Cape Mudge Light

Cape Mudge Light Station

British Columbia Lighthouses - Besides the Light What Goes On There?

by Lynn Salmon and John M. MacFarlane 2011

There are few sights that fill us with such a warm feeling of safety and security as a lighthouse. Employed as symbols by insurance companies and safety equipment manufacturers, in almost every part of the world they are symbolic representations of a tradition of continuity, stability and dependability. The first light on the British Columbia Coast was the Fisgard Light Station, erected in 1860 and named for the Royal Navy frigate that surveyed Esquimalt Harbour in 1847. Situated at the entrance to that harbour, it has a four–foot–thick solid granite base with a spiral iron staircase that was imported from San Francisco. The Fresnel lens in the tower came from Chance Brothers in Birmingham, England.

Fisgard Light station

Fisgard Light station

The first lighthouse keeper, George Davies, was recruited from England, much to the consternation of the citizens of Victoria who felt that a local person should have been chosen. Davies and his wife Rosina maintained the light station together, sharing night watches to wind the clockworks to keep the light rotating. The Fisgard Light was automated in 1928 but remains a functioning lighthouse, one of the few readily accessible to the public.

On a clear day the shadowy outline of Race Rocks can be seen on the western horizon from Dallas Road on the Victoria BC waterfront. Standing there is the second oldest of the great Imperial lights on the British Columbia coast. Its black and white striped granite tower, erected within a year of the Fisgard Light, is the most distinctive on the coast. Ships filled with gold prospectors on their way to the Cariboo goldfields were arriving in ships requiring aids to navigation to safely guide them to Victoria. George Davies was transferred from Fisgard Light when Race Rocks Light became operational thus giving him the distinction of having opened both of the new Imperial lights.

Davies was instructed to paint the Race Rocks tower with black and white stripes to distinguish it from the the surrounding landscape. A fog alarm installed in 1884 was a continuing subject of controversy as many ship masters complained that the sound from the horn could not be heard properly. These complaints continued until 1929 when a hydrographic survey team conducted acoustic tests and discovered that the sound of the foghorn was bouncing off surrounding hills and the light tower itself creating areas where the sound signal was completely mute.

The ‘czar’ of the coast for mariners for many years was the Marine Agent in Victoria who had broad responsibilities for marine affairs including lighthouses. Captain James Gaudin, Marine Agent from 1892-1911, was one of the more memorable characters in that position. Almost half the light stations on the coast were erected during his tenure. Although never a light keeper himself, he was very much aware, from piloting vessels along the Vancouver Island coast, of the importance of lights to shipping. After a busy career as a Master of the Canadian Government vessel Sir James Douglas and as a Victoria Harbour pilot, he became the Marine Agent.

Gaudin’s extensive knowledge of the coast gave him a unique perspective on the positioning of lighthouses. His knowledge of and concern for the working conditions and well-being of the light keepers and their families motivated him to work tirelessly for improvements. The sometimes desperate conditions prevailing at the lights meant that performance and reliability could be affected. Unfortunately, proposals from Gaudin for improvements frequently fell on deaf ears in Ottawa. As well, he frequently found that he had to appoint the light keepers on the recommendations from politicians without regard for the most meritorious candidate. On his visits to light stations he discovered that technical ability and political reliability were not often found in combination in those appointees.

Boaters are familiar with the descriptive terms seen on charts describing the characteristics of local lights: occulting, interval and quick-flashing. The sequence of the light flashing as well as the colour of the light, help to identify each light and to distinguish it from nearby lights. Light stations are generally white lights, and smaller aids to navigation such as buoys are sometimes red or green lights to distinguish one type from another. Lights that display all three colours, but with only one colour visible at a time (depending on the angle), from which they are observed, are known as sector lights. On buoys, red and green lights indicate to the mariner on which side of the channel the vessel is expected to pass. Yellow and white lights warn of submerged dangers or to proceed with caution.

