Digest>Archives> April 2004

Kathleen Ingersoll: At Home On Gannet Rock

By Chris Mills

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Gannet Rock in 1934. Notice the portholes ...

Gannet Rock.

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Gannet Rock
Photo by: Chris Mills

The name doesn’t exactly radiate a feeling of comfort and home.

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Kay (Wilson) Ingersoll in her early childhood ...

Thrust out of the Bay of Fundy’s turbulent waters, Gannet Rock sits at the bay’s north west approaches, about eight miles south of Grand Manan, New Brunswick. A series of devastating wrecks led to the establishment in 1831 of a guiding light for ships bound to and from the port city of Saint John.

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Kay and her grandfather, former lightkeeper Allan ...

For more than 160 years, lightkeepers braved tempest, tedium and solitude to keep the rock lit. It wasn’t an easy life — massive seas inundated the house, sea-smoke hid the tantalizing sight of Grand Manan in the winter, and in the summer, the mind-numbing blasts of the foghorn filled days and weeks on end.

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Vi Wilson, wife of lightkeeper Arthur Wilson with ...

For one child, Gannet Rock was much more than a hunk of conglomerate and a life to be endured. Kathleen (Wilson) Ingersoll was just two months old in November 1928, when her parents Donald and Leola Wilson bundled her up for a brisk boat ride to her new home. Little Kay thrived on Gannet Rock, where the deck surrounding the lighthouse was her playground and home for 16 years (she even learned to ride a bicycle there!).

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Gannet Rock’s imposing lighthouse and singular ...

In fact, Kay was one of only two children to live on Gannet Rock during the entire twentieth century.

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A galvanized washtub puts Kay a foot or two ...

More than 50 years later, Kay lives near Saint John, next to a highway travelled by a flowing tide of cars and trucks. Her mind often travels back to Bay of Fundy currents and to the rock she still calls home.

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Gannet Rock’s powerful second order lens, in use ...


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A dory approaches on a rare calm day, circa ...

GANNET AS A HOME

I lived in the same house that’s there today. It was a two-story home, but we always used it as one family.

It was very comfortable. I had a room by myself and life, as far as life within the home went, was carried on almost like it would have been had we lived other places.

The whistle (foghorn) house was near, and right across from the house was the gun house (for the old explosive fog signal system) from yesteryear.

Then, on the other end, there was quite a large building where they stored the kerosene for the light. That’s why fire was always a fear for us.

There was a small building there where they kept stores of food, and a cookhouse. It was actually built for my mother to prepare meals for workmen when they were there. Then there was the wharf and the trolley for hauling supplies. That was Gannet Rock!

It was very beautiful up in the lighthouse. ‘Course, you could see for miles and miles, and at certain times of the tide, you could see right to the bottom of the ocean!

At nighttime, I was never up there. I always thought it was kind of a spooky place to walk up through, especially if the wind were blowing. And cold in the winter. Very cold!

I remember the storms, and being in the house at night with the wind howling around and the shutters all shut, and the lamps lit. I wasn’t afraid, but when I think of it now, it was sort of an eerie thing to be in that house when you realized where you were and looked out on those waves piling in there at night. You could see them as the light rotated.

My mother always had wonderful meals, and I had everything I needed. I had lots of books and it was very comfortable.

I remember all the toys I had when I was very young. I loved to read and I liked to draw. I helped my mother a little bit, although I don’t imagine that was a great deal by times! I listened to the radio - I always loved the music, all the big bands. I knew them all!

In the summer I’d lie in the sun, go down on the wharf and read. My favorite spot was the pond down by the trolley track where I spent summer days. At Christmas time, two men from Bowdoin College sent me a great big huge box of little boats, a wharf and a lighthouse that I set up around the pond. I have very good memories of all that.

MUM AND DAD

Dad was a fisherman before he went down to Gannet Rock, but he’d been there a lot. His father was there for eight years before, and then he was second assistant keeper for the man who was there before him, so he felt at home there.

I think he liked that kind of work. He perhaps could have chosen to stay fishing, but it was in the Depression, and times were very difficult. When you think there were 13 other people that wanted to go to Gannet Rock that tells you something.

My dad was quite clever with engines and could fix most anything of a mechanical nature. He was a man who made a lot of gadgets and always was building something to make life a little easier. He kept the huge engines going and the buildings in repair.

