Active Pass Light House at Mayne Island BC

by John MacFarlane 2016

Active Pass Light

Active Pass Light (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

The original Active Pass Lighthouse (also known as the Georgina Point Lighthouse) was constructed at Georgina Point on Mayne Island in 1885. The current circular concrete tower was built in 1969. Georgina Point, the northern tip of Mayne Island where the lighthouse stands, forms the eastern point of the northern entrance to Active Pass.

The original 1885 lighthouse was replaced in 1940 by a square keeper’s dwelling surmounted by a lantern room. In 1969, a cylindrical concrete structure topped by a lantern and galley was constructed to serve as the lighthouse, but the square dwelling was retained to house the keeper. The modern tower has a focal plane of 17.5 metres (57 feet), and flashes a white light every ten seconds. The station was automated in in 1997. Ownership of the property was transferred to the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in 2006, while the Canadian Coast Guard still has responsibility for the navigational aids. Public access is easy, and there is public parking during daylight hours.


Chart of Active Pass (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Between Mayne Island and Galiano Island Active Pass is one of the busier shipping channels on the British Columbia coast. It is constantly transited by small vessels and ships of the British Columbia Ferry Corporation. It is not uncommon to see three large ferries in the Pass simultaneously.

It is a long narrow S–shaped waterway bounded by steep and rugged terrain. The tide roars (6–7 knots) through on the changes and there is a rock–ledge overfall on the eastern entrance that creates ‘white water’ when the current hits the Strait of Georgia. On the western entrance a huge whirl pool constantly turns in the bowl set up by a separate tidal regime. It can be very intimidating and even dangerous for smaller vessels.

Active Pass

The original fog diaphone from the lighthouse at Georgina Point, now in the collection of the Mayne Island Museum. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

The Pass is not called "Active Pass" because of the currents, or for the number of ships passing through. It was known as Plumper Pass for a while. In 1858 Captain George Henry Richards RN, who gave us so many British Columbia coast place–names, was transiting the pass in HMS Plumper with his Hudson’s Bay Company Pilot Captain Herbert George Lewis. Lewis recounted his experience with the US Revenue and Survey cutter Active in 1855. The Active was commanded by Lieutenant–Commander James Alden USN. Alden named the pass after his ship and the name stuck. In those days the best source of coal for steamships was from the mines at Nanaimo BC and Alden bunkered coal there.

Active Pass

Boat launch winch. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

The USRSC Active was a 750 ton wood–hulled schooner–rigged paddle steamer that had been built for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company as the Goldhunter. She was purchased in 1853 and rebuilt and armed with two guns at Mare Island California for service in the Pacific Northwest. She chiefly was employed in policing native people in the Washington Territory. She played a pivotal role in the American show of force on San Juan Island at the commencement of the Pig War Crisis that led to the loss of British Columbia Territory to the United States. She assisted Captain Richards in the survey of Semiahmoo Bay during the international boundary dispute. Commander Alden commanded the vessel to 1860 when he moved to the east coast to participate in naval actions in the Civil War. He retired as a Rear–Admiral and died in France in 1877.

Active Pass

The lightkeeper’s house. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

In November 1857 she worked with HMS Plumper in Semiahmoo Bay to fix the location of the 49th Parallel for the North America Boundary Commission. While on this duty HMS Plumper arrested a whiskey trader named Macaulay who was bootlegging liquor to the survey camp. The Active carried him to Esquimalt and during the voyage he showed the crew a quantity of gold-dust acquired from First Nations people on the Fraser River. In 1858 on their return to San Francisco the crew of the Active spread the news – triggering the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. The Pass was not properly surveyed until 1904 when Commander John F. Parry RN in HMS Egeria carried out a survey. The crew left their signature "Egeria Rock" incised on the rock, (one of several on the coast) during the survey and can still be seen by adventurous kayakers to this day.

Active Pass

Active Pass Radio Station housed an aeronautical beacon. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

In 1858 the gold miners who were en route to the Fraser River from Victoria began stopping overnight at Miners Bay on Mayne Island. The site was convenient being mid way to the mainland and the last land before the crossing of the Gulf of Georgia. There were two streams to provide drinking water and a flat camping area as well as a gravel beach to land their boats.

The first permanent settlement was known as Plumper Pass but the Post Office name was changed to Mayne Island on 01/04/1900. The residents had unsuccessfully petitioned Ottawa for postal service in 1876. In 1879 they petitioned again with support from surrounding islands. Mail arrived 2–3 times per week. Residents of other islands rowed into Miners Bay for groceries and mail. In 1885 the dock was replaced and lengthened so that steamships could dock.

Active Pass

The aeronautical beacon radio antenna, fenced off for safety. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

In 1884 the first lighthouse was established at Georgina Point on the eastern end of the Pass. This was augmented in 1911 with a steam foghorn with a diaphone. Henry "Scotty" Georgeson who had lived on Mayne Island since about 1870 was appointed as the first light keeper. He had arrived at Barkerville for the gold rush in 1862 but had arrived in Victoria sometime earlier.

Keepers: Henry Georgeson (1885–1920), Arthur Broughton Gurney (1921–1945), Clarence Edgar Carver (1944–1948), John Egerton Ruck (1968–1983), Don DeRousie (1983–1993), Jean Beaudet (1993–1997).

The Pass has been the scene of tragedy and near–misses:

  • - In 1860 HMS Termagant, under Captain Robert Hall RN, had a close miss when she was driven onto the bluff at Laura Point on Mayne Island. She sheared off at the last moment but her rigging fouled trees on the shore and broke them off.
  • - In February 1872 the barque Zephyr, loaded with sandstone from Newcastle Island, sank on Georgina shoals with the loss of two lives.
  • - The steamship Princess Adelaide grounded on Georgina Point on Mayne Island on 13/10/1918
  • - A newspaper article (undated) states "No rest for Captain MacFarlane after Christmas. He was sent out with the Salvage King on January 6th 1937 to tow the Kinshu Maru off from a rocky ledge on the shore at Matthews Point, Galiano Island, in Active Pass. Little known, perhaps, is that Capt MacFarlane had his deep sea ticket, and was considered qualified to take command of this large salvage tug kept in Victoria ready to answer salvage calls on the Pacific Coast."
  • - In 1979 the Queen of Alberni ran onto the reef in the western entrance dramatically causing a jumble of trucks and cars and forcing the evacuation of the passengers.
  • The most dramatic episode was on August 2, 1970 when the Soviet freighter Sergey Yesinin collided with the Queen of Victoria. Three passengers were killed. The pilot on the freighter was held to blame but the Master of the ferry was criticized for not passing sufficiently far enough to starboard. Large commercial shipping no longer transits the pass and is routed more safely to the south. On August 9, 1979, the BC Ferry Queen of Alberni ran aground at Collinson Reef in Active Pass, causing the vessel to tip dramatically to one side. Extensive vehicle and ship damage occurred, as well as the casualty of a racehorse.
Active Pass

The entrance to Active Pass does not give the appearance of a way through the islands! (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) Active Pass Light House at Mayne Island BC. 2016.

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