Reprinted with the permission of the author and Kerby News, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
For hundreds of kilometers above its mouth, the south shore of Canada’s St. Lawrence River is a world of wave-cut cliffs, sea and sky traversed by scenic Highway 132. Rising and falling around headlands, in places washed by storm waves, this serpentine road follows the north side of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula through a series of little cove-set fishing villages. Filled with colorful fishing boats and every quay the realm of serious anglers, these are a photographer’s delight.
Locally, the Fleuve-Saint-Laurent (estuarine river), is La Mer (the sea). It’s tidal and saline, so wide that it’s not spanned by bridges east of Quebec City, 550 kilometers above its mouth.
For centuries, the great river has served as the long approach to the interior of the continent. It is steeped in the romance and history of maritime Canada. Jacques Cartier landed in 1534 at the eastern tip of the peninsula he called Gaspé, navigator Captain James Cook surveyed the coast and Sir William Logan undertook early geological studies in the area. This shore has witnessed the passage of French colonist ships, several British invasion fleets, waves of immigrant vessels, WWII convoys and the U-boats that hunted them.
Lighthouses are prominent features along Highway 132. From Cap-des-Rosiers, at the eastern end of the peninsula to Riviere-du-Loup, 340 kilometers upstream, a dozen of these colorful structures — tall, short, round, square or octagonal — occupy prominent shoreline points.
For almost two centuries, they served to protect mariners on the river day and night with their unique color patterns, beacon sequences and foghorns. But as time passed they were first electrified, then automated and finally replaced by satellite navigational systems.
What was to become of these ancient pillars of stone, concrete and steel? Communities along the south shore were not about to abandon their time-weathered landmarks and were happy to acquire them from the Canadian Coast Guard.
There’s something about these sentinels that causes area residents to vigorously oppose their destruction. A measure of this attachment for example, was a prolonged battle at Pointe-à-la-Renommée that resulted in retrieval of their tower from 500 kilometers away after an absence of 20 years.
Now most of the south shore lights provide remarkable examples of what touristically can be done to save and enhance them. Keepers’ houses have become museums, restaurants, and B & B’s while maintaining their structural integrity and serving as reminders of Canada’s rich maritime history.
Most towers are preserved much as they were when active and are treasure troves of lighthouse lore for those prepared to climb them. Searching out and visiting these maritime gems along a coast dotted with spectacular viewpoints and tastefully sited picnic areas is an invigorating and informative experience for summer travelers.
The parade of historic river structures begins, appropriately enough, at Canada’s tallest lighthouse, and extends for hundreds of kilometers up the river. Phare de Cap-des-Rosiers (from Pharos, the ancient lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt) occupies a cape near the mouth of the St. Lawrence named by Samuel de Champlain for an abundance of roses there. News of the arrival of James Wolfe’s fleet offshore in 1759, was first relayed from here to Quebec City.
Shipwrecks in the area in the nineteenth century resulted in great loss of life, especially during periods of heavy immigration to Canada. Deadliest of these was the foundering in 1847 of the two-masted sailing ship Carricks with great loss of life. A result of this was the long-overdue construction of a lighthouse at the Cape in 1858. A mass grave and monuments honor 87 immigrants from Ireland who perished here.
In the summer, courteous bilingual student guides escort visitors up the 37-meter tower for three dollars and a spectacular view. The little town, surrounded by popular Forillon National Park, can be seen to straggle along the coastline on its one street (Highway 132). And offshore is a favored feeding area for crowds of huge, white, dive-bombing gannets.
In town, travelers can overnight or dine at Hotel Motel Le Pharillon (“the little lighthouse”), at times literally in the shadow of the Cape’s stone tower. Fifty kilometers down the road, a four kilometer, daisy-bordered, unpaved access road winds through a woodland to emerge high above the river at Pointe-à-la-Renommée (Fame Point). The brown, cylindrical, steel lighthouse tower here isn’t the most impressive on the South Shore but is definitely the most traveled. Its odyssey began when in 1977, after seventy years of guiding mariners at the Point, it was dismantled and removed to Quebec City. Painted white, it graced the grounds of the Coast Guard Station there, a photogenic attraction in the city’s old Lower Town.
Since its return to the Point in 1997, work has progressed on upgrading the historic site. There’s a new little museum (T-shirts, books, pins for sale), ruins of an even older (1880) lighthouse, and North America’s first maritime radio station. Marconi transmitted from here in 1904. Visitors are soothed by sounds of omnipresent white-throated sparrows along nature trails that lead to an historic fishing village. Enthusiastic guides escort visitors up the tower and provide information on the light and rotation apparatus, idle now but still intact. And with luck, heard before they’re seen, enormous fin whales will surface from the deep water just off cliffs at the tower base. The estuary is also home to other whale species and most south shore towns now offer whale-watching tours.
It’s not surprising that the St. Lawrence is the “Sea” to residents. At picturesque Madeleine River Lightstation, 100 kilometers above the river’s mouth, it’s 120 kilometers across to the north shore. Today, it’s a tourist and research facility concerned with salmon fishing in the Madeleine River. A museum, restaurant and tours to visit large fish ladders are all part of the installation. And, for a couple of dollars, student guides will explain the workings of the light and deliver another great vista from the tower. Active until recently, the multi-faceted Fresnel lens still has a canvas covering on one side to facilitate a twenty-second “eclipse” that identifies this site as the light rotates.
Having mastered many narrow wooden steps and two sets of ladder stairs to reach the light room, visitors may then opt to dispense with dignity and negotiate the standard, meter-square hatch that leads to the exterior platform.
