Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lighthouses were an integral part of life in Atlantic Canada, which was home to over 135 of them. It was the responsibility of the lightkeeper to keep the light burning no matter what, a commitment that often involved his entire family. Library and Archives Canada holds records of many lighthouses from Atlantic Canada at its Eastern Canada Regional Service Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
A lighthouse of particular interest is the Cape Bear lighthouse on Prince Edward Island. Next door to the lighthouse is the Marconi wireless station, which received one of the first distress signals sent from the Titanic.
But who were the lightkeepers who kept the lights burning?
The Cape Bear lighthouse had six lightkeepers during its working life time, and it seems that each of them had an interesting and unique story. Transport Canada’s records document parts of their careers and can help us discover a little bit about their lives.
There are only a few, sparse records for the early lightkeepers: We know that Thomas Hugh Munn, the first lightkeeper, began working on Boxing Day, 1881; however, we have no records about the second lightkeeper, William Harris.
Martin Luther Jordan was the lightkeeper from the dawn of the 20th century until July 15, 1912. The documents include a letter from Mr. Jordan to the Superintendent of Lights, explaining how he had let the light go out because he had fallen asleep after being awake throughout a storm. “The devil is got into the light,” he says in the letter, after waking to find the light out, which dashed his belief that it would run all night.
Hiram Hyde was the fifth lightkeeper. Growing restless, perhaps, towards the end of his career he decided to leave the lighthouse and go into the hotel business. But his plans never came to fruition and he died a month later, after a three day bout of “acute throat trouble.”
The next lightkeeper, First World War veteran Clarence White, met an even sadder fate. Described as “absolutely sober, hard-working and ambitious” he began work on Christmas Eve in 1925. He died of tuberculosis less than a year later, leaving behind a 23-year-old wife, a toddler and a baby.
The last lightkeeper was Ewart Keeping. Described as “one of our best lightkeepers, who has at all times given excellent service,” he was the lightkeeper for 33 years. Another veteran, he had served in France and Egypt. Besides being the lightkeeper, Mr. Keeping was a fisherman and a teacher.
Through hurricanes, fog banks, winter storms and nor’easters, the residents of the Atlantic Provinces have always been grateful for the hardworking lightkeepers and their families, who kept the lights burning, and ensured that sailors and fishermen would be guided safely to shore.
- Listen to the podcast: Underwater Canada: Investigating shipwrecks
- Learn more about Underwater Canada: A Researcher’s Brief Guide to Shipwrecks?
- Discover what has been written about lighthouses and lightkeepers