Let there be lightkeepers

By Danda Humphreys, May 2011

Government grants another reprieve to long-time guardians of our coast.

The federal government’s recent decision not to remove staff from BC lighthouses has lightkeepers and sailors everywhere breathing a sigh of relief. For almost three decades, the government has maintained that, in these days of automated weather readers, foghorns, and other high-tech navigational aids, lightkeepers are obsolete. But here on our rough and rugged West Coast, they play a crucial role. 

Lighthouse-keepers have been part of our history since Fisgard Light was built in 1860 at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour. Eventually, more than two dozen lighthouses cast their warning beams along our coast. Stories of disasters and rescues abound, including a few in the first two decades of the 20th century that illustrate how lightkeepers saved others’ lives while risking—and sometimes losing—their own. 

In 1909, Department of Marine and Fisheries chief engineer Colonel William Anderson chose the summit of Triangle Island, northwest of Cape Scott, as the site for “the ultimate lighthouse.” It was the tallest on the BC coast—and the most dangerous, as its light was too high to penetrate through fog to the vessels below. Fierce winds blew away everything that wasn’t anchored down, rocking houses on their foundations and making their occupants seasick. Howling gales forced lightkeepers to bend double and hang on to handrails set into concrete pathways as they moved between buildings. 

In November 1918, the lighthouse tender Galiano dropped anchor off Triangle Island. Her workboat, laden with mail and supplies, ploughed through the heaving waters to where two of the lighthouse’s crew members—an operator, and the bachelor crew’s housekeeper—were waiting. Bad news awaited one of them; the crew member’s replacement had fallen sick, so his leave had been cancelled. Disappointed, he turned and trudged back up the 1,000 steps to the lightstation. The workboat, with the housekeeper aboard, left the landing-place, and shortly after, the Galiano steamed away into the eye of a sudden, violent storm…never to be seen again. A frantic radio message alerted the Triangle Light’s crew that the Galiano was sinking, but they could do nothing to stop the vessel, her 26-member crew, and the housekeeper, going to a watery grave. 

It was the worst calamity in the Department’s history. Two years later, the Triangle Island light was abandoned. Today the historic cast-iron and glass dome stands on the grounds of the Sooke Region Museum.

The Pachena Point Light, 10 kilometres down the lifesaving trail from Pachena Bay, near Bamfield, was constructed following a particularly horrific 1906 shipwreck. Almost three days after leaving San Francisco, the passenger ship Valencia, blinded by thick fog and battling a howling gale, had been carried way off course by the strong current and smashed against the rocks northwest of the Carmanah Light. A few battered and exhausted survivors managed to make their way along the telegraph trail to Cape Beale, where the lightkeepers relayed news of the tragedy and rallied help. Because of their efforts, 37 of the 154 souls on board were saved. However, an enraged US public demanded answers, and in the ensuing mayhem, Anderson and the Department authorized a new light at Pachena Point. It was completed in 1908.

Closer to home, Trial Island, separated from Oak Bay by Enterprise Channel, has long proved a challenge for mariners. Originally named for its function as a sea-trial destination for British naval ships after refits at Esquimalt, the island proved a trial in more ways than one. Waters rushing through the channel caused vessels to founder. One night in 1895 during a southeast gale, two ships came to grief in those icy waters. 

The tugboat Velos battled the strong wind as it struggled to pull the Pilot, fresh from delivering stone blocks for the façade of Victoria’s new legislative buildings, around the waterfront. Near Trial Island, the captain of the Velos decided to take shelter in Cadboro Bay. He pulled the Pilot into Enterprise Channel, where they were destined to meet their fate. Caught in the rip tide, both ships smashed and splintered on the rocks. The cable between them snapped. The Pilot grounded on Trial Island. The Velos and several of her crew were lost. 

Soon after, the Marine Department lobbied Ottawa for a lighthouse, and by 1907 the Trial Island light was sending its beam out over the waters. Automated decades ago, its original top now stands in Bastion Square, close to the Maritime Museum.

Donald Graham’s fascinating book Keepers of the Light (Harbour Publishing, 1985) tells the tale of some of the brave people who, over the years, have served as the eyes and ears of our coast. Some say the government’s recent reversal may be an election ploy. Only time will tell. Suffice to say the men and women stationed on BC’s 27 lighthouses today can rest assured. Their jobs are safe…for now.

Danda Humphreys, who grew up on England’s northwest coast and always wanted to live in a lighthouse, has written several books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.