Pachena Light Station

Pachena Light Station

Early light stations on the coast used whale oil, canola oil and coal oil for lamp fuels until kerosene was introduced. This refined oil product burned cleanly and efficiently and was used extensively with Fresnel lenses. The lamps held a quart of oil with a burning time of 15 hours. Trimming and lighting the wick and regulating the draft in the tower were important parts of the light keeper’s duties. If the flame produced soot the lens could be fouled and less light transmitted.

Sisters Island Light station

Sisters Island Light station

In the early years the lights required constant vigilance to maintain proper illumination. Occasionally a flare-up would occur which extinguished the flame. The fuel would continue to flow, however, and create a filthy mess if the light was not checked regularly. The unpleasant job of mopping up was a nuisance for the keepers. Routine cleaning of the glass elements in the lens could take several hours if soot was deposited on it.Numerous innovations to extend the burning time of the flame up to five days were developed. The keepers eagerly embraced the introduction of electric lamps in the late 1940s, even though kerosene was still being used at some isolated stations into the 1960s.

Point Atkinson Fresnel

Point Atkinson Fresnel Lens

The Fresnel lens, named for its French inventor, consists of a series of glass prisms that reflect and refract the light source into an intensified narrow beam. This is often achieved with apparatus of many separate glass elements creating an impressive array of optics. Lenses were all ordered from the catalogue of Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England. They came in different sizes, or orders, which determined the strength of the beam emitted. Ranging from the most powerful first order to the smallest sixth order lens, the builders determined which one best met the local requirements. Lenses as large as nine feet (3m) in diameter cast a beam of light visible for up to 30 miles (50km) at sea. Colour could be added by tinting the window panes in the beacon room of the tower.

Triangle Island Light

Triangle Island Light when it was still at the Coast Guard Base

At the Dallas Road yard of the Canadian Coast Guard base in Victoria you could once see the lantern house of the original Triangle Island Light. It had been first installed on an island off the northern tip of Vancouver Island in 1910. The huge Fresnel lens inside was from the Estevan Point light and was shrouded by curtains to prevent a re-occurrence of an event years ago when sunlight shining through the glass prisms sharply focussed on the nearby forest and started a fire. Now it is permanently on museum display in Sooke BC.

The Triangle Island Light, built by the famous and eccentric Ministry of Marine Chief Engineer Colonel W.P. Anderson, was a case where the pursuit of an architectural triumph was no match for environmental reality. Positioned on a tiny speck 42 miles (70km) off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the light was an instance when Anderson broke his own cardinal rule "Never build a light more than 150 feet above sea level." Perched at the top of a 680 foot (200m) cliff, and accessible only by a tramway, the light could, on a clear night, be seen 50 (80km) miles out to sea. On many nights each year, however, fog rolled in below obscuring the light and making it totally useless.

Triangle Island’s towering beacon remained manned under the most harrowing conditions. Storms ripped full–force across the exposed piece of rock and all buildings and dwellings had to be secured to the ground with bracing and wires to prevent them from being blown away. After eight years of such buffeting, the light was conceded to be a failure. In 1918 its lantern was removed and taken to the old Coast Guard Base on Harbour Road on Victoria's inner harbour. It was not until 1959, after an absence of almost 40 years, that the northern end of Vancouver Island saw another light when the station at Cape Scott was opened.

Colonel Anderson designed lighthouses for aesthetics as well as function and many of his lights are among the most beautiful in Canada. His trademark of flying buttresses is reminiscent of medieval European cathedrals. The introduction of Ferro-cement to give the towers added strength made them more secure. Towers were usually constructed first with beacon house "kits" arriving from Birmingham being assembled and installed on-site according to an instruction book.

Diaphone Foghorn

Diaphone Foghorn from Georgina Point Light (Active Pass)

The traditional two–toned diaphone foghorns, with which lighthouses are often associated, have disappeared from the BC coast. In the early years they represented a technical breakthrough invented and pioneered by Canadians and adopted worldwide. While listening at home to his daughter practice scales on the piano, Canadian Robert Foulis heard a resonating bass note that lasted longer than all the others. He sought to replicate that tone in his workshop and developed a horn which was blown by air from a steam-powered compressor. This invention of the air horn was further adapted in 1902 by another Canadian, J.P. Northey who placed two horns together to create a two-toned instrument. This diaphone was used in Canadian and United States lighthouses as standard equipment until only a few years ago.

