Bill the Collie (Friend and Lifesaver) and Philip Cox (Lightkeeper)

by John M. MacFarlane and Lynn Salmon 2012

Bill the Collie

Bill the Collie (Friend and Lifesaver) and Philip Cox (Lightkeeper)

One of the most unlikely British Columbia lighthouse heroes was a small collie companion to the Cox Family at Cape Beale Light Station. Philip Cox began keeping the light at Sisters Island in 1921 and worked at Ballenas Island (1922), Entrance Island (1922 – 1931), Trial Island (1931) and finally retiring from service in 1941 at Cape Beale. He and his wife raised their family – two girls and a boy (Pat born in 1917) – on the lights. Pat Cox fondly recalled his unique life on the lights; a highlight for him was at age 8 when he was officially appointed as the assistant keeper. His schooling was via correspondence and activities included boating and beachcombing. Throughout his childhood his constant companions were his two sisters and Bill the Collie who joined the family early on at Ballenas Island. Bill was the station mascot and knew the routine of the light keeper well.

On the very early morning of August 31, 1927 when keeper Philip Cox was retiring he suddenly heard Bill making an awful racket in the kitchen below. During the night a storm had developed but he allowed the agitated dog out the door anyway. Bill charged anxiously toward the high cliffs that characterize Cape Beale. Barking and whining to attract attention to encourage his master to follow, Bill behaved just like an animal hero in a Hollywood movie. Puzzled by his dog’s curious behavior Cox followed to see what could possibly be the cause of such anxiety.

Pat Cox

A Young Pat Cox at Cape Beale Lighthouse

At the top of the high cliffs he saw the mast of a fishing vessel, the Sea Wolf, swinging in the surf below. Treacherous reefs there made the immediate situation critical for the two American fishermen Bruce Barber and his son. Realizing that there was little time to waste Cox, with help from his visiting brother and Bill, managed to pull the two crew members off the deck of the vessel moments before she swept up the channel onto the rocky shore and smashed in half. Bill had heard the anguished shouts for help from the crew over the din of the storm which were unheard by his human companions. The Sea Wolf had been lying on her sea anchor 100-200 yards under the light to wait out the night. But a storm suddenly came up and the men tried in vain to start the boat’s engine. They were thrown onto the rocks below the light and endured a severe pounding before Philip and his brother arrived. Without Bill's intervention by alerting his master to the impending peril they would surely have been drowned.

Sea Wolf

The Fishboat Sea Wolf Ashore at Cape Beale BC

The Humane Society rewarded Bill the Collie with a medal and he received special praise in the newspapers for his part in the rescue. Bill later won a second medal for his part in preventing a ship from running onto the Cape in heavy fog by barking at the ship heard distantly in the absence of the disabled light station foghorn. Bill later caught his tail in the propeller of a boat that nipped about four inches off the end. His owner said it seemed to take the curl out of it!

Philip Cox was as dedicated to his trade as his collie was to lifesaving. His son Pat recalled that his father was responsible for devising a simple mechanism to shut off the flow of fuel (oil) to the lamp should the flame extinguish for any reason. This was a common problem for the light keepers – tending the light meant monitoring it frequently to be sure it stayed lit throughout the night – but at times the open flame would go out. However, the pump for the fuel would continue to gush and create a huge mess to be cleaned up. Philip Cox developed a spring–loaded valve apparatus that would shut off the flow of oil when a string across the mantle was burnt through if the oil flared. A visiting marine agent was so impressed with the ingeniously simple device that the mechanism was copied and installed in all the light stations.

He also took the safety of ships at sea very seriously. At stations where no fog horn was installed, Philip took it upon himself to row out on foggy nights with a lantern placed in a sheltered butter box to warn ships of impending danger. Flashlights of the time simply were not strong enough to do the job. Ships’ captains were so appreciative that they would arrange to have turkeys sent to the station as a token of their gratitude. This included BC Pilots and Pacific Salvage Company among others.

The Cox family is just one of many examples of people who lived on the lights and made it a family affair. Our history has been shaped by their efforts and dedication and our coastlines have been made safer because of them.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. and Lynn Salmon. (2012) Bill the Collie (Friend and Lifesaver) and Philip Cox (Lightkeeper). Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Bill_Collie.php

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