Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2019

Mary Snell of Head Harbour Lighthouse


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Head Harbour Lighthouse on Campobello Island, New ...
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

For a few years at the beginning of Mary Snell’s life, Canada’s Head Harbour Light Station was her entire world. The lighthouse is perched on top of a rocky outcropping, just off the northern tip of Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy. Many lighthouses look isolated as a matter of course; a single building, the last landmark before the ocean. However, Head Harbour Light Station’s isolation goes beyond the usual – as Snell herself put it “Head Harbour Lighthouse stands . . . a small island of itself, containing not more than a half-acre of land separated from the main island by a long bar, which, when the tide is out, is wide enough for a little army to cross dry shod, but when the tide is in it is covered with water to the depth of six or eight feet.”

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A young Mary Snell at Head Harbour Lighthouse. ...

Mary Snell spent her early life on the light station, attached to the family pursuit of keeping and maintaining Head Harbour Light Station. However, her life would extend beyond the borders of her isolated early years, and she would grow into one of the lighthouse’s most faithful and dedicated interpreters.

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Head Harbour Light Station during a storm as it ...

Mary Snell was part of the third generation of Snell family members who lived and worked at Head Harbour Lighthouse. Her grandfather, John Snell, had been an English émigré working as a schoolteacher before he took up lighthouse keeping as his new profession in 1829. With him came his wife, Fanny, and their adolescent children: Charles, Edward, Sarah, and Fanny; their oldest son, William, had remained in England. While the rest of the children, over the course of their lives, would spread across the area, taking up jobs and residency all over Charlotte County, William would come to Campobello Island with the intention of taking up his father’s post. Undeterred by the difficulties of lighthouse life (or perhaps not entirely aware of them), after his father’s retirement in 1847, William Snell became the next keeper of Head Harbour Light.

By the time he returned to Head Harbour as the keeper, William came with a wife and young children in tow. He had arrived in 1842 from England. Mary Snell and her brother John were born in England, while their younger siblings were born on Campobello. During their time on Campobello prior to moving out to the lighthouse, Mary experienced what would become a defining feature of her life going forward - she was blinded by a childhood illness. Mary would describe the experience later as “I first complained of a severe pain over my eyes. . . After a day of two the pain left my head and, passing down the back of my neck, finally ceased, leaving me as weak and helpless as an infant . . . my mother, fearing the worst, came to my bedside and tried various means to attract my notice but failed. My sight was gone.” Despite a later trip to visit an “ocular specialist” in Boston when she was 16, an experience Mary would describe as “profoundly disappointing and devastating.” she would remain blind for the rest of her life.

Later in her life, Mary would remember the view from the lighthouse, among other things she had loved to see as a child, which is worth quoting at length:

“I instinctively felt that I would not always enjoy the blessing of sight, and eagerly sought to satisfy my soul with long and earnest gazing on the beauty and grandeur of creation, just as one takes a last farewell look; and even now, though years have passed, yet fair as a picture fresh from the hand of the artist, is engraven on my memory my childhood home and its surroundings. The blue sky, the green fields, and the distant hills, the long sandy shore, the high steep rocks, their rugged sides covered with seaweed, and the rippling tide ever sweeping around the point, where stood the lighthouse, ever hurrying on its way to and from the Atlantic.” Mary Snell believed that her later loss of sight influenced her personality beyond her attachment to her memories of the view from the Lighthouse: “I was a sober-minded child; those who knew me said I was old-fashioned and wise beyond my years. It may have been that the great sorrow that was to sadden my life cast its shadow over my soul, making my young heart less joyous than the hearts of children generally are.”

Snell’s depiction of lighthouse life emphasizes the difficulties and hardships but does not fail to find positive aspects. She describes a massive storm that hit the lighthouse, leaving destruction in its wake. “The Lighthouse boat was the first thing to be swept away and dashed to pieces by the waves; a small wharf soon followed, and so one thing went after another until almost everything moveable was washed away . . . Higher, higher came the tide; the wind seemed to have gathered all its strength for one tremendous sweep ere it finally eased, each succeeding wave leaping nearer and nearer until they dashed fiercely against the house, breaking the windows and flooding the lower floor with salt water.”

However, once the storm is over, she seeks the positive, emphasizing that the light itself was undamaged. Snell’s positivity manifests in more personal ways; she would write about the kitten she had owned while living at the light station, only to describe in detail her despair at its death. However, like all hardships she would write about, this is quickly passed over in favour of a more positive outlook.

After the death of her father in 1860, Mary, now a 19-year-old, had her life was uprooted again. Mary’s older brother John took over for his father at the light station, but his mother and siblings declined to stay on with him. Instead, the family moved to Chatham, Ontario, where Mary’s mother Elizabeth had family. They would live there for the rest of their lives. Twenty years after leaving the lighthouse, Mary decided to set herself the task of writing about their lives on Campobello Island.

She produced one book, a collection of essays, sketches, and poems. It was published in 1881 and titled “Essays, short stories, and poems by Miss M.S. Snell, including a sketch of the author’s life.” It is almost entirely focused on the early part of her life, up until she was 16. Her poetry and short sketches have a less personal focus, often speaking to her deep faith. This book recently has been reissued in a new edition by the Friends of Head Harbour Light Station, with new illustrations by Joyce Morell. Some of these illustrations can be seen accompanying the article.

Mary Snell tells her reader a lot about the early days at Head Harbour, but equally as much about the struggling, striving lifestyle that was common to all keepers at Head Harbour. In her personal life and in her writing, Snell displays a serious-minded, thoughtful dedication to living the best life possible in the difficult scene at Head Harbour. Her legacy is felt through her work and her enduring influence on the lighthouse itself.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2019 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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