Hand Operated Foghorn

Hand–operated Foghorn

The earliest foghorns were hand operated by the keepers and were used only to respond to signals received from passing vessels. In those days a ship could request a response from a light station by blowing its whistle. Smaller vessels without a horn could not take advantage of this service. The steam-powered diaphone made the fog signals continuous. At the first sign of fog the lightkeeper would start up the horns and keep them blowing until clear weather had returned. The noise was quite irritating for the keeper and his family living and trying to sleep immediately next to the horn.

Modern electric foghorns are used and are similar to the air chimes employed on diesel rail locomotives. The sounds are different but still easily recognizable to West Coast mariners on foggy nights. Visitors to lighthouses are advised not to stand too close to the horns as sound blasts up to 133 decibels can unexpectedly be emitted from the apparatus. New technology is not always an immediate improvement. The new foghorns were often tripped by intense glare off the water requiring the lightkeeper to manually override the activated sensors. Sensitivity in some equipment exposed to this phenomenon were then adjusted.

Chatham Point Light Keepers House

Chatham Point Light Station Keepers House

Living alone for months at a time is a lonely prospect for an individual, so most lights were manned over the years by families. Mothers raised their children as best as they could providing school instruction through correspondence courses. The difficulty of holding children to the lesson plan was formidable, for station duties often required work from mother and children as well as the keeper. In summer some stations were a paradise playground for children – close to swimming, boating, beachcombing and fishing. But the long fierce winters kept everyone inside in cramped quarters. Shortage of fresh water in summer was a regular occurrence. Bath water was saved for washing clothing, and was then re-cycled again into the garden.

Over the last 150 years light stations along our coast have been home for hundreds of keepers and their families. In some cases it has been a way of life in a tradition passed down to successive generations. Lighthouses will remain on the coast for years to come, but may not always be occupied by light keepers. A proposal to automate the lights on the British Columbia coast was introduced in 1987. This followed a trend which was initiated in eastern Canada. Almost all lights in North America are now fully automatic.

Sheringham Light Station

Sheringham Light Station

After five stations were automated in British Columbia in 1987 a hue and cry from the entire marine community was raised. As recently as 2010, a Canadian Senate Committee was tasked with once again exploring the usefulness of manned lightstations and although one station did suffer automation, the recommendation passed down was to maintain the lights with personnel.

Many people believe that automated lights leave the mariner less protected and the coast unwatched by human eyes. The number of marine incidents reported by light keepers may indicate evidence for at least part of the argument for their retention. No doubt new technology will fuel the continuing debate. There is still a need for a human presence at remote locations on the coast and perhaps an new type of job description will emerge based on sovereignty concerns, law enforcement, coast watching and environmental protection and monitoring. Today the light keeper’s role is chiefly concerned with weather observations and maintaining a lookout for mariners. Work on the lights is handled by the keeper as well as dedicated technicians who are specially trained to deal with increasingly complex equipment.

Weather duties are carried out round the clock and observations are taken at most light stations every three hours. Information is collected regarding sky conditions, visibility, wind speed and direction, sea state and swell conditions as well as any other information that the keeper thinks mariners will need to be aware of to plan their trip routing. In company with the hourly generated automated reports from land–based stations (these record wind speed and direction and barometric pressure trends) and ocean buoy reports (these record wind speed and direction, wave height and barometric pressure), light keepers report on the current conditions that are used by mariners as well as aviators; most often by the regular scheduled float plane services for the central and northern coast areas. Observations are also called in when weather conditions change suddenly and wind speeds or direction and sea states increase or decrease significantly.

