Digest>Archives> October 2004

Fire Destroys Pictou Bar Lighthouse

Tragedy Ends 170 Years of Aid to Navigation

By E. H. Rip Irwin


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In the early evening of July 5, 2004, a one-hour fire tore down Nova Scotia's Pictou Bar Lighthouse, ending 170 years of aid to navigation for large and small vessels entering the outbound from Pictou Harbour.

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Because of its location, the importance of this lighthouse cannot be overstated. Pictou Bar Lighthouse is situated at the end of a narrow, low-lying sand bar that juts out almost one mile into the harbor entrance. Imagine the hazard this unmarked bar caused when the first wave of Scottish Highlanders arrived on September 15, 1773, aboard the barque Hector, with 180 colonists that included 33 families and 25 single men.

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Pictou town, now known as the birthplace of New Scotland, was then well established by 1834 when the Canadian Board of Works recognized the importance of building a lighthouse in the town. Only ten other lighthouses existed around Nova Scotia's 4,625-mile coastline at that time.

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Early Years of Pictou Bar's Lighthouses

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The first lighthouse built in 1834 was a wooden octagonal tower 55 feet high from the base to the weathervane. Seven oil lamps with reflectors showed a fixed white light from the lantern 65 feet above high water, and 25 feet below it, as a distinguishing mark to seaward, one flat wick oil lamp with reflector showed a fixed red light from a small window. The tower was painted all white at that time with the red vertical stripes being added in 1841. A dwelling house was built close alongside the lighthouse for the keeper.

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Because of the low elevation of the sand bar, less than ten feet above high water, the building of an extensive breakwater was undertaken for the protection of the lightstation against the inroads of the sea from gales, which caused severe erosion of the sand. There were times, in fact, when the sea washed completely through the bar, leaving the lightstation on an island. Maintenance and repair of the breakwater was an ongoing and expensive business and even at that, there were times when it was unable to provide the protection expected of it. On August 24, 1873, a gale blew with terrible violence for over 24 hours, carrying away the breakwater on the east side, moving the dwelling house from its foundations, and totally destroying the kitchen part of the building. All of the other outbuildings were swept away and the lighthouse itself was breached, upsetting the oil tanks and destroying the oil in them.

Another constant danger was in the light produced by oil-fired lamps that sometimes burn out of control, particularly in wooden lighthouses. Because of this, many lighthouses were lost in the early years. An incident happened on May 26, 1903, where the lighthouse was totally destroyed by fire. A temporary 48-foot high mast was erected, two anchor lights showing white lights were attached to the top; one shone up the harbor and the other to seaward. A lantern showing a fixed red light was attached to the mast on the seaward side 19 feet below the white lights giving a characteristic similar to the lost lighthouse. A spherical wooden cage, painted white to serve as day mark, was also attached to the top of the mast.

Because of the importance of this light, construction of a new lighthouse was begun immediately on the same site and put into service by the end of the year 1903. This was the lighthouse that burned down on July 5, 2004. It was also an octagonal wooden tower, six feet shorter but otherwise quite similar to the previous lighthouse and with the same light characteristic. It was painted in alternate red and white vertical stripes and surmounted by an octagonal red iron lantern. This lighthouse was erected in days, and labor was under foreman E. F. Munro at a cost of $3,471.99.

Fire was not unknown at this lightstation. Lightkeeper William H. MacFarlane had a minor fire on January 24, 1929, which was quickly extinguished; but he wasn't so lucky on July 16, 1931, when another fire occurred causing considerable damage to the top section of the tower. Had it not been for Mr. MacFarlane's quick action, the lighthouse would have been completely destroyed. He received extensive burns and was in the hospital for quite a long time, during which time Mrs. MacFarlane kept the light. She was commended by the Coast Guard for a job well done.

The dwelling on the lightstation, familiar to older residents of the community, was built in 1919. A two-story house with a woodshed and attached veranda consisted of a kitchen, living room and four bedrooms upstairs. Lightkeeper William Edward Watts described this as commodious compared to the old dwelling. There was also a small barn and a shed on the station. This lightstation was automated on May 5, 1960 and Gordon Chisholm was appointed caretaker. All buildings other than the lighthouse were then disposed of between 1960 and 1961. The lighthouse continued to be watched by caretakers until July 2, 1973 when its care came under the departmental forces of the Coast Guard in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Subsequently, the breakwater was allowed to deteriorate, and erosion became a serious concern with the sea coming closer and closer to the lighthouse with every storm. Fire was probably the furthest thought on anyone's mind when it occurred.

Disaster Strikes Pictou Icon

Last July 5, 2004, Janet Francis, who lived near the mainland end of the bar, became aware of the fire in the lighthouse and the great commotion in the Pictou community that Monday, shortly before 6 p.m.

Firefighters prepared to trek one mile out the sand bar to the lighthouse. Ms. Francis grabbed her camera and joined the group, intent on doing all she could to help and take pictures as a record of this disastrous event. There wasn't much she or anyone else could do, as the lighthouse was an inferno by the time they got there. Adding to their troubles was the fact the sand bar had been breached about one quarter of the way out, making a gap of 100 hundred feet or so of water to be crossed. Fortunately, the tide was low and could be waded.

Incredibly, some vehicles were actually able to drive across the gap but it was to no avail. In less than one hour, the lantern floor had burned through and the beautiful lead crystal glass lens had come crashing down inside the tower. The lighthouse then started to lean and shortly afterward toppled over. Not crashing to the ground as one might expect, but as described by Janet Francis, “There was an unmistakable audible moaning sound, almost like a last breath of a living being, accompanied by a great shower of sparks and flying debris followed by a loud gasp from those folks assembled, adding to the solemnity of this disaster,” she said. Within an hour the 101-year-old lighthouse was totally consumed by the flames with Janet pictorially recording the entire historic moment.

After 170 years, the Pictou Bar Lighthouse is no longer lit and gone, except for the concrete and steel foundation. How did this happen? Provincial fire investigators and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have said that there isn't enough evidence to determine the cause of the fire and that it is not suspicious. Vandalism has been a huge problem ever since lighthouses were de-staffed and I am personally suspicious of this fire and mad as hell about it, but must respect the conclusion of the experts.

Community Mourns Loss of Historic Icon

Residents in the area are shocked and mourn the loss of this historic icon. Lighthouses are very often referred to as symbols of hope, strength and endurance but nothing lasts forever. However, in the minds and hearts of folks who were accustomed to seeing this lighthouse regularly over their lifetime and knowing it was there throughout the lifetime of generations before them, it had to be considered as permanent as anything could be.

Another lighthouse can be built at this site but the old tower is gone forever, as is the one before. With the Canadian Coast Guard making every effort to divest themselves of lighthouses the responsibility of maintaining them, it is highly unlikely that they will ever build another lighthouse on Pictou Bar. The Coast Guard is however committed to doing consultations with the community and mariners in the area to determine if there is now even a need for a navigational light in that area. Already there is talk among folks in the community of rebuilding this lighthouse. Although the cost would be great, it is not beyond possibility. Other community groups have accomplished similar goals and experience shows that if lighthouses are to be saved; community groups must take on restoration, preservation and ongoing care.

Some of the objectives of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society are to promote and support preservation and awareness of Nova Scotia lighthouses and to assist community groups in taking ownership of lighthouse sites. Perhaps they could be of assistance in this case.

This story appeared in the October 2004 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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