There is no dispute that Swallowtail Lighthouse on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Perhaps it has a lot to do with its spectacular location that captures the spirit of those who visit the site. However, it can never truly be captured on film, except perhaps by those who come to the cliffs overlooking the lighthouse to catch a spectacular sunrise or sunset. The only way to get the real “feel” for the area is by visiting the lighthouse and then letting your mind drift back in time to imagine what it was like to live here; something that we might be able to help you with in some small way in the following paragraphs.
In 1960, lighthouse keeper Grimmer Ingersoll was transferred from Machias Seal Island Lighthouse to become the keeper at Swallowtail Lighthouse, and for over 25 years this was home to him and his family.
Morrill Ingersoll was just a few days shy of his 4th birthday, and his sister Laurel was almost one year old when they arrived by lighthouse buoy tender on Grand Manan Island. Fortunately, Morrill wrote down some of his memories which he and his sister, Laurel, recently shared with us.
When the family arrived at Grand Manan, they were met by Grimmer Ingersoll’s brother Gilbert, or “Gibbie,” who was an assistant keeper at Swallowtail Lighthouse. Much of the family’s belongings were loaded into Gibbie’s old truck and, along with the kids and cousins, they were transported to the lighthouse. Gilbert Ingersoll remained at Swallowtail Lighthouse, serving with his brother until 1966 when he was transferred to Brier Island Lighthouse in Nova Scotia. At that time, Leslie French became the assistant keeper, arriving with his wife Laura and children Paul, Doreen and Roxie.
Originally the keeper’s house was heated by coal and there was a Kerosene stove in the kitchen. This was later changed to an oil furnace in the basement and a wood and oil burning stove in the kitchen, and finally to an electric stove.
Morrill recalled, “When we were not in the house, we spent a lot of time in the boat house where there was a barrel stove for heat and a bench for my Dad’s big table saw with lots of space to build things. A big winch used to sit inside to raise and lower the supply car on the tracks when the supply ship came. It would anchor and the crew would bring supplies ashore in a smaller boat. Everything was lifted by another winch on a platform at the bottom of the track. One day, I was in the boat house while they were unloading supplies and I heard a huge crash. I looked out the window over the bench and saw that the big wooden derrick had collapsed. No one was hurt. It was like a big mast with wooden braces and a long wooden boom. The wood had rotted on the end of one of the braces and it let go. The derrick was never replaced. Dad tipped the old engine with its big flywheels onto the rocks and tore the platform apart. Later when the car was getting rotten and rusty he cut the chain and let it go onto the rocks below as well.”
At about the same time, the bridge across the gully was also getting old and rotten and was replaced by a bridge with metal legs and braces. When the new bridge was completed, a John Deere lawn tractor with a trailer was used to haul supplies across the trail to the lighthouse.
Although Morrill’s father had a good idea about what was arriving on the annual visit of the supply ship, it was almost like Christmas to the kids as they helped to open the boxes to find out what was inside. The government always sent plenty of paint, all in different colors. “Dad was a great one for mixing two colors together to come up with something completely different,” said Morrill, who recalled that everything everywhere seemed to be covered through the years in layers of paint, something that seemed to be common at lighthouses everywhere. Staging was built when it was time to paint the keeper’s house, but painting the tower was a different story.
Morrill recalled that his father built a wooden crate that was hoisted to the top of the lighthouse by two men where they would then load the painting supplies and themselves at the top of the tower. Then, carefully, the crate was lowered down the side of the lighthouse and they would scrape and paint the tower. They would do two sections per day until the job was finished. Morrill said his dad wasn’t afraid of heights as long as he had something solid under his feet. Morrill also remembers his dad telling him on more than one occasion, “Don’t worry about getting down, your weight will bring you down!”
