Women lightkeepers, heroes by the sea: A Co-lab challenge

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.

Blue typewriting on off-white letter paper.

A letter of recommendation for Mrs. Mary Croft (The lightkeeper’s name was Brinn, not Dunn.) (e011435495)

A colour postcard depicting a large yellow and brown building and a lighthouse.

Inch Arran Hotel and Lighthouse (e011435492)

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.

Handwritten text in blue ink on three pages of off-white writing paper. There are official stamps in the upper right corner of the first page.

A letter of recommendation for Masie Adams (e044435793-058)

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.

Images of Prince Edward Island now on Flickr

Images of Prince Edward Island now on Flickr

Prince Edward Island is the smallest of three Maritime Provinces in Canada, separated from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by the Northumberland Strait. Mi’kmaq peoples and their ancestors inhabited the Island until 1534, when Jacques Cartier arrived and claimed it as part of Acadia in the French North-American colonies. Throughout the 18th century, its inhabitants were directly affected by the war between Britain and France; they were constantly under threat, and many were deported.

A colour map of roads and recreational sites of Prince Edward Island

Map of Prince Edward Island indicating motor roads and recreational resources (MIKAN 4125513)

Britain officially took it over by treaty in 1763, naming it St. John’s Island, and there was a large influx of Scottish immigrants. In 1798, its name was changed to Prince Edward Island to honour Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent. Prince Edward Island hesitated to join Confederation in 1867 because of the unfavourable terms presented and, instead, courted options for its future. In an effort to stop American colonial expansion, Canada agreed to better terms, and Prince Edward Island became the country’s seventh province in 1873.

Did you know?

  • Prince Edward Island is home to Anne of Green Gables, a famous red-haired Canadian literary character created by Prince Edward Islander and author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
  • Agriculture has been the backbone of Prince Edward Island’s economy since colonial times and the province is known for its successful potato crop, producing a third of Canada’s supply.
  • Prince Edward Island is seen as the “Birthplace of Confederation,” as it hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, the first in the journey to Canadian Confederation.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Lightkeepers Wanted!

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?

Continue reading

Census of 1861 now available online

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce that the Census of 1861 is now available online. Information was collected for people living in Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Canadians can search this new database by nominal information, such as the surname, given name(s) and age of an individual, as well as by geographical information such as district and sub-district names.