Claire Wilson grew up around lighthouses. As a Cape Bretoner, she has always known them as familiar sights, iconic aspects of Canada’s Nova Scotia coastline. More recently, she began painting watercolors of the historic structures, making a collection of pieces meant to commemorate Cape Breton’s maritime past and draw attention to its enduring legacy. While initially begun out of personal interest, the project coincided with Wilson becoming an Ocean Bridge ambassador, part of a program designed to engage young Canadians in ocean literacy and conservation. The lighthouse paintings have become her service project for the program.
The final goal is to complete twenty watercolors of lighthouses that are still standing, alongside five pen drawings of historic lighthouses, based on archival materials. The series will include both famous and obscure examples, though all the lighthouses she has painted are accessible to the public. Through these works of art, she hopes to highlight the historical role of lighthouses and the long-standing connections between Cape Bretoners and the sea. Originally, the lighthouses were not only central to the survival of the fishery, but some of them depended on the boats as well: the Louisbourg Light, for instance, was in the 18th century lit with a vat of cod liver oil.
Wilson explains that the role of lighthouses as the main representations of the island’s history is fairly recent, and marked by major changes in the local economic scene. When Cape Breton’s coal and steel production declined, the infrastructure that had supported these main industries also vanished, leaving few traces. The fishery, formerly peripheral in comparison to the mines and processing plants, was suddenly far more visible, with the lighthouse as its most prominent and widespread symbol – some of which carried dramatic histories.
Over the course of her research, Wilson has encountered several of the more unusual stories connected with lighthouses and their keepers. The tenure of one Low Point Lighthouse keeper was extraordinarily short, due to a stormy night, and an outright refusal to leave his house to light the lamp. When two ships were lost to the gale as a result, the keeper was promptly fired. While most of the lighthouses in Cape Breton have served their life-saving purpose with attentiveness, this story stands out as a rare instance of negligence.
As new technologies entered the scene, some lighthouses became obsolete, while others were automated. Some were removed to private property, making them inaccessible – and unavailable for Wilson’s project. The Glace Bay Lighthouse, for instance, featured prominently in a movie filmed in Cape Breton, but is no longer accessible to the public. Degrees of protection and preservation have differed, and while the more historically significant are under provincial or federal designation, others fall into disrepair, or are repurposed in various ways. One, located in Neil’s Harbour, is an ice cream shop. The Chéticamp Lighthouse, in a less accessible location than the Louisbourg Light, and without a historical fortress attached to it, has meanwhile been overshadowed by its more famous neighbor. The former is protected by the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, while the latter is under the designation of Parks Canada, and has garnered more public attention over the years. Part of this project’s aim is to draw attention to these more obscure lighthouses, as well as capturing the iconic ones.
Wilson’s personal favorite lighthouses are Louisbourg and Gabarus – the ones that she grew up visiting, as well as having storied histories of their own. The Louisbourg Light is the fourth at that site, and one of the oldest lighthouses in Canada, with the foundations of the original lighthouse still visible on the fortress grounds. One of the previous iterations of the light will be among the historical lighthouses represented in the final collection of artworks, as they are well-documented through archival images.
For the future of this project, Wilson anticipates completing the intended 25 lighthouse pictures, as well as building a website to make them accessible to the public. Afterward, she is considering branching out to other regions. Throughout Atlantic Canada, there is certainly no shortage of material, and among those that she has selected for the first stage, she has tried to capture a variety of architectural forms. The lights may now be automated, and largely replaced in their function by newer technologies, but they still serve as beacons to visitors and residents alike, hearkening back to a time when they were a lifeline.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2021 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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