In December 1998, 240 years after construction first began on Nova Scotia's Sambro Island Lighthouse, major repair and renovation work was completed on the historic tower. Standing on a barren granite island at the entrance to Halifax Harbour, the striking red and white striped lighthouse still guides shipping traffic into the busy port. This is North America's oldest continuously operating lighthouse, and one of the most historically significant beacons on the continent.
Completed in 1760, the massive stone tower has seen many changes over the years. Not long after its construction the tower was sheathed with wood shingles to protect the stone and mortar from the effect of the marine environment. In 1906, a 22-foot concrete addition was made to the top of the tower and a first order Fresnel lens installed within an iron lantern. Sixty two years later the lens and lantern were replaced with an aluminum lantern and a DCB 36 rotating beacon. This apparatus continues in use today.
The first keeper of Sambro Light was appointed in 1759, and for the next 229 years lightkeepers and their families maintained the lightstation. In March 1988, the last keepers were withdrawn and their houses boarded up. Over the years, vandals ransacked the abandoned dwellings, as nature took its toll on the tower. With reduced operating budgets, the Canadian Coast Guard was unable to properly maintain the structure and by the mid 1990s, serious cracks in the lantern balcony led to large chucks of concrete falling to the ground.
Although the Sambro Island Lighthouse had been designated a national historic site in 1937, the tower was not protected by a heritage act. Thanks to lobbying by Ernest (Rip) Irwin, who travelled to Ottawa to meet with the Federal Heritage Building Review Office (FHBRO), and the efforts of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, FHBRO evaluated the lighthouse in August 1996. The lighthouse was awarded 99 points out of 100 for its historical, architectural and environmental significance. One point was lost because the designer of the lighthouse is not known. Only one other Nova Scotia lighthouse, at Cape Sable, has full federal heritage protection.
Plans were then drawn up for repairs to the tower, although funds were not made available until 1998. Work, which was contracted out to local construction companies by the Canadian Coast Guard, began at the end of August 1998 with the erection of scaffolding around the entire tower. Over the next few months, the old shingles and wooden strapping were removed (providing a rare opportunity to view the original stonework) and replaced with new strapping and shingles. The flare of the concrete lantern deck was removed and the lantern was lifted so that a new slab could be poured. Detailed forms were constructed to re-create the attractive flare of the deck. The 1906 iron railings surrounding the lantern were cut apart, lowered to the ground, refinished, and reinstalled.
Other work performed included the rebuilding of the tower's entry way, new wooden steps in the top section of the tower, and the injection of epoxy to strengthen the 1906 concrete addition, which had developed cracks over the years. The new shingles were given a coat of primer, and the tower once again has its striking red and white bands. On December 21, the last of the scaffolding was removed and the tower was ready for a final Coast Guard inspection.
Shortly before work was completed on the lighthouse, six volunteers and members of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society traveled to the island to install plywood (purchased by the NSLPS) on the windows and doors of the two abandoned keepers' houses. Though they are still structurally sound, a decade of neglect and vandalism has reduced the two story buildings to little more than wooden shells. It is hoped that the plywood will protect the buildings from severe winter weather and deter vandals from entering during the summer. The houses are no longer required by the Canadian Coast Guard, but under existing federal regulations they cannot be leased or taken over by a group or community interested in restoring and maintaining them.
The exterior restoration of the Sambro Island Lighthouse highlights the need for federal lighthouse protection in Canada. As government budgets shrink and more emphasis is placed on electronic aids to navigation, lighthouses are falling victim to lack of care. Very few lighthouses in Canada have adequate heritage protection - only 3% of Canada's lights have been given the highest level of federal protection by FHBRO. Existing property and disposal regulations mean that the federal Treasury Board has the final say in the fate of surplus lightstation properties. Interested groups and communities are forced to compete in the open real estate market to acquire surplus lighthouses and lightstation buildings which Canadian taxpayers have paid for since Confederation. Lighthouses are icons of Canadian maritime heritage, and they must remain in the public domain. The beautifully restored tower on Sambro Island, with derelict keepers' houses lying at its base, is a poignant reminder of this.
Author's Note: Thanks to Rip and David Irwin, Tom Taylor, Fotis Lambros and Alan Marriott for their efforts in boarding up the Sambro Island houses on December 14, 1998. Thanks also to skipper Andre Jezequel for bringing the work party to the island.
Learn More: To read why Canada needs a lighthouse protection act, see http://www.ednet.ns.ca/educ/heritage/nslps/protectact.htm on the internet. For more information, contact Chris Mills, 1121 Ketch Harbour Road, Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia, B3V 1K7 Canada.
This story appeared in the
April 1999 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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