Located off the Avalon Peninsula in eastern Newfoundland, Canada on Motion Island in Trinity Bay, sits the lonely but colorful red and white checkered Random Head Lighthouse.
From 1895 to 1952, this remote lighthouse station was cared for by the Cooper family. It all started when Thomas Cooper received a letter dated April 15, 1895 from J. T. Neville, the Superintendent of Lights for Newfoundland appointing him as the first lighthouse keeper. At that time Newfoundland was not part of Canada.
The Superintendent’s letter of instruction detailing what Thomas Cooper’s responsibilities were was quite simple. It said, “The lamp is to be lighted shortly before sunset, turned up gradually and carefully watched until the flame is as large as possible without smoke. The light is to be extinguished at daylight. You will have to do the painting and generally keep the station clean and in as good order as possible doing any work you may be directed to do.”
The letter also clearly stated what Cooper’s income would be, “Your pay will be four hundred dollars per annum paid quarterly and one hundred and sixty dollars with which to provide yourself with a fit and sufficient assistant. You may select who you please, but please advise me his name, age and whether he can write or not.”
With appointment in hand, Thomas Henry Cooper, along with his second wife, Roxana (Stowe), moved their family to Motion Island where Random Head Lighthouse is located. However, no one called it Motion Island, instead referring to it as “The Motion.”
Thomas Cooper served as the lighthouse keeper until his death in 1905. Upon his death, his son George Cooper, from the marriage of his first wife who had died, was given the position of lighthouse keeper. Interestingly, George was married to Fanny (Stowe) who was the sister of his stepmother.
George and Fanny moved to Random Head Lighthouse from the community of Inglewood, with their five young children; Sadie, Bert, Fanny, Tom and Rosa. The community of Inglewood was abandoned many years ago.
It was here, at the lighthouse, that all five of the children of George and Fanny grew into adulthood. Life at the lighthouse was rugged and rough to say the least. But the family adapted and they had a normal life as their later recollections would reflect. However, many families today would be scared to death to live on “The Motion” and allow their children to do what the Cooper children did. They were a hearty breed, known to climb on the rocks like mountain goats.
Twice a year a ship would deliver various supplies, such as canned goods, barrels of food staples, oil and coal. Anything that was too heavy to be brought up the boat slip was brought up the sloped part of the island by winch. Although the elements were harsh, the family did manage to have a garden and from time to time they also raised sheep on the island.
When Fanny (Stowe) died at the lighthouse in 1932, two of the children, grown to adulthood, had already left the island. Sadie had secured a job at the Holloway Studio in St. John’s and Bert left to study the ministry. In 1982, Rev. Bert Cooper published a book, Random Thoughts, which included his own illustrations, as well as eloquently written verse, of some of his memories, including life at the lighthouse.
In recalling a stormy Christmas as the lighthouse as the family gathered around the in the living room of the keeper’s house as the waves crashed outside, Rev. Cooper wrote,
And this is Christmas Day!
The very elements seem bent to
To make this day a time to mock the
To say, “There is no peace, but only
And yet – the lighthouse family
Gather round, and reverently is read
The story of a Babe – of angels
Of praise to God and of peace He
wills to man.
And calm and peace, and joy are in
Eventually the family moved from the island to the community of Clarenville and the lighthouse was serviced by George’s son Tom who commuted to the lighthouse, until he resigned from the position to retire when automation took over.
Elizabeth Bustard, granddaughter of keeper George Cooper and daughter of Rev. Bert Cooper who grew up on the island, visited the lighthouse in June of 1997. In recalling that visit, she wrote, “Halfway we stopped for breath, turned ‘round to gaze upon that other rock, the link from Motion to East Random Head, the remnant of a ladder hanging, remembering the hands that grasped it when they reached the top. Touching the light we kneel. Truly we have come home; there are no words, only a deep knowing, a bonding so powerful as to forever link us, the rock, the sea, the keepers of the light. So much to explore, so little time.
“We wander midst the remnants of all that is left of the house, the crumbled red bricks of the home where Thomas Henry Cooper and his family and later his son George and his family dwelt. What stories the ancient ruins have to tell. They speak to us of trust, faithfulness and courage. Hearts overflowing with gratitude we turn to descend, as those before us so often did, ascending and descending over and over again. The ancient sea is still the same, we travel the same waves, feel the same sea breezes, watch the dance of the whales and are touched with humility and glory on this day. The light is still there and as my Dad would say, ‘to tell the storm-tossed seaman where he is, and where the dangers lie, and where safe harbour can be reached’.”
Excerpt from The Lighthouse at Random Head
By Rev. S. R. (Bert) Cooper
No more do fishers land for cups of tea,
No more to lonely folk look out to sea
And hope a boat with friendly folk will land,
And bring home some news and warmly shake a hand.
No more do young folk climb the rigged head
And bring back gallon cans of berries red;
Or perhaps, some partridge, or maybe a duck
If they were hunting and had any luck.
No more nets spread on the grassy slope;
No more nets put out in keenest hope
Of the first salmon in the early spring
Or lobsters, that the first pots out may bring.
I wonder if the old tower weeps
For company gone that no more runs or creeps
Up flights of steps, the light room to attain
For long look round and then descend again.
So let it be, time ever marches on
Progress – or lack of it – we but can con.
For all the pleasant and happy days
We’re thankful, and for such we render praise.
This story appeared in the
November 2010 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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