Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

If Cape Spear Could Talk

By Joann Fantina


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The new Cape Spear Lighthouse was built in 1955.
Photo by: Lois Dilworth

Canada’s Newfoundland is a beautifully rugged island that has many historic lighthouses, but perhaps none as important as the Cape Spear Lighthouse, the second oldest light station on the island, which has been has been a vital link between Newfoundland and the world. Cape Spear guards the entrance to St. John’s Harbor and is the closest point to Europe in North America. Today it is a favorite place to watch whales, boats, birds and to view its other historic sites.

Built in 1836, the original lighthouse was furnished with a light that used seven Argand burners and curved reflectors which had been purchased from Scotland and had originally been used at the Inchkeith Lighthouse. Like all lighthouses, as time went by, the lighting system was modernized and the reflectors were replaced with a dioptic light. That light was first fueled by oil, then acetylene, and finally it changed to electric.

The original 1836 lighthouse resembles a square box with a cupola on the top. The wooden structure was built like that to withstand the harsh Newfoundland weather. Being short and stout, it stood ready for any weather condition. The year 1878 saw the addition of a foghorn – so necessary for the North Atlantic fogs. This original building still stands and is now home to a gift shop. Cape Spear lighthouse withstood not only storms but two world wars, and was a strategic location during the Second World War.

What if this building could talk? What history has it seen? What deeds of heroism or demonism could it describe?

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailed the dangerous waters of Newfoundland and did not have the benefit of this lighthouse. However, nearly all of the history of St. John’s, Newfoundland is linked with this great structure. In 1846 the Great Fire destroyed a good part of the city and left 12,000 people homeless. Another fire burned nearly half the city in 1892. The lighthouse guided ships loaded with volunteers and supplies into port. An equally horrible catastrophe in 1854 saw the Cape Spear lighthouse signaling ships away from St. John’s Harbor, warning them of the cholera epidemic. And, in 1882 during the hurricane that devastated several coastal harbors, the lighthouse was again called upon to warn incoming ships.

Guglielmo Marconi chose Newfoundland as the site for his first transatlantic cable; here the world witnessed the first across-the-ocean telegraph message. The message passed by Cape Spear Lighthouse – as everything from Europe must do to come to the New World. This historic event occurred in 1901. Just eleven years later, in the Grand Banks, Cape Spear Lighthouse witnessed the tragedy of the Titanic.

The faithful old light at Cape Spear also was witness to many aviationr accomplishments, including Charles Lindbergh’s fly-by in May of 1927. Nearly ten years later, to the day, Cape Spear Lighthouse was a navigation point for the Hindenburg on its fateful last trip.

The Cape Spear Lighthouse was the last bit of home that the Newfoundland Regiment saw as they sailed for France to fight in World War I. Sadly, in 1916 at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, France, this valiant force suffered heavy casualties. The tidal wave of 1925 devastated the southern coast of Newfoundland; many of the tiny hamlets were wiped away. Ships from St. John’s hurried to the rescue, skirting their sturdy sentinel at Cape Spear. And still today, the seamen of Newfoundland look to the Cape Spear Lighthouse; from that point they can find their way to St. John’s, the capital, or navigate to any other point on the island.

World War II brought new life to Newfoundland. Like the rest of the world, the Great Depression had wreaked havoc with Newfoundland’s economy; even the fishing and shipping industries were in ruins. In 1941 the American troops arrived. Cape Spear’s importance grew; in fact, it was the first line of defense against an attack from Germany. During the entire war, German U-Bats lurked off the coast of Cape Spear. The WWII Gun Battery still stands, albeit in disrepair, as a tribute to the U.S. GIs who served in defense of North America. The lighthouse also marked the way for the millions of U.S. servicemen who crossed the Atlantic in convoys to fight the Nazis. Some convoys and cargo ships were hit by weapons from German U-Boats; the most notorious attack was on the ferry, Caribou, in 1942. And always the Cape Spear Lighthouse showed the way for rescuers.

A visitor to Cape Spear Lighthouse today will be impressed by the rustic hardiness of the area. Even in good weather there is a bleakness about it. Foxes, rabbits, and all sorts of bird life abound on the grounds. The cliffs overlooking the ocean are a difficult and dangerous climb, but from their top, hikers can make out St. John’s Harbor. The monuments marking the U.S. Military Base, the original lighthouse (selling Titanic water), and the new lighthouse are all excellent places to visit. As you stand back and look up at the magnificent structure, you can only wonder - if only this building could talk, what great stories it would tell.

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This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 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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