The 56-foot granite Fisgard Light, completed in 1860 to provide a guide to Esquimalt Harbour and to point the way to Victoria Harbour, was British Columbia’s first lighthouse. Before it was even constructed, a contract was signed thousands of miles away by a native of Wales who would become the Canadian west coast’s first full time lightkeeper. George Nicholas Davies’ career as a keeper, chronicled in Donald Graham’s excellent book Keepers of the Light, would be punctuated by extreme hardship and tragedy.
An English lighthouse engineer had recommended Davies for the position. The government paid his travel expense with the understanding it would be repaid through salary deductions, and soon the 28-year-old Davies, along his wife Rosina (Warner) and three small children, left England for British Columbia. The trip would take 196 long days, including a change to another vessel in Hawaii after the first ship was damaged in rough seas. The Davies found that they were not warmly welcomed by the local citizens in B.C., who thought that one of their own should have been selected as keeper of the new lighthouse.
It was an inauspicious start for Fisgard Lighthouse, too. Lighting apparatus that made the trip on the vessel along with Davies arrived damaged. A new shipment from England was the wrong size, and yet another arrived broken. Finally an intact shipment arrived, and Davies installed the equipment. The lens, floating on a bed of mercury, went into service.
Just a few months after they arrived in Canada, Davies was enlisted to help build the new lighthouse at Race Rocks off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. While he was gone his wife Rosina tended the light at Fisgard, making her B.C.’s first female keeper (she didn’t get the official title, but did receive wages for her work). On the tower’s completion, George Davies became keeper at Race Rocks. Because the lighthouse was not clearly visible from passing ships, Davies painted it with its now familiar black and white stripes.
The Davies family probably managed to settle into a kind of routine at Race Rocks. By Christmas of 1865 they had spent five years there, and they were preparing for a holiday visit from Rosina’s brother and his wife, along with three other friends. With a large meal prepared and presents ready, the Davies watched from the landing as the vessel carrying their guests approached.
Happy anticipation turned to horror as the boat was seized by the swirling tides and capsized just 20 feet from shore. Within minutes all aboard had disappeared, leaving a few Christmas gifts bobbing in the waves. The Davies could do nothing but watch powerlessly, as an official had recently taken their lifeboat away from the station. A descendant, Joy Davies, has researched the event and has found nothing to indicate that the government ever issued an apology for having taken the boat that might have saved five lives, despite complaints made by Rosina Davies.
Less than a year after this horrific episode, George Davies fell seriously ill. As the situation grew increasingly grave, Rosina lowered the flag to half-mast to attract passing vessels. Left without a boat, she had no other way of getting help. Nine days after he became ill, George Nicholas Davies died at the age of 34. No vessel ever stopped to help despite Rosina’s best efforts to get their attention. The light he kept so well had helped passing mariners, but in the end they didn’t help him.
After Davies’ short and tragic career, it’s somewhat surprising that one of his sons, James Davies, also went on to be a lighthouse keeper at British Columbia stations including Egg Island. He became keeper at Triangle Island at the north end of Vancouver Island in 1910 and moved there with his wife and three daughters. This light was originally established at the unusual height of 680 feet above sea level, which meant it was often invisible to mariners due to clouds and fog. It was a rugged and difficult station. It was so windy that, according to Donald Graham, Davies’ wife Violet could “sweep out” the house by simply opening windows.
Like his father, James Davies would have more than his share of hardship as a keeper. One winter his wife was near death with hemorrhaging, but a vessel managed to get her to a hospital just in time to save her life. James also narrowly escaped death but was permanently disfigured at his next light station, Carmanah. As he was lighting up, an explosion badly burned his face and body.
Joy Davies started genealogy research on her family three years ago. She says, “It has brought a sense of what lighthouse keepers endured, the romance and the heart-gripping tragedies. I now see lighthouses and their keepers in an enlightened view.” Anyone reading about the experiences of the Davies family at British Columbia’s lighthouses would undoubtedly feel the same way.
Fisgard Lighthouse, automated in 1929, is a National Historic Site and exhibits are open to the public year-round. For more information: Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites, 603 Fort Rodd Hill Road, Victoria, B.C., Canada V9C 2W8.
This story appeared in the
June 2002 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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