Part of Atlantic Canada’s richest marine heritage lies right here along the banks of the St. John River where there still exists the region’s only inland system of lighthouses. Once there were 21 lighthouses operating between Saint John and Fredericton on the river and its tributaries. All but two were built as “leading lights” to guide the riverboats, which plied the lower river valley providing a means of transport and commerce for the farmers and business along the way.
Often described as the “Rhine of North America”, the St. John River forms in the state of Maine then winds its way thru Quebec and Northern New Brunswick before it reaches Fredericton and its final 85-mile journey to the Bay of Fundy.
Construction of the lighthouses began in 1869 and continued until 1914. Of the original six built that first year, (Swift Point, Sand Point, Oak Point, Cox Point, Oromocto and Wilmot Bluff) four remain standing and three are still active lights. The fourth, Wilmot Bluff, was privatized in 1969 after 100 years of service and is still owned and maintained by the son of its last keeper. In the years that followed 15 more lighthouses were built. Sadly, most of these are gone and several still standing are decommissioned, their lanterns dark and boarded up. Gagetown remains the only active light upriver from Oak Point at the top of the Long Reach. Below Oak Point, the Cedars is the only lighthouse not still functioning as a navigational aid.
The architectural styles varied somewhat but most of the structures were of the four-sided tapered design known as a “saltshaker” style which is itself a unique part of our Canadian lighthouse identity. Within this style each tower had its own individual characteristics, a criteria for any lighthouse. Probably the most unique was the light at the entrance to the Jemseg River built in 1884. Instead of being completely enclosed, this 21 ft tower was of open latticework, a very unusual design. It is unknown exactly when this lighthouse was lost but the spot is now marked by triangular daymarks with an attached light.
Sand Point on the end of the Kingston Peninsula is another unique design. Technically the tallest light on the river at 58 ft, the enclosed portion is a short saltshaker on a high skeleton tower. The reason for this unusual design is that Sand Point functions as a point-to-point navigational aid with another lighthouse, Swift Point. Both lighthouses are among the original six 1869 lighthouses. Sand Point is located on a steep hillside at the entrance to a narrow gorge and channel that leads to Saint John, the famous Reversing Falls, and finally the Bay of Fundy and the end of the St. John River. Between these two lights lies approx. 6 miles of water consisting of two bays, South Bay and Grand Bay as well as the terminus of one of the St John’s largest tributaries, the Kennebacasis River. A mariner unfamiliar with the area would have a difficult time with out the aid of these two lighthouses.
Several short square box-like lighthouses have and still do exist along the river. The only one still active, Gagetown, replaced an earlier 47 ft saltshaker that was destroyed by the spring ice on April 14, 1934. The current tower is of a far less gracious design but is still equipped with a 7th order Chance Bros. lens with matching green liner. The only other square box-like light still in existence is at the Hampstead Wharf. Decommissioned in 1996, this light used to sit on a cribwork pier that was deemed unsafe by the Coast Guard in the fall of 1999. At that time the tower was removed from its cribwork and placed temporarily on the adjacent high water wharf where it remained until late 2001 when it was moved to higher ground by the St. John River Society, under whose stewardship many of the river’s wharves have been placed. The only other lighthouses of this design were on Grand Lake, another tributary of the St. John. Robertson Point and Fanjoy Point were both built in 1873 and have long since been replaced by fiberglass poles. The third lighthouse on Grand Lake, Cox Point, was one of the 1869 lights but unlike the others was unique in being of square, untapered concrete construction. Replaced now by a skeleton tower, there are no lighthouses left on Grand Lake.
The only lighthouse built in 1869 not mentioned so far is the one at Oromocto. This 47 ft saltshaker tower was located approx. 12 miles down river from Fredericton making it one of the last lights in the system. Plagued by vandalism for years, it was burned to the ground on May 11, 1962 and was not replaced.
The last two lighthouses built in 1914 are still active and are located at the lower end of the Kingston peninsula. McColgin Point and Bayswater both guide mariners thru a narrow inner channel around Kennebacasis Island. At the time of its construction, Bayswater was the site of a ferry landing, now long gone. Today McColgin Point sits beside the cable ferry to the island, the best vantage point for viewing this lighthouse.
The wide, straight stretch of water along the west side of the Kingston Peninsula is known as the Long Reach. At either end are the only two hazard lights on the river, Belyeas Point built in 1882 and Oak Point built in 1869. Both are still operational. On the peninsula side of The Reach is the only other lighthouse left on this stretch of water. The Cedars was built in 1904 and decommissioned in 1996.
