Nova Scotia’s Isle Haute is drenched in history and legend that easily rivals any small island in North America. The island’s lighthouse is gone now, but mysteries remains along with important archaeological sites and a notable assortment of wildlife.
Isle Haute (sometimes spelled “Ile” Haute) is located about ten miles offshore from the small community of Advocate in the Bay of Fundy, about five miles south-southwest of Cape Chignecto. The island is only about 1.5 miles long and a half-mile wide, but its cliffs loom upwards of 300 feet above the highest tides in the world. Isle Haute is French for “High Island.” In a report for the Nova Scotia Museum, historian Dan Conlin has written that the island “lies on the Bay of Fundy horizon like an overturned canoe or the capsized hull of a sailing ship.” Concerning the pronunciation of the island’s name, Conlin says it depends on what part of the Bay of Fundy you come from and is either “Eye-la Haut” or “Eye-la Hot.”
Explorer Samuel de Champlain recorded his observations made in 1604: “We crossed part of the Bay... and we passed by an island... It is entirely surrounded by great rocks excepting in one place, where there is a slope at the foot of which is a pond of salt water, which lies at the base of a gravel point having the form of a spur. The top of the island is flat, covered with trees, and it has a very good spring...”
A flat open area of the island is called “Indian Flat,” and is said to be named for a Mi’kmaq woman who died there of starvation in 1755. Isle Haute was a Mi’kmaq camping area for centuries. The island now boasts abundant berry bushes, nesting peregrine falcons and seagulls, overgrown deer mice, lush plant life and about 30 species of densely populated spiders. There’s even a rare primitive insect called a bristletail, and it’s said that the warblers sing “in a different language” here. With its many natural attractions, Isle Haute is a favorite destination for backpackers and picnickers.
A lighthouse was first proposed for Isle Haute in the 1840s largely because of dangerous Quaco Ledge to the west. Two decades later another proposal was put forth, and the Isle Haute Lighthouse was finally erected in 1878. During the building of the lighthouse a road was constructed from the beach so that supplies could be hauled to the station. The 53-foot wooden tower with an attached dwelling looked much like the still-standing Wood Island Lighthouse on Prince Edward Island. With its light 365 feet above the water, the lighthouse exhibited a white flash every 40 seconds. A hand-operated foghorn was added in 1914.
The keepers cleared and cultivated the land around the lighthouse, and for many years sheep and cattle were kept on the island. Only five men served as keepers of the lighthouse during its 78-year history. Nelson Card was the first, and during his time on the island he built a wharf and a 33-foot schooner. His daughter Ida was married on Isle Haute in 1881. Percy Everett Morris was keeper for the longest period, 37 years beginning in 1904.
The island was often buzzing with activity in summer, but the winters could be brutal and the families at the lighthouse were frequently isolated for long periods. Until the early 20th century, the only way the families communicated with the mainland was by lighting bonfires on the shore. A single fire sent word to the mainland that all was well, two signified illness, three meant a doctor was needed, and four meant there had been a death at the station. According to Dan Conlin, during World War II friendly RCAF pilots would drop newspapers and other items at the lighthouse.
The end for Isle Haute’s staffed light station came when the lighthouse and dwelling were destroyed by fire in 1956. An automated solar-powered light on an aluminum tower now serves in place of the old pyramidal wooden lighthouse.
The legends of Isle Haute reach back for centuries and have attracted many people to its shores. The island, like countless others, has been linked to treasure buried by Captain Kidd. One of the island’s most exciting episodes concerns a possible pirate treasure found by a popular historian and treasure hunter from down the coast in New England, Edward Rowe Snow.
In one of his many books Snow wrote that pirate Edward (Ned) Low “eventually became more fiendish in his captures at sea than any other pirate.” Snow wrote that Low’s travels eventually took him into the Bay of Fundy, and legend has it that while ashore on Isle Haute he beheaded an unruly crewmember. A handyman named Dave Spicer, who helped out at the lighthouse, claimed to have seen a headless ghost on multiple occasions. Another version of the headless ghost story claims that the island moves once every seven years. If you’re on the island at midnight when it moves, a “flaming headless ghost” can be seen, the story goes.
In 1947 Edward Rowe Snow purchased a mysterious map, but it wasn’t until five years later that he put the pieces together and came to believe that he possessed a treasure map of Isle Haute drawn by pirate Ned Low himself, or possibly one of his subordinates. The map was examined by experts, said Snow, and was found to be drawn on 17th century paper.
In June 1952, armed with his map and metal detector, Snow set out for Isle Haute and made arrangements to stay at the lighthouse with Keeper John Melvin Fullerton, his wife Margaret and their teenage son Donald. Snow wrote of his approach to Isle Haute in his book True Tales of Pirates and Their Gold. “Almost nothing can equal the thrill of sailing out to sea on the way to a romantic island which one has never visited. When this thrill was combined with the knowledge that pirates had buried treasure on the island to which we were sailing, my excitement knew no bounds.”
Keeper Fullerton told Snow that many others had also looked for treasure on the island. Soon after he arrived, Snow’s metal detector picked up a strong reading at the edge of a previously dug pit. By himself as the sun was setting, Snow dug with a pick for 20 minutes when he suddenly uncovered the ribs of a human skeleton.
“On my next swing with the pick,” he wrote, “the sharp point caught on something in the ground. The earth tore away and I saw it was a human skull which rolled across my feet! Completely losing my nerve, I scrambled out of the pit, grabbed the lantern and started walking rapidly toward the lighthouse far away on the top of the island cliff.”
The next morning, in daylight with Keeper Fullerton and his son close by, Snow returned to finish his digging. He found several coins in the area around the skeleton. The Spanish and Portuguese coins were well over 200 years old.
Before returning to Massachusetts, Snow was interviewed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When it was determined that part of his modest treasure find was gold, the coins had to be left “in the efficient care of the Bank of Nova Scotia.” A short time later Snow was able to obtain a license to export the coins. Life Magazine ran a feature on the Isle Haute “Red Taped Pirate Gold” on July 21, 1952, bringing national attention to the fascinating island.
Snow believed that the bulk of Low’s treasure might have been found long before he reached Isle Haute’s shores. The days of unauthorized visitors digging holes on the island are over, with good reason. Searching for treasure anywhere in Nova Scotia now requires a license under the Treasure Trove Act, and violators can face heavy fines. And visiting Isle Haute at all requires the permission of the Canadian Coast Guard. According to Dan Conlin, “The spot most favored by Snow and other treasure hunters... also happens to be one of the more important archeological sites on the island of very old habitation by native peoples... Isle Haute is a very special island both for ecological and archaeological reasons.” This is obviously an island blessed with treasures worth much more than mere coins.
This story appeared in the
February 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2023 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.