This past May 15 a group of about 25 happy people attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Chebucto Head Lighthouse keeper’s house, located at the west entrance to Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia. The sun broke through the fog that day as Lise Chapman, president of the Chebucto Head Lighthouse Society (CHLS), announced that the group had just signed a one-year lease on the property with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Canada. The group hoped to take over the 1940 two-story building permanently, with plans to turn it into a community center with historical exhibits and possibly a café. But only nine days later those plans lay in smoldering ruin as the building was completely razed by a fire of suspicious origin. The adjacent concrete lighthouse was unscathed.
The fire was believed to have started around midnight, and dense fog and wind direction prevented anyone in the vicinity from noticing until it was far too late. Canadian Coast Guard personnel were the first to discover the fire’s aftermath as they arrived to investigate an equipment malfunction. Chris Mills of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society visited on the evening after the fire and said that there were still “heaps of burning embers inside the foundation, and the place looks like a disaster area.” CHLS board member Bettina Saier told the Halifax Herald, “It was devastating. We couldn’t find any words. We were shaking and also crying.” The cause of the fire is under investigation, but there had been repeated vandalism since the site was vacated in 1996.
The lightstation at Chebucto Head dates back to 1872 when a square wooden tower and an attached dwelling were established. A new concrete tower was built in the late 1920s, but that was destroyed to make room for a new gun emplacement in 1940. A square wooden dwelling with an iron lantern on its roof was built that year, and the light helped guide many convoy vessels leaving and entering Halifax Harbor during World War II. The lantern was removed and a new concrete lighthouse was erected in 1967, with its light 162 feet above the sea. A new bungalow was constructed for the keepers in the 1960s and the 1940 building was used for storage for a time, but it was used again as a residence for a number of years after the light was automated in the late 1970s.
The Chebucto Head Lighthouse Society was formed in 2002-03 by residents of Chebucto Head and nearby Duncan’s Cove to protect the lightstation buildings as well as the fragile environment around the site. The group has held bake sales and an art show to raise funds. CHLS attracted members from all around Nova Scotia and managed to accomplish a great deal in a brief period, but vandalism was a constant danger. Windows were broken by gunshots and rocks.
A car fire in October 2003 charred the lighthouse tower and damaged its lower windows. CHLS convinced DFO to install a new gate to the property soon after that, and the station seemed more secure. Lise Chapman said in The Lightkeeper, the newsletter of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, that CHLS hoped the gate would be “a temporary measure until we can replace its effects with our presence at the keeper’s house.” The closed gate was found undisturbed the morning after the fire.
The house needed cleaning and painting and to have its utilities reconnected but was not in bad condition overall. Immediately after the announcement of the lease signing on May 15, volunteers of the CHLS went to work ripping old carpet from the house. A site cleanup had been planned for the weekend after the fire.
In its century-plus history as a staffed station, only six men served as keeper at Chebucto Head. Edward Gallagher became keeper in 1928 and served until 1950. His son Max remembers the family moving into the new building in 1941 when he was nine years old. He recalls the convoys leaving the harbor and says the area was so crowded with ships that it would take them two or three days to go out. During the war there were about 350 soldiers stationed near the lighthouse along with three large guns. Max Gallagher has often visited the station in recent years from his home in nearby Herring Cove. He told the Halifax Herald, “It’s a real shame that it burned down. It was a real landmark.” His brother Don lives in Duncan’s Cove and says it hurts to see the ruins of the house. He told the Globe and Mail that the lightstation is “the most beautiful spot, up so high, you can see forever.”
Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, said in a press release after the fire, “Since the advent of lighthouse destaffing by the Canadian Coast Guard in the 1980s many buildings like Chebucto Head lie vacant and deteriorating and at the mercy of vandals. Seeing this as a real threat to our marine heritage, the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society has pressed the federal government for legislation to protect lighthouses and was successful in having a senate bill introduced in 2000. So far the Liberal government has not seen fit to pass this bill into law, and sadly today we in Nova Scotia see a sad consequence of their inaction.” Chris Mills adds, “The loss of this historic lighthouse underscores the need for the Canadian government to swiftly and cooperatively hand lighthouse buildings over to local groups.”
This is the second Nova Scotia lighthouse lost in the past few months; Little Hope Island Light southwest of Halifax was toppled by a storm late last year. But there may still be a happy ending to the Chebucto Head story. Members of the Chebucto Head Lighthouse Society say that if funding can be secured, they hope to reconstruct the building using plans recently discovered by DFO staff. The international lighthouse community will certainly be pulling for them.
This story appeared in the
July 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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