He loved the natural surroundings. The migrating birds were of much interest to him. He identified them all.

He loved animals — there was always a hunting dog on Gannet.

He was very friendly. I don’t think my father had an enemy, and I never ever remember him being angry. He loved music, so my family inherited that from him. I loved my father very much. And I guess I look like him. One of my sons looks exactly like him too!

My mother was quite a wonderful person. I often think of her living on that light back in those days. I think of her almost more than I do my father because of the way she adapted to that life and was able to provide a home there.

I think there were times when it was stressful for her. Just running a home under those conditions - which every woman wants to do - I’m sure its not without its stresses, especially when she had a two month-old baby down there! I don’t know how she did that. She had to plan ahead, always plan ahead.

In August of 1930 or 1931, the building of the new house began. They received word on a Friday to move out of the house and have meals ready for the men by Monday morning! On Monday, they began to flatten the old house with pickaxes and mauls. Can you imagine?!

My family and the assistant keeper moved into rooms in the lighthouse. A cookhouse was built consisting of a small kitchen in one end and tables in the other. Twelve work crewmembers slept in the lighthouse rooms. Mr. Breen, who was the boss, had one room. This situation was the living quarters until November.

Both the old and the new houses were heated with coal and driftwood. There was a cook stove in the kitchen and a large heater in the living room. These stoves required five elbows and 16 joints of pipe!

The pipe would fill with soot from the soft coal and sometimes would catch fire, and this was a great cause of alarm. Sometimes during storms, the kitchen window had to be raised because of gas fumes from the fire. During the winter, snow would be in the kitchen from the raised window.

When they were building the new house, my mother fed the men in the cookhouse. The supply boat came every second day with water and perishable foods.

For breakfast—now this was all served out in the cookhouse—they had beans, bacon and eggs, cereal, toast, doughnuts, molasses and jam and dried, stewed fruit.

Monday was boiled dinner and pudding. Tuesday was a fish dinner. Wednesday, ham. Thursday a stew with dessert. Friday, fish, and Sunday, roast meat. And I thought what a lot of work, to get that all together! Dad would peel a pail of potatoes each day and Mum had a roaster of leftovers to use for night lunches.

The men brought all their own bedding and clothes and washed them at home. The cookhouse stayed there after the new house was built, and the dory was stored in there in the winter.

SUNDAYS

One thing I think about is Sunday. Back then nobody worked on Sunday, no matter where you were. And Sunday was a different day for us. My mother always dressed up a little bit, and we had a special dinner. The men, that was their day off. It’s surprising how normal life was under those circumstances.

I remember as a child we had a little sun porch made out on the northern side of the light and I can remember my mother and I out there, She was reading to me, out of this large Bible study book. I still have that book. A lot of the things I remember about the old Bible stories I recall from that.

ENTERTAINMENT

My Dad played the guitar and he bought me one. I tell my grandchildren this and they just crack up, thinking of me playing the guitar! He really loved music, and he used to sing a lot. He had a very good voice. We had an old gramophone with all the old records on it that we used to play a lot. That was nice to have, just the way people like music today and play CDs. We played these huge old records!

Our first radio was called a Radiola, with two sets of earphones. Dad and the other lightkeeper, Art would listen to the ball games until four o’clock. Art’s wife, Vi, and Mum would listen to Today’s Children, which was a soap, and other radio soaps and crochet and tell everyone else to keep still so they could hear!

There was a man named Mr. Breen who was in charge of a crew that repaired the light after a terrible storm. He was there for several weeks and I remember on Sunday afternoons he would listen to classical music on the radio. We did not all enjoy his musical choices! The other men would go to Grand Manan for the weekend - so it was no doubt a lonely time for him as he lived in Saint John and was not able to go home

KEEPING IN TOUCH

There was a telephone when Dad first went out there with Art Wilson. The cable came from Outer Wood Island to Three Islands, and in winter, it would break. The first winter my mother and father were there, it broke, and for 18 months there was no communication, only distress signals. Four blasts from the horn, or the light stopped pointing towards Southern Head. Mum was sick on a Friday night, and using this system, they didn’t get help for her until Monday morning. Because of rough seas, they had to get her in a dory and out to the boat.

