Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2021

The Keeper’s Wife: Maggie Campbell

The Heroine of Bird Rock


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This 1897 newspaper illustration shows Maggie ...

Originally published June 3, 1897 in the New York Sun

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Angus Campbell served as the keeper of Ciboux ...

North Sydney, Nova Scotia, May 30- A tragic story from the lonely lighthouse on Great Bird Rock, far out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fifty miles northeast of the Magdalen Islands, has been brought here by the schooner Rob Roy, just in from the islands. The supply steamer of the Dominion Government, which visits the lighthouse quarterly, called at the rock on May 5. The rock is precipitous and rugged, and has no beach, its storm-battered sides sinking perpendicularly into the sea. The supplies are hoisted by a derrick to a ledge of the rock.

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The light on Nova Scotia’s Ciboux Island, more ...

The skipper of the Government steamer was surprised to see a wan, gray-haired woman standing alone on the ledge. He did not recognize her at first glance. A closer view convinced him that she was the wife of the lighthouse keeper Angus Campbell. She had apparently aged ten years since the skipper had seen her three months before. Then there was not a trace of whiteness in her hair, and she was a plump and handsome woman. The skipper looked up from the deck of the steamer, and when he was within hailing distance, he shouted: “Where’s the old man?”

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Provisioning of Ciboux Island Lighthouse took ...

The answer came back in tremulous tones: “Angus is dead, and so are Jim Duncan and George Bryson.” The skipper said no more, but straightway had the derrick rigged and was hoisted up to the ledge. Mrs. Campbell tearfully told how her husband and Duncan and Bryson, the latter two professional seal hunters, had been lost, and how, for more than two months, she had kept lonely vigil on the rock.

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The second Ciboux Island lighthouse was ...

Campbell and his friends went out from the rock with their spears to hunt seals on the morning of February 27. It was a cold day, and there was no open water within five or six miles of the lighthouse in any direction. Seals had been seen on the ice the day before. Mrs. Campbell was somewhat reluctant to have her husband go out.

“If the wind changes, Angus,” she said, “the ice will break up, and you may be carried out to sea.” “Suppose I am, Maggie,” he answered, laughingly, “I shall come back again, and even if I don’t, you are able to take care of the light.”

The three men started across the ice. They had not gone more than four hours when the wind, which had been blowing from the eastward, shifted to the southwest. This is a dangerous wind in the Gulf in winter, and breaks up the ice with marvelous swiftness.

Mrs. Campbell became alarmed and hoisted the danger flag. She soon saw the hunters hurrying toward the rock. They had doubtless realized their danger even before the flag fluttered from the lighthouse. They were within a mile of the lighthouse when the ice cracked in a line running east and west, parallel with the rock and North Bird Rock, about five miles west of the lighthouse.

Mrs. Campbell was in the lighthouse when the reverberation of the cracking ice impelled her to run out and see if her husband and his companions were safe. The cracking was followed by the breaking up of the field of ice into floes, which began drifting slowly seaward. Mrs. Campbell, realizing her helplessness, simply stood on the ledge and cried. She fell on her knees and began praying as darkness set in. Then she waved him a farewell, and he responded. He was then so far out and the twilight was so deep that his motions were barely visible.

Mrs. Campbell remained awake all night, mechanically lighting the oil lamp and attending to the other duties about the lighthouse that were usually performed by her husband. She had hoped to see something of the castaways at dawn. She swept the horizon with his glass and saw nothing but stretches of ice-dotted water. The three men were either drowned by the breaking up of the floe, or, if it held together, they died of hunger and exposure.

The skipper of the supply steamer asked Mrs. Campbell how she managed to get through the winter. She said: “I can hardly tell. I know that I have kept the light burning. It was a dreadful experience, all alone on a rock that might just as well have been in the middle of the Atlantic so far as the prospect of getting relief was concerned. Never a day passed during the first month of my isolation that I did not sweep the sea with my husband’s glasses with the hope of seeing some vestige of him. I do not think I slept two hours consecutively since my husband was carried away on the floe. Although I have plenty of provisions, I do not think I have eaten more than one meal a day.”

“As you see, my hair has turned gray, and I have grown so thin that I believe I do not weigh much more than ninety pounds, although I weighed 170 when my husband disappeared. I have seen no living things except sea birds and seals. The seals gave me some little comfort when they swam up and lay around the base of the rock. I fancy I was just beginning to go crazy when you came.”

Mrs. Campbell consented to stay on the rock until May 13, when she was relieved by a man from the Magdalen Islands. She is a native of Prince Edward Island, and is of Scottish descent. Her husband had been a coasting sailor before he took charge of the lighthouse, many years ago. Mrs. Campbell used to spend three months on shore every year, leaving on the supply ship in May and returning in August.

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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