One of the biggest changes to the tower when the Ingersoll family was there was when the cast iron lantern room was removed from the tower and replaced with a smaller pre-fab aluminum top, which Morrill always felt looked out of place. The old lantern room was broken up and tossed onto the rocks below, which seemed to be a common practice at many lighthouses. The large copper bird-shaped weather vane that was once on top of the lantern room was sold for scrap.
When the family first arrived at Swallowtail Lighthouse, there was a wooden pole attached to the peak of the boat house with a small pulley at the top. Morrill said, “We discovered that this was used at sometime as a means to communicate with passing ships before the days of radio. In the bottom of the light, in a wooden box, we found a collection of multi-colored signal flags that would have been attached to loops in a rope by means of small wooden pegs at the corners and hoisted to the top of the pole. Of course this meant little to my father and the pole was removed and the squares of the coarse cloth were torn up and used for paint rags. I wish that we had saved a couple of them as well as the old brass and leather covered telescope that was once in the top of the tower.”
Naturally everything had to always be in ship-shape condition, ready for an inspection or for visits by tourists. There was always plenty to do and if not, Morrill’s father would create a project.
Lighthouse keepers always seem to have a knack for coming up with unique ways to make their job easier, as Grimmer would prove time and again. When the kitchen stove was converted to an oil and wood burning unit, wood that had been delivered to a beach area had to be transported. Grimmer built a large wooden box that was about eight feet long, four feet wide and about five feet high. The sawn and split wood was piled into the box. Then they waited for the tide to rise and flood the whole thing so it could be towed to the derrick where it was lifted by winch onto the waiting cable car and hauled to the platform at the top where it was emptied and the wood was stacked to dry. One year, Grimmer and his assistant piled the wood in tiers around the edge of the platform to make a square with four walls and an opening to get inside. Morrill recalled that this was their very own playhouse that they used as a castle or fort, depending on where their imaginations would unfold. Of course, that all came to an end when the wood was dry enough to be brought inside. But then, the kids still had the box to play in. It was a lot different in those days, before handheld computer games and other modern so-called toys changed this unique way of life.
Inside the lighthouse was a hinged-top small desk with a guest book on top and a pencil on a string for anyone who wished to sign their name. Inside the desk were other books that had been filled over the years with the names of people from all over the world who had visited. Morrill doesn’t recall what happened to those books, but said he hopes they went to the museum.
As time went on, changes began to creep into place at the lighthouse, which would lead to its eventual automation. A helicopter pad was built with a big H painted yellow on it. Morrill recalled that tourists would sit on the helipad waving at the helicopter, not realizing that they were in the way of its landing!
A series of new modern fog horns was installed and a room was portioned off in the bottom floor of the light tower. Then came the new automatic blub changer, which became commonplace at most lighthouses. No longer would a keeper have to change the large light blub, which was replaced by smaller ones. When one blub burned out, another flipped into place. With the installation of the new equipment in the lighthouse, the government ordered the tower to be closed to the public.
When Morrill was old enough, he filled in as a temporary replacement when his father took his month-long summer vacation. This provided Morrill with a good summer job with good pay, but it also came with lots of responsibilities. When his father retired, Morrill took over the light station, but the position did not last a year. One day he received a phone call and was informed that the station, now nearly fully automated, would become de-staffed. And a way of life that had been in place at the Swallowtail Lighthouse for over 125 years came to an end.
In 2010, the Swallowtail Keepers Society, the group that now cares for the lighthouse, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the lighthouse. On hand for the festivities was Morrill’s sister, Laurel, who related to the attendees many of her memories of life at the lighthouse. One of her most memorable experiences occurred when she and her father had to crawl across the bridge to the lighthouse in the Groundhog Gale of 1976. None of us are ever likely to experience that method of getting home.
Morrill wrote in his memoirs, “There were a lot of changes over the years and I guess I was privileged to be there to see how things were in the past and how some things improved. Some changes are for the best and we just have to accept them and move on. But we can still keep the memories of how things ‘used to be.’”
We couldn’t agree more.
This story appeared in the
December 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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