BAD WEATHER

One storm was so bad that my father had to shut the light down. The wind was very, very strong, and when Dad went up to wind the weights for the light, he realized that the tower was in trouble. It was swaying. When he got up there, the bowl that held the lens was apparently moving enough that the mercury was spilling out over the edge. So he hurried down and called Saint John on our short wave radio. I think it’s the only time in all of his years he told them what was happening, and they told him to shut the light down.

We moved out of the house and into the engine room. I remember my mother making me up a bed on a workbench. She had a huge kettle of soup. I don’t know where that came from!

Anyway, there was a stove in the whistle house so we were warm and comfortable out there. Of course, the whistle was going because it was a storm! We stayed there ‘till the storm was over.

The sea could be scary sometimes. It used to come up over the wall once in a while, on the west side facing Machias Seal Island. Sometimes a wave would come up and come right through that porch!

On the east side there was a deep gully and the sink drained out into that area. We used to have to put bricks and boards and rags down into the sink spout, because when the waves came in, the water would come up through there! So that was unpleasant! I was never frightened. I thought, “Well Dad knows what he’s doing. We’re OK.”

If my parents were nervous, they must have been able to hide it from me, because I don’t ever remember being frightened. You could hear the waves and the crash, you could hear the wind. Still, I think it affected me more than I realized because I still I hate the wind. I don’t mind a heavy storm, but the wind makes me very uneasy. People say, “Oh, I love a good storm!” Not me! I don’t. I’m uneasy and prowling around and looking out the windows.

I guess it was just you felt really safe when you were in the house and the windows were shuttered up. The main worry at a time like that was if someone should get sick. My father had to be taken off one time. He had bad attacks of kidney stones.

Fire. That’s another fear that I have. I’m terribly frightened of fire. That was a real fear to us with that stove, the way it used to act in the storms. The long pipe from the stove would catch on fire and they’d have to try to get the fire out in the stove.

The light used to catch on fire quite often. It was not as dangerous because there was no great storage of oil right there, and it was all metal up there. The worst of it was cleaning up after it! It just made a terrible, smoky mess up there, and my father would have died if anyone had come down and seen that, so he had to be up there next morning cleaning up.

In the wintertime, my mother and father would hire someone to bring me down there (from school on Grand Manan). Of course, the boats were very open and there was just a little small cabin and the engine and a compass. I can remember leaving Whitehead on a cold winter morning when the vapour was flying and here I was, headed for Gannet Rock!

As long as it wasn’t rough, I didn’t mind that part of it, but I always minded getting into a dory. The boat couldn’t go in, and I hated that. I can see that green water now and jumping out of that boat into that dory! That used to frighten me.

I love to be by the water, but some of those experiences I don’t like. If I had money, I wouldn’t spend it on a cruise!

VISITORS

We used to have lots of those! It was almost like people go whale watching today. They’d go down to Machias Seal Island and to Gannet Rock. Some men made their living in the summer just as they do today, taking them around. They’d come up and go up in the light, and look all around, and talk to my parents and then at Christmas time, I used to get gifts from them. I think they thought I was an underprivileged child out there in the middle of the ocean! They used to send me lovely gifts and I just couldn’t believe that they would do that. That they would remember us! I always thought that was very, very special. And ‘course there were things they sent me that were nice gifts - books, and I remember one sent me a child’s trunk! Things like that that I didn’t have. And I still have some of those books.

LOOKING BACK

I tell people “Look, you’re going to think I’m crazy when I say this, but I really liked it there!” I was alone. I had to make my own amusement. I was used to being alone and after I was married my husband travelled a lot and I was on my own, and I’ve been alone here now 13 years. I feel that I was able to adjust to the life that seemed to be handed me later on because of my years that I spent on Gannet Rock. Some lessons I learned there have been a real help to me. And I was really happy there. I don’t have any bad feelings about having to have been there at Gannet Rock. I really don’t.

I learned to not expect a lot of things to entertain me. I see my grandkids today, and they don’t seem to be able to provide their own entertainment without spending a lot of money. Of course, we never had that!

I loved to play with dolls and toys when I was younger. I had innumerable dolls, and then as I grew older I liked to listen to music. I loved to read and I learned to knit quite young in life. Even now people say, “What do you do?” and I say “Follow me around for a day!” because I’m always busy. And I’m thankful for that!

This story appeared in the April 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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