December 13, 2013






Islanders mourn loss of iconic lighthouse
by Arlene Benham


     A piece of Grand Manan history was lost on November 19 when the Grand Harbour lighthouse, long an icon of island scenery, collapsed in that night's gale.
     In recent years islanders had speculated whether the crumbling structure would survive one more winter, and as the remaining sections grew more and more fragile, its demise looked imminent. Finally, a westerly gale proved too much for the old tower, and it now lies in a heap of rubble on the shore of Ross Island.
     The lighthouse was built in 1879 in response to a petition from Grand Manan boat owners. The land at Fish Fluke Point was reportedly purchased from Isaac Newton for $150. Master shipbuilders George and Charles Short got the building contract with a winning bid of $1,050. It was first lit on October 10, 1879, by Henry McLaughlin, who was the first lightkeeper there. The 32‑foot tower could be seen for 11 miles in clear weather.      Over the next 84 years, eight keepers and their families called the Grand Harbour Light home. The longest‑serving keeper was Harry McDowell, from 1914‑48.
     In 1963, the beacon was supplanted by a light on the end of Ingalls Head breakwater, and the government ordered the lighthouse abandoned that August. The February 1976 Groundhog Gale caused significant damage, and the structure continued to crumble in the years that followed. In 1999, Lighthouse Digest magazine named it "North America's Most Endangered Lighthouse" and announced a fundraising campaign to save it, but the effort failed. Over the past few years the sides of the lighthouse collapsed, leaving only the skeletal central tower. Throughout its decline it has been the subject of countless photos by locals and tourists alike, and holds many fond memories for those who spent time there.
     The last lightkeeper was Percy Harvey. His daughter Penny O'Neill remembers moving to Ross Island in 1955. She was 9 years old. She recalls the kitchen and living room with its woodstove as the center of the house. The outhouse was out back, and the well was a quarter mile inland, but they had electricity, "a big treat," powering a fridge and TV.
     The isolation of the island was "a normal way to live," she says, noting that she grew up in lighthouses, first on nearby Duck Island as a baby. The family worked around the tides, and the children learned the importance of being ready to go, often reminded by their father that "time and tide wait for no man." They walked across the Thoroughfare or took a boat to Ingalls Head to get to school, and in the winter they stayed with their grandmother in Woodwards Cove to avoid crossing icy Chalk Island Cove. Good memories include watching lightning storms from the top of the lighthouse, and playing with her sister while keeping an eye out for the cattle roaming the island. Sometimes they watched as old boats were set afire and allowed to drift out with the tide. This practice stopped "when they decided... maybe we really could fill up the ocean." After that, discarded boats were hauled ashore in Chalk Island Cove, but those are gone now too; only a few scraps of wood remain in the grass.
     When she was 14, they moved to White Head, and O'Neill was excited by "all those people" and more social activities. After high school, she says she didn't really miss lighthouses. "I was ready to go, so I went." But of her time on Ross Island, she recalls, "It was a great place to live. I never thought about the way of life elsewhere. I really can't think of any downside."
     "I was relieved when it fell," she says. "It should've been destroyed years ago. It was sad to watch it slowly fall apart, die inch by inch."
     Nell Huckins and her husband Jack spent their honeymoon on Ross Island in October 1956, when he was asked by O'Neill's father to take over for a month and paint the lighthouse. "We were only there a month," she says, "but we thought we were in paradise." Jack would row to the co‑op store in a tiny punt for ice cream, and "we had a lot of company" as relatives visited for dinner. Penny O'Neill recalls the light was powered by electricity but had to be hand‑cranked if the power was off. Nell says Jack liked to sing while he cranked, and one night he got so caught up in singing and cranking that the spring broke "and he had to scramble to replace it."
Ross Island was their first lighthouse; they went next to Duck Island. "It was good memories," she says. "I feel sad it couldn't be saved. It was like losing a friend. When you get older and people pass away -- that's how I felt." Last summer on a boat tour around the island she visited the lighthouse again, just in case she didn't get another chance.
     In an effort to commemorate this chapter of island history, the Grand Manan Museum obtained permission from the landowner, who does not live in Canada, to salvage the cupola. On December 7, a small convoy bounced down the potholed, puddle‑strewn track to Fish Fluke Point with 11 volunteers to inspect the wreckage. The lighthouse dome, originally photographed mostly intact by visitors after its fall, had toppled off the rocks and was in pieces at the tide line, battered by more bad weather. The path out to the light was too muddy for trucks and not navigable by a boom truck as first planned. The salvage team collected pieces of the struts and top and moved them away from the water. Once the ground has frozen, they hope to pick these up with a truck. The largest piece, estimated at several hundred pounds, was tied to the upper structure and a buoy attached, and organizers will look for help with a scow and crane to remove it.
     The preliminary plan is to create a reconstruction of the lighthouse top and deck in the wildflower meadow behind the museum. Board member Greg McHone says it could be made into a gazebo with a plaque about the light's history. "You could see from there to the point [on Ross Island] where it was," he says. "We think this will be good for the community, to remind people what it was and what it meant to the island in the past." Government funding for exhibits is available up to $10,000, and they will apply for a matching grant.
     "We did exactly what we had to do today," said McHone of the expedition. "We tied off the big piece and got the smaller pieces out of the surf. ... We could reproduce enough to make a useful exhibit." A metalworker will be consulted about the feasibility of putting the salvaged parts back together. Those interested in helping with the reconstruction will have opportunities, since more volunteers will likely be needed as the project progresses.

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