In the late 1990s, the future of the Port Medway lighthouse looked pretty grim. The little wooden tower guarding the entrance to this Nova Scotia fishing port of 250 people had been abandoned for almost a decade. Siding ripped off and lantern paint peeling, it sat lightless, next to a disused fish plant.
The 32-foot high tower had definitely seen better days.
Built by Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1899, the Port Medway lighthouse was once an important beacon, guiding fishing schooners into this protected south shore harbour.
Samuel Thomas Foster was the first keeper, beginning his duties on February the 17th, 1899. Foster walked to the tower each evening, climbing two sets of wooden ladders to light the fixed seventh order Fresnel lens*. For his efforts, Foster received the princely sum of $100 each year.
At least another four keepers tended the light until the Department of Transport electrified and automated the tower in 1961. George Edward McConnell had the honour of being the last keeper. When McConnell assumed his duties in 1942, his annual salary was set at $150. 19 years later, his salary had risen to $345!
By the late 1980s, decreased marine traffic into Port Medway, along with increased use of electronic navigation equipment, spelled the end of the light’s active role as an aid to navigation. The Canadian Coast Guard switched the light off on January 4th, 1989.
For the next decade, the tower sat dark, neglected and wind-battered, next to the village fish plant. The plant itself closed in 1993, joining the lighthouse as a weathered symbol of the port’s former glory as a thriving fishing community.
In 1998 the Medway Area Community Association decided the light should be saved as part of the area’s marine heritage. In July 2001, work began on a project to restore the lighthouse and establish a park around the tower.
Workers demolished the vacant fish plant. In the spirit of Maritime thrift, the project was funded in part by the sale of equipment from the old fish plant! The Region of Queens Municipality, and various provincial government agencies also provided funds to help restore the lighthouse, construct a new sea wall, and establish walkways, gardens and a bandstand/picnic pavilion near the lighthouse. The total cost of the project was just under $602,000.
The park’s official opening ceremony got underway on a crisp and cloudless Saturday, on the 19th of October. About 100 people gathered to celebrate Port Medway’s accomplishment, including 92-year-old Kate Armstrong, niece of longtime keeper George McConnell.
After unveiling the new park’s sign, Armstrong told a reporter from the Halifax Sunday Herald “I always spent my summers down here, climbing and jumping in the water.”
“It was a lovely place to play,” she said. “My two girls used to go up to the light with [my uncle]. I never went up to the top though. I was too afraid!”
Today, the Port Medway lighthouse stands proudly with new purpose. “The park will provide benefits for both the community and the visitor,” says Jill Cruikshank, special projects coordinator for the Region of Queens Municipality.
“Community groups will be using the park for fundraising events and general recreation,” she says, “whilst the tourist can enjoy a scenic spot with a preserved lighthouse in its original location.”
Congratulations to all the people of Port Medway, who worked so hard to save an important piece of their maritime past!
*Seventh order lenses were manufactured by Chance Brothers in Birmingham, England. During the early years of the twentieth century, these small Fresnel drum lenses were used in many harbour lights on the east coast of Canada. Very few remain in use.
This story appeared in the
January 2003 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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