The Swallowtail Lighthouse on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada was the first to be built on the island. At first called “Swallow’s Tail”, the lighthouse is named for the point of land that sticks out eastward from the island, said to resemble the tail of a swallow. Constructed in 1859, its inaugural lighting was delayed for almost a year, until July of 1860, awaiting delivery of the cast iron lantern room from the manufacturer in England. A century later, in 1969, the by then badly deteriorating lantern was cut into pieces and removed from the lighthouse. The replacement lantern was made of aluminum, and although large enough to continue to accommodate the fourth order Fresnel lens inside, was three feet smaller in diameter than the original had been.
In 1985, after 125 years of operation, the Canadian Coast Guard destaffed the now automated Swallowtail Light Station, and Grimmer Ingersoll, the last official keeper, and his family departed. As is often the case, a period of virtual abandonment followed. Eventually, both the lighthouse, other station structures, and the peninsula of land on which they are located were obtained by the Village of Grand Manan. The Swallowtail Keepers Society was founded by local residents in 2008 to restore and maintain the station under lease from the village. Today, the lighthouse is still fully commissioned by the Canadian Coast Guard, which owns and operates the automated light in the tower and the electronic fog horn.
In the years since, significant renovations and restoration have been accomplished. In addition to the tower, the Swallowtail Light Station includes the new keeper’s residence, a duplex built in 1958 to accommodate the head keeper and an assistant. This replaced the badly deteriorated original home. The original boathouse and portions of the tramway also remain. A CG-1000 electronic fog signal is now a part of the station, and the original fog bell, which had been removed from the site years ago, has now been returned and is on exhibit as part of the station’s interpretive program.
During recent renovations, the decision was made to replace the lantern that had been installed in 1969 with one of the original size. The smaller one had just never looked right – like a man with a hat two sizes too small. Dexter’s Machining, a local firm on Grand Manan Island, was contracted to build the new lantern, using the plans of the 1970 lantern from Gannet Rock Lighthouse, which had been built by the Canadian Coast Guard at their base in Saint John. Funding for the project, some $60,000 (Canadian), was provided by the Swallowtail Keepers Society and the Village of Grand Manan. The Coast Guard assumed the costs of the installation work.
While the new lantern was under construction, work began to disconnect the 1969 lantern from the top of the tower. This involved not only a lot of unbolting, but also the temporary disconnection of the light itself, the fog detection equipment, the weather station equipment, radio antennas, and the WiFi equipment that serves the commercial ferry boats coming to and from the island from Blacks Harbor on the New Brunswick mainland. When all was ready, a Bell 429 helicopter from the Canadian Coast Guard arrived on scene to lift the old lantern from the top of the tower. Hanging below the helicopter, it was taken to the old Grand Manan Island airport, from where it was trucked to the Saint John base. The lantern has been refurbished and is now installed on the Apple River Lighthouse in Nova Scotia.
Swallowtail sat topless for a brief period after the old lantern was removed, and during this period, a new composite base ring was installed for the new one to be set down upon. When the tower was ready, the new aluminum lantern, which weighs about 900 kg (almost a ton), was helicoptered out and lowered down to the crew waiting to set it in place. The various electronics, the antennas, the light/lens, and the halogen-bulb lit T-300 acrylic lens, were quickly reinstalled, and the Swallowtail Lighthouse was back in service. The lighthouse once again has a hat that fits properly, and once again looks like it did when Jonathan Kent, the first lighthouse keeper, lit the lamps in 1860.
The fourth order fixed Fresnel lens, which had been installed in 1910, replacing a similar lens put in service in 1888, had been removed from the tower in the 1980s. Some diligent detective work by the Society and the Coast Guard found it stored away at the Saint John base. This lens has now been returned to Swallowtail, and will soon be reinstalled in the tower with an LED light inside.
Another feature of the Swallowtail Station is the lantern that, for many years, was on the Great Duck Island Lighthouse farther south off Grand Manan. When that station was deactivated, the lantern was transferred to Swallowtail, again thanks to a Coast Guard helicopter, and has been installed as a part of a memorial deck on the site of the original 1859 keeper’s house. The Carlisle and Finch DCB-36 Aero-beacon lens now inside was formerly in service at the Machias Seal Island Lighthouse. This lantern is the same size as the one just removed from the Swallowtail tower, and provides an easy comparison of the relative sizes of the old and the new.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 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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