Donald Johnson is the Site Supervisor, Provincial Historic Sites, Bonavista
The Cape Bonavista Lighthouse, on the east coast of the island of Newfoundland, Canada, was first lit on September 11, 1843. One hundred and sixty years later to the day, its light was reinstalled and a massive restoration program was completed. A project that was supposed to be completed in a year, or at the most two, had taken four years to finish. Midway through the project, this beautiful building was nearly lost forever.
Cape Bonavista was the third lighthouse built in Newfoundland, built when the newly formed government of England’s oldest colony took on the task of illuminating one of the most dangerous coastlines in the world. Innumerable small islands, rocks, and shoals have plagued shipping since people first visited this ironbound coast. These dangers are aggravated by fog banks that roll in from the Atlantic and gigantic icebergs that drift down from the arctic. Storm winds are easterly out here, so if you get into trouble at sea, you’re blown up onto a lee shore. There, invariably, your vessel is smashed to splinters against the jagged cliffs.
For three generations, the White family tended the light. Hubert Abbott kept the light for 47 years, longer if you count his time as foghorn keeper. Keeper after keeper climbed the stairs every two hours to wind the clockwork mechanism that turned the light. Eventually their path was worn into the wooden steps.
In 1973, the Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador designated the lighthouse a historic site and restored it to the 1870s period. It was stocked with artifacts and furniture from that time. The old light, a Stephenson reflector, was returned to the lighthouse. Cape Bonavista Lighthouse became the most popular historic site operated by the Province. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited to take in the breathtaking beauty of Cape Bonavista and its lighthouse.
The jewel of the site is the catoptric light with its brass and steel clockwork to turn it. With its 18-inch silver and copper reflectors, brass oil lamps, and iron mounting apparatus; it looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. It was built in 1816 and used on the Isle of May in Scotland for years until it was shipped to the Colony of Newfoundland in the early 19th century. It saw constant use until 1962.
In the late 1990s, the lighthouse was beginning to show its age. Seawater from spray was finding its way into the copper dome mounted on the cast iron lantern. The dome began to corrode. The lighthouse is a stone tower surrounded by a wooden dwelling house. The lantern had originally been designed to take water through a drainage system away from the cast iron and copper cupola, down through the stone tower, and away from the lantern. In the early twentieth century, the tower had been encased in concrete and the drainage holes were blocked off. This did not cause a problem for the active life of the lighthouse, but after all this time seawater and the products of corrosion had begun to seep down through the stones in the tower. It then oozed out into the wooden structure, causing damage to the structure and the artifacts on display.
In the summer of 2000, restoration work began. Most of the artifacts were removed and put into storage. The light was dismantled and the more delicate parts were sent to a conservation lab for restoration by professional conservators. The clockwork and mounting apparatus were dealt with onsite. The concrete casing was jackhammered away from the stones of the tower, returning it to its original condition. The 11-ton cupola was released from the tower and lifted slightly to allow workers to replace the putty gasket and clear the drainage pipes. When the cupola was replaced, it was sandblasted with a mild medium. Special care had to be taken with the cleaning because the lantern is highly ornate. The bare metals were coated with preservative chemicals. Any damage to the wooden structure was repaired. The work was coming to a conclusion slightly behind schedule. It was mid-summer in the second year of work. Then disaster struck.
A powerful thunderstorm, the like of which had never been seen in living memory, exploded over the Cape. As staff and visitors ran for cover, bolts of lightning struck the Cape and the surrounding ocean.
The tower of the lighthouse was struck three times. When a staff member went in to inspect the lighthouse after the storm he found the interior ablaze. The Bonavista volunteer fire department was on the scene within ten minutes.
The building was saved, but there was extensive damage. Fully one third of the interior of the lighthouse had been destroyed. The damage was concentrated around the stairwell. The stairs, with the wear of millions of footsteps from past lightkeepers and their families and the story those marks told of diligence and monstrous responsibility, were gone forever. Only the bottommost step was saved. All the meticulous conservation work was put back to square one. They would have to start over; plus there was the fire damage to contend with.
While we stood and watched the flames and smoke shooting out of the lantern, it was hard to see a positive side. Thinking about it after the fact, it could have been much worse. In all the long history of the lighthouse, the fire, if there had to be a fire, could not have happened at a better time. There was no one living there like there had been years ago. Most of the artifacts, especially the ancient and irreplaceable catoptric light, had been taken out of the building and had escaped destruction. The restoration crew was not working that day. The interpretative staff were on hand to deal with the disaster. If it had been a couple of hours later, the site would have been closed and no one would have been there to sound the alarm.
Provincial Historic Sites staff set to work immediately to deal with the aftermath of the fire. A few artifacts that had been stored in a back room of the lighthouse were removed to another building. A twenty-four hour watch was put on the building in case of a flare up. In the days that followed, a disaster plan was put into effect. A team of conservators arrived from the head office to secure the building and begin restoration work. Huge blowers were set up to ventilate the structure and dry it out. A construction crew was brought in to remove the burnt materials from the interior of the building. As much of the original structure as possible was saved. The chief conservator set to work again to clean and preserve the huge metal lantern.
Over the next two years, work progressed slowly repairing the fire damage to the old wooden building. The intense heat of the fire had caused the mortar to pop off the stone tower at the center of the building, and, besides, there were serious leaks. Hundreds of boxes of baking soda were placed inside the walls of the building to absorb the smoky smell. A modern lightning suppression system was installed.
All the wallpaper throughout the building had been water damaged and had to be replaced. Wallpapers were purchased from a company in Great Britain. They are exact replicas of wallpapers produced in the 1870s. We picked the most popular patterns from that time. When repair and restoration of the structure was completed the artifacts were returned the lighthouse.
Finally on September 11, 2003, the one hundred sixtieth anniversary of the lighthouse first being lit, the old light was reinstalled, completing the restoration.
This summer visitors from all over the world will visit. Surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, they will watch whales play just offshore. They might see giant icebergs drifting by. Puffins from the nearby nesting colony will fly overhead and prominent, on the 150-foot cliffs of Cape Bonavista, they will find the lighthouse. It stands as it did 161 years ago, a unique example of our culture and heritage.
For more information about this Provincial Historic Site:
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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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