Not only did bad punctuation kill a man here, two others vanished, and a family barely survived a catastrophe. The god of the sea, Poseidon, apparently disliked Canada’s tiny Egg Island Lightstation, punishing nearly all who dared dwell there during its first half-century of illuminating service.
People weren’t the only casualties of nature’s tirades against the minuscule station. Through the years, winds and waves claimed breakwaters, porches, windows, roofs, walkways, fences, a steel derrick, and buildings. Gargantuan waves scoured the foliage and earth down to bare rock. More recently, multiple lightning strikes disrupted communications.
Egg Island Lightstation was built in 1898 as a warning beacon for gold rush traffic to the Inside Passage, and it stands some 50 kilometers north of the northern tip of Vancouver Island, near the confluence of Fitzhugh, Smith and Queen Charlotte sounds. The 100-acre rookery, named for its shape, is one of 27 remaining staffed lightstations on the West Coast.
Today, the station is home and workplace to four souls facing the Pacific Ocean’s fury. Inhabiting this isolated, windswept community, and vigilant over its continuous operation, are Steve Allison, principal keeper, with his wife Colleen, nine-year-old daughter Amy, and Harry Saliken, assistant keeper, whose family lives in Port Hardy. Visitors are few and far between. “It takes a special person to do this,” according to Steve Allison. “I’ve had stretches of three months away from Colleen, and it is a real challenge for me to tough it out and keep my sanity. But Harry recently lived eight months on Green Island Lightstation without his family. Even now, they live in Port Hardy.”
Against the craggy steep shore is a vivid illustration of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. The sea is rarely at rest—even windless days deliver two-meter swells. The white-water surges are an endless, awesome spectacle. When large swells assail the shore, deep-throated powerful rumbles vibrate through the ground. There are few clear days in which to see forever. Frequently, fog banks smother the area. “The record here is 42 continuous days of fog,” says Allison.
Tragedy struck Egg Island’s first keeper, William Brown, when his wife died just weeks before he was to first take up the post. Alone with his three-year-old son, and an assistant keeper, Brown persevered through a winter of waves destroying the boathouse and soaking his basement. His assistant fled the following summer, leaving Brown and his son alone. Since the only connection to the outside world was a twice-a-year supply ship, no one learned of the keeper’s predicament until October. Early into the next winter, keeper and toddler—still alone—nearly met their doom when Brown became so ill he was unable to keep the light operating. With the distress flag flying—no radios back then—the pair watched numerous vessels steam past. After nearly one month of anguish ,they were rescued.
For other Egg Islanders, only mystery surrounds their departure. In 1934, the lightkeeper and his wife were evacuated for medical treatment, leaving Dan MacDonald and the rescue ship’s 16-year old mess boy, Jimmy Flewin, to mind the station. About a month later a ship noted that Egg Island’s light was not illuminated and there was no sign of life ashore. Searchers found only the rotting remains of a meal on the table and the keeper’s boat floating overturned nearby. MacDonald and Flewin were never located.
Fourteen years later there was no mystery as to the cause of devastating, and near-fatal, damage to the station. In 1948, monstrous middle-of-the-night waves reached some 75 feet up the rocks to devour the lightstation and the keeper’s residence, leaving behind only the foundations and a terrified, injured family. Lightkeeper Bob Wilkins, his wife Ada Marie and 10-year old son Dennis barely escaped the carnage across a crumbling bridge to the higher main island.
While the storm continued for five days, the soaking-wet Wilkins family found shelter in a chicken coop, surviving on salt-contaminated water, a few scavenged rations and a cooked pet rabbit. Salvation came in the form of passing fishermen. Later, the lightstation was rebuilt on the higher, main part of the island. The original station’s remains became the foundation for the present-day helipad.
A grammatical error and isolation-fuelled despair combined to end the life of the next lightkeeper to take up the post. Laurie Dupuis, his sweetheart Peggy and her 14-year old son Stanley arrived at Egg Island to begin what they thought would be a romantic life.
But fierce winter storms wrecked much of the station and their relationship deteriorated through interminable seasons of fog and rough weather—to the point where Dupuis believed Peggy was going to leave him. In 1951 Peggy left for medical treatment and took Stanley with her. Eight weeks elapsed while Dupuis, alone, tended the station, wrote daily letters to Peggy and sank into a depression from which he wouldn’t recover.
The final straw was apparently a telegram, read by the Bull Harbour radio operator to Dupuis that triggered Dupuis’ suicide. According to records, the message was actually addressed to Peggy’s son Stanley from the boy’s father. The message was: “I must have a picture of you, received your letter. Junior, good luck.”
It was concluded afterwards that Dupuis, in his depressed state, understood the telegram with its transposed comma and period to mean the man was replying to correspondence from Peggy—convincing Dupuis that she was leaving him.
Distraught at being abandoned, Dupuis wrote his will, and then shot himself. Coincidentally, Peggy and Stanley were enroute home, arriving a couple of days later to find Dupuis’ body on the rocks. Peggy found a stack of letters written by Dupuis during her eight-week absence (one per day)—either to go out on the next mail boat or to give to her on her return to the station.
Only the last letter was stamped—implying he didn’t expect to see her come back —and contained the phrase, “I would sooner die than live without you . . .”
After Peggy and Stanley buried Dupuis, Peggy stayed on as the lightkeeper (with a deckhand from the ship to assist her) and applied for the post, but she remained on Egg Island only until a replacement was found. Dupuis was buried on Egg Island, where the white picket fence and marker are tended by today’s keepers.
Lightkeepers come from all backgrounds. There are those who stay for a career and others whose short stay just seems like a lifetime. Through a procession of keepers, with countless knockdowns and repairs, at Egg Island the weather is the one constant—a series of extremes.
What about the current lightkeepers? Steve Allinson was a carpenter before he became a lightkeeper and enjoys woodworking as a hobby, especially projects involving boats or inlay work. Colleen is an artist who paints and has a darkroom.
As a family, with Amy, they regularly go beachcombing—Amy has found a Japanese glass fishing float and a whale’s tooth—and check on the pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the other side of the island. “Then we have a game night a couple of times a week and a ‘pizza and movie’ night on Fridays,” says Colleen, adding that they share dinners back and forth with assistant lightkeeper Saliken.
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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