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Pen Brown and Jim West – They Brought Santa Claus to the British Columbia Light Stations
by Lynn Salmon 2011
Jim West ‘Santa Claus’ on the northern British Columbia Light Stations, with the Bonnor boys and helicopter CG253 at Addenbroke Light Station in 1997 (Photo credit: Mike Bonnor)
When you are a child living at a remote light station on the coast of British Columbia, a major concern near Christmas time could be "How will Santa Claus know where to find me?" Pen Brown, filled this role for many years, assuming this unique responsibility in 1978 when George Thomas, the original light station Santa Claus, retired.
The annual event was a volunteer effort with contributions of presents and goodies supplied by coast guard staff and participating light station families. Light houses received periodic visits from a supply vessel and during a week–long supply trip in December; Pen Brown would travel with the ship as it visited each light, accompanying the crew on their rounds. Those stations with children would get a special visit from Santa – an eagerly anticipated event by the thirty or more children who once lived on the different lights with their families. Presents were ordered, wrapped and loaded onto the supply vessel for Christmas delivery and when necessary, Pen would travel to the light station via helicopter. Initially a Santa suit was rented each year from the T. Eaton store in Victoria but one year two women living at the Estevan Point Light sewed up a custom suit for him to wear.
Pen Brown (Santa Southern Lighthouses) and Jim West (Santa Northern Lighthouses)
Pen recalls his service for the lights fondly and enjoyed many years of ‘Santa duty’ long after his own retirement in 1989. I had the pleasure of first meeting him in 1993 to interview him during research for an exhibition on lighthouse stations on the British Columbia coast and he was still visiting the lights in the same red velveteen suit! Dwindling numbers of children at the light stations and a much stricter adherence to the safety code for employees finally put an end to the annual Santa visits.
Pen Brown worked for the Canadian Coast Guard for 34 years. He worked a number of light stations during his career eventually ending up at the Victoria Coast Guard base on Dallas Road in Victoria British Columbia in the Lighthouse Supply Department but he is perhaps still best known for his role as ’Santa Claus on the Lights‘.
Pen was born in Vancouver in 1922. He first worked in the Kootenay District building trails and working in the mills before moving to Ontario to work in a clerical position for the Imperial Bank of Canada. This work did not particularly suit him so when his sister sent him a newspaper ad for a position as an assistant light keeper at Cape Mudge Light Station, located at the southern tip of Quadra Island, he quit the bank and travelled west. It was a brief interview that landed him as assistant keeper at Cape Mudge Light in 1955. Assistants were not eligible in those days for any civil service benefits; so he worked directly for the senior light keeper who paid his salary and set out his work routine.
As his seniority increased Pen was appointed to the single stand light station at Fiddle Reef situated one mile east of Oak Bay near Victoria. He was married during this appointment and was not allowed official leave for the wedding ceremony but an ‘informal’ leave was arranged for 24 hours. Known as the "honeymoon station" Pen and his wife Betty lived for six months in the tiny lighthouse which had a single bedroom upstairs large enough only for a mattress. The living area downstairs was only 12’ x 12’ and the only place to walk was the exposed rocky shore when the tide went out – the island practically disappeared at high tide and during storms.
In the early days Pen had a lot of freedom in how he operated his light. The salary was very small so he supplemented his earnings with extra money doing odd jobs. When the roof on his house was replaced by a visiting contract carpenter Pen was allowed to work as his helper for extra pay in addition to performing his usual twelve hour shift!
Safety concerns were not as prominent in those days. In the engine room fully exposed drive belts twenty feet in length powering air compressors with red hot exhaust pipes on Fairbanks Morse engines were all dangerously wide–open to keepers and their families. The first time the light went out he was shocked to have to restart the engine by standing directly on the spokes of the flywheel which were larger than him! As the wheel turned he had to jump off to keep from spinning with the wheel. This was a normal situation in those days; long since changed to reflect stringent modern safety standards we take for granted today.
He moved to Pine Island in 1957 which brought more enjoyable living conditions. They stayed there for ten years raising their two children. This station, situated in Queen Charlotte Sound at the northern end of Vancouver Island, is a vital seamark for shipping transiting the treacherous waters of Gordon Channel and is the calling–in point for the British Columbia Marine Pilots station for large vessels including cruise ships.
Despite the busy shipping lane nearby, transportation to and from the station was left to the keeper to arrange. Sickness, death or toothache, it was all up to the keeper to find a way off the island and back. Hiring a water taxi from Port Hardy could be a perilous and expensive undertaking. For the birth of their daughter, Betty Brown traveled to Vancouver in a lighthouse tender six weeks before the event to take advantage of the passing Coast Guard ship. However, they had to arrange their own return trip to the station at the end of Pen’s leave. At Port Hardy his brother–in–law took them over to the light in his gillnet boat. The voyage was in flat calm conditions but when they arrived it was low tide and they had to crawl, with the newborn baby, more than 60 feet up the steep slippery seaweed–covered rocks. By the time their son was born, two years later, they were able to travel via the CCGS Camsell (the Coast Guard light tender) though the landing at Pine Island was still a difficult one and not soon forgotten by the anxious parents!
In 1967 during a severe storm, Pine Island Light Station was partially demolished by a giant episodic wave that smashed the engine house, including the fog horn – but spared the Principal and Assistant Keepers’ houses and light tower. The event was so terrifying that the two families fled to higher ground on the island in case another wave caused further damage. At the time, because communications were poor, it was not known to the families whether this event had been generated by a seismic incident or as the result of storm action – by an enormous freak wave. All communications were knocked out for a few days and it was only when they were once again connected to the world that they realized they had witnessed the work of a giant rogue wave.
The destroyed engine room clock from Pine Island is displayed in Pen’s living room and bears silent testimony to the awesome force of nature – its twisted remains are stopped at the time of the early morning destruction. The family moved off the lights shortly after this episode and settled in Victoria where Pen went to work in Lighthouse Supply and remained there until retirement. But even in retirement, Pen could not stay away from the lights, visiting them year after year as the Santa Claus of the Lights. A much more recent visit with Pen reminded me how extraordinary this gentlemen is and what a privilege it is to be referred to as one of his "old" coast guard friends.
Postscript: Only three days before this article was published Pen Brown was honoured by the Victoria Historical Society for his many years of service and dedication to that organization. He is a staunch supporter of their scholarship fund, contributing significant sums annually for the benefit of history students at the University of Victoria. Unfortunately his frail health prevents him from attending many meetings of the Society, but he did attend the recent Christmas dinner meeting and was there presented with a certificate of appreciation testifying to his valuable contributions to the Society. (Our thanks to Mike Harrison and Ron Greene for the update!) Marie Elliott wrote to say that Pen Brown had been very helpful in organizing centennial celebrations for the Georgina Point and East Point lighthouses in the Canadian Gulf Islands.
To quote from this article please cite:
Salmon, Lynn (2012) Pen Brown – Santa Claus on the British Columbia Light Stations. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Brown_Pen.php
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