Georgina Point (Active Pass) Light Station

Georgina Point (Active Pass) Light Station

This information is collected by coast guard radio stations of which there are five centres on the west coast. Prince Rupert, Tofino, Comox, Victoria and Vancouver all broadcast weather information collected from the light keepers and forecasters from Atmospheric Environment Service Canada. Weather is interpreted and forecasts for marine weather regions, extended marine forecasts and wave heights are sent to the coast guard stations to be recorded and inserted on the continuous marine broadcast that can be accessed on the water via VHF channels dedicated to these broadcasts or via landline. Vancouver has only recently begun using the continuous marine broadcast as it was introduced in 2009 in preparation for the Winter Olympics to convey important navigational information required to keep strategic navigational areas clear for security.

Once in place, it was logical to use this system to broadcast weather and other marine information. Vancouver does not collect weather from any light stations directly; rather, the information is gathered by Victoria and sent to them via the Atmospheric Environment Service. All the stations on the coast ‘borrow’ weather observations from adjacent stations so the mariner can anticipate conditions in areas in which they are yet to travel. Information is gathered on the local conditions as well as synoptic information on cloud levels and wet/dry bulb temperature information. Two stations in Prince Rupert’s area still provide aviation observations: Langara on the north-western most tip of Haida Gwaii and McInnes Island in Hecate Strait. At one time all the stations made this type of observation and will still provide ceiling and visibility to any passing planes on Channel 82A. Most stations stand by this channel; mariners are welcome to contact light stations directly for current conditions when within VHF range.

Boat Bluff Light

Boat Bluff Light Station

Light keepers are contacted all at once on what is known as the ALEN circuit (Automated Lightstation Emergency Network) – a VHF full duplex channel that is continuously open and allows the coast guard to speak with all light stations on a given circuit at once. In Comox, for example, there are two circuits, one for the seven northern lights and one for the two southern lights. Each station has a radio and if it is a ‘linking‘ site (talks to another radio in sequence) then there is a second radio set on site to transmit and receive. Cape Scott at the northern end of Vancouver Island is ‘linked‘ through four sets of radios from Comox, for example.

It is a unique and complex system that has been tweaked and perfected over the years. When it was introduced in the 1960‘s the ALEN, ALAN or ALN (all approved acronyms) was intended to be an automatic system that collected data from the lights electronically. This did turn out to be practical and the circuit was modified for use by the light keepers.The circuit is not a private one; all linked stations can hear all the other calls - both incoming or outgoing. Each station is identified by a particular audio chime, a musical tone that alerts them to their own calls. On the coast guard station side of the call, one common tone identifies all the incoming messages and lights and audio signals on the radio console indicates that a light station is calling; perhaps with a message or a special weather observation. Some stations have internet service, TV and cellphone service but these are not provided by the Coast Guard.

Light keepers also respond to tsunami bulletins by making on-scene observations detecting changes in wave and sea state behaviour, and many times they are the point of contact for marine emergencies taking place off shore. Some stations have boats at the ready and on more than one occasion, light keepers have been the first on the scene to provide assistance although this action is not one of their official duties and they respond as any other vessel of opportunity with their own boats.Their stations are also used by medevac helicopters on occasion and they provide food, fuel and rest areas for participants during lengthy searches.

Chrome Island Light

Chrome Island Light Station

Light keepers provide safety information for mariners and are represented by a small but very dedicated group of individuals. The former trend of having keepers with young families on station is no longer preferred; this is reflected in the fewer visits that Santa makes to stations every December! Stations that are located within reach of schools and communities are far more conducive to a normal routine than those located on isolated, barren rock islets. The Senate Committee assessed the value of the work of the light keepers on the BC coast and the majority of the light stations remained open. This is a positive recognition from both the marine public and government that light keepers still play a vital role in the safety and sovereignty of our waters.


To quote from this article please cite:

Salmon, Lynn and John M. MacFarlane (2011) British Columbia Lighthouses – Besides the Light What Goes On There?. Nauticapedia.ca 2011. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Lighthouses.php

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