A fifth lighthouse was built on the Kingston Peninsula in 1913. The Shampers Wharf light only operated for 40 years when the creek on which it was located became too shallow for navigation. The lighthouse was sold into private hands in 1953 and unlike Wilmot Bluff was left to deteriorate. After 47 years of neglect and exposure, the owners had the lighthouse burned in Sept. 2000. Photos taken in its last years will serve as a reminder to everyone that our lighthouses, our heritage, should not be allowed to fall into private hands.
Two lighthouses were located on wharves. Glenwood on The Reach was built in 1936 and replaced an earlier mast and shed type light that was taken out by ice in the spring of that same year. Further up river the Palmer Landing light was built in 1884 on the high water wharf of the same name. An interesting note here is that in October of 1895 the wharf and lighthouse caught fire as a result of a spark from the steamship “Hampstead” during heavy winds. The lighthouse was destroyed. The Dept. of Marine and Fisheries attempted to sue the steamship company but without negligence were unsuccessful. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1896.
Arguably the most picturesque lighthouse on the river is the Lower Musquash Island light built in 1875. It marks the entrance to the Washademoak Lake and is the only light not visible from anywhere on land. Decommissioned in 1996 its pastoral setting is visited now only by cattle set on the island to graze during the summer months. Just inside of the Washademoak is the Hendry Farm light also built in 1875 and decommissioned in 1996.
No discussion of lighthouses would be complete without mentioning the men, and women, who kept them. For the river lights, the keepers were members of the local communities, farmers for the most part. Their duties consisted of twice daily attending to the lamp, lighting it at dusk and extinguishing it in the morning. All maintenance and care for the building and equipment was the responsibility of the keeper. Supplies and replacement parts were sent up river by steamboat from Saint John but deliveries were infrequent and communications often outdated. The position was generally sought after by the locals as the annual pay, although small by today’s standards, was a nice supplement to a family living primarily off the land. As a rule the keepers changed as the government changed. A keeper having known to be supportive of the outgoing government was accused of “active political partisanship” and was replaced by a supporter of the new government. Sometimes this could be a sibling, a way of keeping it in the family so to speak. As the men of these families usually had their hands full earning a living, it was often the women who performed the duties of the lamp. In several instances when the keeper passed away his wife became the keeper of record. One such case was that of Mrs. Clotillie May Bissett. When her husband Thomas passed away in June of 1932 she became the first female keeper of record at the Cedars Lighthouse in Long Reach. At a starting salary of $150 per year she served as keeper for at least 4 years.
In the late 1950’s the lighthouses were electrified and the need to man the lamp twice a day was finished. The keepers remained for another decade caring for the lighthouses until the late 60’s when lightkeeping on the St. John River came to an end.
Current status of existing lighthouses:
Are all active lighthouses maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard for the time being. As navigational aids are being privatized on the river in 2002, it is only a matter of time before some or all of these lighthouses are decommissioned.
Since its decommissioning in 1996, a local group, Peninsula Heritage Inc. has been trying to acquire this lighthouse in order to preserve it and make it accessible to the public.
Soon to be under the stewardship of the St. John River Society, this lighthouse will hopefully have its 6th order lens restored to the lantern and relit later this year.
Recently a group of local residents has come forward expressing a desire to preserve their light and if necessary move it to a safe location and have it accessible to the public.
Lower Musquash Island:
Sadly this beautiful “orphan” light has only a private individual who has expressed an interest. He wishes to move it to his own personal island.
Continues to be privately owned and is maintained to the best of its owners abilities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A native Californian, I moved to my family homestead in New Brunswick, in 1994. I became interested in lighthouse preservation in 1996 when “my light”, the Cedars, was decommissioned. I have been working with Peninsula Heritage since that time to acquire this light in the hopes that it will be preserved for generations to come. In that same year I began attending regional lighthouse conferences where I noted that New Brunswick was the only Atlantic province without a lighthouse society. In the spring of 2000 I formed what would become the New Brunswick Lighthouse Society (NBLHS). I will be starting my third year as President of that organization in April. I have also served for two years on the board of the Atlantic Lighthouse Council as Vice President.
While preservation of all of the world’s historic lighthouses is important to me, it is the lighthouses of the St. John River that are closest to my heart as well to my home on the Kingston Peninsula. Clotillie May Bissett was my Great Aunt.
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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