present additional problems. Before a property comes up for disposal, it has to be assessed for enviromental damage. Additionally, when a lighthouse is closed, void of human life, it is always subject to vandalism and with no one to do repairs, a station can quickly fall into a state of disrepair.
Johnson commented, “As a young lad I recall that the lamp used to rest in a mercury bath, but I don’t remember how they got rid of the mercury when they changed to a different lens.” He adds that in the sixties the interior and the exterior of the lighthouse were sandblasted using mill tailings, which has a high arsenic content. They were mixed with water and splattered into the ground around the lighthouse. “The ground has been partially remediated, but still needs work.”
Cape Mudge is only one of Canada’s nearly one thousand lighthouses on or near the chopping block. With so many obstructions similar to those of Cape Mudge to be overcome before they are turned into tourist attractions the two-year time allotment of the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act for a lighthouse to find new owners will have expired. Then what? There is no specific answer - but Heritage Canada Foundation is actively questioning the Surplus Lighthouse List.
This story appeared in the
October 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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