There are panoramic vistas of little fishing boats far out on the river from cozy rooms at popular Motel du Rocher in nearby Madeleine-Centre. And a morning stroll to the sounds of crows and songbirds in the serenity of the adjacent churchyard includes dawn sky silhouettes of the Madeleine River tower.
Beyond here the highway skirts the river below cliffs of deformed sedimentary rocks. Signs warn of potentially hazardous storm waves breaking over the road bed.
Arguably the jewel of south shore lighthouses, the well-maintained, boxcar-red tower and outbuildings of La Martre form the core of a tiny village. Named for nearby Marten Creek, the lightstation is visible for many kilometers by approaching motorists. Its unusual wooden tower, supported inside by massive beams, contains a fully restored, operating light. Visitors will learn everything they ever wanted to know about beacons, from the exquisite brass gears and fittings (“don’t touch”) to the great weights that drive the rotation mechanism (ask to turn them on).
“Recycling” of the tower was undertaken by the municipality which has adapted the keeper’s house to serve as the Town Office. A small museum on the site is devoted to the evolution of beacons. An historic ex-school museum (beside historic Ste.-Marthe church) features extensive, 8000 year-old archaeological discoveries made here.
Diminutive Cap Chat tower is offset by its position high above the river. Named for the remarkable, huge crouching natural rock “cat” there, the site today offers visitors a museum/art gallery and service by pleasant, costumed staff in an airy tea room (homemade blueberry muffins!).
Adjacent feature attractions are Le Nordais windmill park, the world’s tallest vertical axis windmill, and a Wind and Sea Centre with a spectacular multimedia show. And pathways through ornamental hillside floral gardens provide a chance to relax while here.
The St. Lawrence, “narrowing” to 45 kilometers near here, caused Cap Chat to be a preferred staging area for German U-boats during WWII. Hoping to intercept coal convoys from Cape Breton, they made use of the stratification of fresh and salt water in the estuary to evade detection by early sonar.
Matane’s lighthouse is perhaps the most noticeable on Highway 132, being right beside the road. It’s the city’s Tourist Information Center, and a good one, with pleasant knowledgeable staff and a small attached museum. A climb to the light room provides good views of the sprawling settlement, noted as a major ferry terminus and for its salmon ladders/research center and, best of all, for its famous “shrimp Matane.”
Ubiquitous village churches complemented lighthouses as skyline landmarks for mariners since earliest times. And some of these unique silvery spires proved irresistible targets for Wolfe’s gunners as his fleet slowly ascended the Fleuve. Now many of these “Canadian style” structures are registered historic sites and are open for self-guided tours in the summer. Sadly, at one of these, above a blue, mussel-strewn beach, behind attractive, 163 year-old stone Sainte Luce parish church, signs indicate the place, just offshore and tell the story of Canada’s deadliest marine disaster. On May 29, 1914, the liner Empress of Ireland, outbound from Quebec City, sank after a collision with a loss of 1012 lives. Many of these are remembered in a monument and mass grave just west of the resort town of Sainte-Luce.
Between there and Rimouski, Pointe-au-Père Lightstation is one of the better-known tourist attractions on the south shore. With its unusual, buttressed tower, museum and restaurant and its historic record, it’s a “must” for travelers.
For years, “Father Point” was a major pilot station on the river and was closely involved in the rescue of Empress of Ireland survivors. Now a National Historic Site, the 1909 tower, the third lighthouse was retired in 1975. There’s an entire museum floor dedicated to the shipwreck story and a popular, shoreline walk with historic signage, seashells and birds. The adjacent, attractive 1873 church of Ste-Anne de la Pointe-au-Pere is a well-known pilgrimage destination.
Constructed fifty years before Cap-des-Rosiers, he river’s oldest lighthouse and Canada’s third oldest, can be accessed by a short ferry ride. Then it’s a pleasant walk through the woods across the spine of the island to reach Ile Verte Lightstation. The isolated keepers’ houses have been converted to a B & B facility. Each room is named to honor notable river captains, and the complex is managed by descendants of several generations of lighthouse keepers.
It’s another great area for seabirds, with eider hens communally shepherding large numbers of young, constantly alert for depredations of the feared goelands (herring gulls).
This is not the only island lighthouse B & B. There’s adjacent Ilet Rouge, far out on the river, patronized by whale watchers, and the more famous, restored Phare du Pot a l’Eau-de-Vie, on its rocky island offshore from Riviére-du-Loup. This latter is a popular romantic island retreat for couples desiring to flee the mainland for a few days. And it’s in the center of a Wildlife Reserve, with nature paths leading to numerous birding sites. With luck, visitors can watch the training of young razorbill auks (“little penguins”) by older birds.
And it’s not uncommon to see whales - fin, minke and rarer belugas en route by boat to the island or from the ferries that cross to the north shore here.
There are many good stopping places on the south shore and almost all have views of the river. Sated with “fruits de mer,” what better way to end a summer day than by pondering the sunset behind the red-trimmed, white buildings and hexagonal tower of Metis-sur-Mer Lightstation from the flower filled grounds of picturesque Auberge Le Goeland? Or better still, enjoy the flow of traffic on the great St. Lawrence at Riviere-du-Loup as the sun sets over the north shore mountains. And one great place to do this is across broad lawns from little 1930’s vint-age chalets at, appropriately enough, Motel au Fleuve d’Argent, the “Silver River.”
This story appeared in the
August 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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