More than 500 feet above the sea and four miles from Cape John on the Baie Verte Peninsula, Newfoundland’s Gull Island Lightstation is one of the highest and most rugged locations ever staffed by Canadian keepers and their families. The island, only about 3,000 feet long and half as wide, is probably best known for a harrowing 19th century shipwreck there. Despite its isolation and extreme climate, the location was a mostly happy home for keepers and families for nearly a century.
In April 1868, Mark Rowsell, who was captain of a sealing schooner, discovered the bodies of fourteen passengers and crew from the Welsh brigantine Queen of Swansea on the island’s shore. Notes written by the victims revealed unthinkable suffering endured in their final days during the previous winter. This wreck contributed to a growing demand for a lighthouse on Gull Island.
A lighthouse station was finally established at the island’s highest point in 1884. A cast iron tower with red and white vertical stripes was erected, attached by a covered walkway to a two-story double keepers’ house. Sealing captain Mark Rowsell, who lived in nearby Leading Tickles, became the first keeper. A fog alarm building was added in 1916, with an attached dwelling. The fog alarm building was about 2,000 feet from the other dwellings, so one keeper had to stay there at night to tend the diaphone horn.
The Winsors Arrive
The keeper in 1920 was Ephriam Whalen, and it was that year that Percy Greely Winsor, a fourth generation Newfoundlander, arrived from the nearby mining town of Tilt Cove as an assistant keeper along with his wife and six children. His eldest daughter Mona Winsor Dawe, born in 1906, recalled her years on “The Gull” in an interview videotaped in 1996, when she was 90. “I was 14 when we went there,” she recalled. “It was all new and we were very excited.”
Mona remembered that there were two keepers and their families living on the island, and also an unmarried assistant. “You had to be a single man to be third keeper,” she said. “They [the keepers] seemed to be busy all the time. They cleaned the light and put the oil in. There were two on watch every night, one until midnight and the other to close it up. You had to climb those cold steps in the winter.”
Despite the presence of three keepers, the children still had to do their part. “Audrey (her sister) and I used to wind up the weights (that rotated the lens),” said Mona. “Every hour or hour and a half you had to wind it up again.” Everyone helped to keep the place spotless. “Everything was clean. The government demanded that. Our verandahs were swept off. We scrubbed our hearts out,” said Mona.
During the family’s first year on the island, Percy Winsor hired a teacher to come to the island for his children. But the expense proved to be too much, and eventually Mona had a new role. “I had a little school and taught my sisters,” she said.
The harsh weather was taken for granted. “Cold! We didn’t have any storm windows. We had ice on the windows that thick!” Mona said, holding her fingers about three inches apart. “We didn’t think it was bad.” Some of the family’s animals might have disagreed. “It wasn’t too good for the hens — their feet would freeze,” said Mona. She also had a goat named Daisy, and her family had a dog.
When weather permitted, the keepers would go ashore every week for food and supplies. The men also hunted near the island for ducks, which were brought back and cleaned by Mona and her sisters. Mona said the men would also “do a bit of fishing, and we had a bit of fish for ourselves. We tried to grow lettuce, but it was very rocky there.”
Exploring “The Gull”
In November 1913, the island’s extreme height had apparently contributed to the death of Alan Rideout, the 14-year-old son of the keeper at the time, George Rideout. “He was throwing rocks at the birds, and I think he threw himself over,” said Mona. That cautionary tale didn’t stop Mona’s brothers from exploring every nook and cranny on The Gull. “My brothers had some narrow escapes. They took chances. They were young and adventurous,” she said.
The island’s sloping contours had advantages in winter, especially when there was snow. “We had sleighs,” Mona remembered. “We made them from staves from flour barrels. We’d go sliding down The Gull. It was beautiful.”
The short summer season was enjoyed to the fullest. “It was a nice place in the summer,” recalled Mona. “People would come out for the day.” There were always ways to have some fun in the sun. “We had a little pond the boys would sail their boats in,” Mona remembered. Incredibly, baseball was also played on Gull Island. “We had good games of ball. The fishermen would come over,” said Mona.
There was also a big swing for the kids to play on, but their strict Methodist upbringing meant there were restrictions. “We couldn’t swing on Sundays,” Mona recalled. “If the button came off your coat, you couldn’t sew it on Sunday.” Every Sunday morning the Winsor family would go next door to the head keeper’s house for a church service. Keeper Whalen’s wife would play the organ. After church, “if it was a nice Sunday, and the weather was good, and it wasn’t too slippery, we’d walk down to the (fog) alarm house and have a nice walk,” said Mona. Later, they’d gather again to sing hymns. No other type of singing was allowed on Sundays.
We Had Everything
There was always plenty of busywork for the wives and daughters. “We had lots of knitting to do - hooking rugs, mats,” said Mona. “There was always lots of sewing, lots of darning and patching. Of course, we couldn’t go to the store and buy clothes. They had to be made.” Meanwhile, the men spent much of their spare time in a carpenter shop building furniture and using old oil drums to make “lovely pots and pans,” which they sometimes gave as gifts to friends back on the mainland, according to Mona. “We thought we were well off. We thought we had everything,” she said.
According to Mona, living in such tight quarters on a remote island had the advantage of bringing the family closer together. “If you had a falling out, who else did you have?” she asked. “You had to get along. I became very close to my father. He’d even get on the floor and play marbles with us.”
Mona remembered that her father occupied a very important place in local society during his years as a keeper. “Lighthouse keepers in those days seemed to be respected more than today,” she said. “You were somebody. You were doing a good job.”
As Mona got older, she felt a need to experience life elsewhere. “I wanted to go to Montreal,” she said. “There was nothing there (Gull Island) for a young person. I was 22. But I was more bored in Montreal than I ever was on the Gull. I was never lonely on the Gull, but I was lonely in Montreal.”
Percy Winsor eventually became head keeper after Ephriam Whalen retired. Then in 1930, not too long after Mona moved to Montreal, Winsor and his family moved back to Tilt Cove. His granddaughter Marion Hamilton, who lives in Ottawa, had little contact with her grandfather, who died in 1954. She says, “From what I remember my mother (Winsor’s daughter Irene) saying of him, he was a person who was well respected and active in the affairs of the community.”
Percy Winsor’s wife, Victoria (Mitchell) Winsor, lived in Tilt Cove until she died in 1983 at the age of 98. “She was a sweetheart, funny, loved by many,” says Marion Hamilton. “Most of the people in the village referred to her as Grannie Winsor. When my husband and I visited her in 1968, it was quite customary for people to just wander in and find themselves a chair.”
At Gull Island, the old double dwelling was removed in 1961, replaced by two new houses. Families continued to live on the island into the 1970s, but, in later years, the station was unattended for three months during winter. The light was automated and destaffed in recent years, and the unattended light remains an active aid to navigation maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard.
Mona Dawe later moved back to Newfoundland and finally, after her husband’s death, to New Brunswick where she lived with her daughter until her death in 2002 at the age of 96. Her nostalgia for her early years as a lightkeeper’s daughter was clear when she was interviewed in 1996. “I have happy memories of The Gull,” she said. “I don’t regret a minute I spent there.”
Thanks to Marion Hamilton and Percy Winsor’s daughter Bernice Rideout for providing most of the material used in this article.
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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