By Leah Rae
Imagine the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper: working alone in a remote location, throughout the night and during storms, always making sure that the light never goes out. Add to that being a grieving widow, or a person caring for an ailing spouse or young children. Such was the life for Canada’s women lightkeepers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Officially, lightkeepers were usually men but, in reality, the whole family helped to keep the lights going. As the position was awarded for life, when a lightkeeper passed away, someone had to immediately take over. That person was often the lightkeeper’s wife or child because they were already in place and had the knowledge and experience to operate the light. As such, there were several women lightkeepers across the country throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mary Croft—Discovery Island Lighthouse, Discovery Island, British Columbia
It is possible that Mary Croft was Canada’s first woman lightkeeper. Although she officially became the Discovery Island lightkeeper in 1902, she had already been caring for the lighthouse for five years while her father, the official lightkeeper, was suffering from a long illness. At the time she was appointed lightkeeper, Mary had two daughters and was supporting her own family while also caring for her ailing father. She kept the light on at Discovery Island for over thirty years before finally retiring to Victoria, British Columbia, at the age of 67. She received the Imperial Service Medal in 1934 for her work as a lightkeeper.
Denise Arsenault—Inch Arran Lighthouse, Dalhousie, New Brunswick
The Inch Arran lighthouse (sometimes referred to as the Bon Ami lighthouse) was built in 1870. A beautiful salt-shaker style lighthouse, it has a unique birdcage-shaped lantern gallery. It overlooks the Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick and is still in operation as a range light. In the late 1800s, this was a resort destination and home to the grand Inch Arran Hotel. The Arsenault family was responsible for the light for 65 years. In 1913, lightkeeper James Arsenault died, leaving his wife, Denise, in charge of the light. Denise cared for the lighthouse until 1927, when she fell down the slippery lighthouse stairs and broke her arm, leaving her unable to perform her duties.
Maisie Adams—New London Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island
Maisie Adams was Prince Edward Island’s only woman lightkeeper. She operated the New London Lighthouse from 1943 to 1959, having become the lightkeeper after her husband, Claude, died of cancer at age 40. At that point, Maisie Adams was 30 years old and caring for three children between the ages of 1 and 7. She had already been taking care of the lighthouse for the final year and half of her husband’s life, due to his illness. Mrs. Adams lived in a house near the lighthouse and every spring she opened the light for the season and every winter she closed it down after the fishermen had pulled their boats in for the winter.
The life of a lightkeeper was a challenging one. They dealt with isolation and challenging weather conditions, and needed to be constantly vigilant. Women lightkeepers worked tirelessly and often in solitude. They were not only responsible for the well-being of their own families, but also for the safety of mariners.
Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of documents related to lighthouses and lightkeepers. As part of International Women’s Day on March 8, we shine a light on Canada’s women lightkeepers and invite you to explore a sample of documents and images that illuminate their challenging lives and contributions to maritime life in Canada. We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe these digitized records from our collection.
Leah Rae is an archivist in the Halifax office of the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.