Saturday, March 29, 2014

Challenges of Saving Lighthouses

Lighthouses are usually located in the face of storms, exposed on several sides to strong winds and sea spray, frequently difficult to get to and challenging to maintain.  With lighthouses de-staffed or de-commissioned, budget cuts rampant, and maintenance minimal, it is hard to see these once well-maintained structures deteriorate to a point that they begin to crumble but it is becoming all too common.  The magnitude of the maintenance or restoration, and the ability to get to the lighthouse is often overwhelming. We have been fortunate with Swallow Tail that ownership has been transferred, access is challenging but better than many, and through the support of the community and access to various sources of funding, restoration work has been possible. 

Unfortunately, in five months, three other lighthouses in the Maritimes have disappeared.  Two collapsed during storms, the abandoned Fish Fluke Point on Ross Island decommissioned in 1963 but defied gravity for years (November), and Church Point on St. Mary’s Bay, NS, decommissioned in 1984 (March), and one burned to the ground, the remote fibreglass lighthouse at Point Aconi on Cape Breton Island (February).  Fire was always a worry before lights were electrified.  Elodie Foster, one of the light keepers at Swallow Tail, died from her injuries after her clothes caught fire while trying to start the burner for the light.  More recently, electrical issues may be the cause of some fires because of the heavy salt presence and corrosion of electrical connections. Two electrical issues at Swallow Tail threatened to cause fires last fall and had no one been working in the lighthouse, the problems would have gone unnoticed until it was too late.  Vandalism has also been a cause of some fires and has plagued locations such as Partridge Island in Saint John, and may have been the cause of the grass fire at Swallow Tail in April, 2007, which threatened the lighthouse and keepers house.  It has prompted some communities to install security cameras.   The ones at Swallow Tail can be viewed on the Village of Grand Manan website (

Fish Fluke Point lighthouse in better days.  (unknown origin of photo)
Collapsed Fish Fluke Point lighthouse as seen from the air in November 2013.
Church Point lighthouse before collapse. (from

Church Point lighthouse after collapse, 27 March 2014. (from
Point Aconi lighthouse before it and the building beside it, burned to the ground in February, 2014. (from Cape Breton Post)

Collapse was not thought to be an issue at Swallow Tail but once work began last fall, it became apparent that it could have been possible.  The lime had eroded out of the mortar, making the mortar crumble.  The stone foundation was slowly pancaking, with the stones being pushed outward.  The eight guy wires and the massive concrete floor in the equipment room were the only things holding the tower upright with probably only five large stones in the foundation carrying weight.  Had any of the guy wires failed, the tower would have begun listing or worse.  To fix this, all the stones were removed, one side at a time, and then returned with new mortar between the joints. The large corner stones, too heavy to easily lift, were adjusted back into place.  The foundation is now functional again and should last for many more years with minimal maintenance.

Peter Devine rebuilding stone foundation at Swallow Tail, September 2013.
During this process, it was discovered that the large wooden beam under the front door had completely rotted away.  The remains of the beam were removed using a dust pan.  Instead of trying to fit a new wooden beam back in a very tight space between the large immovable concrete step, stone foundation and the floor joists, a concrete beam was constructed.  One of the 1859 wooden pegs, used to hold the heavy timber structure together, was discovered in the crawl space during the work, looking the same as the day it was made.  This was the only spot were the heavy timbers of the lighthouse had completely rotted.

Rotted timber beam under front entrance, September 2013
New concrete beam to replace rotted timber, September 2013.
Salt corrosion is another challenge, rusting nails so they no longer do their job.  When some shingles were removed on the northern side of the bell house, the boards underneath came off as well.  This was also an earlier problem with the boathouse and the entire southern wall began to fall off in large pieces as the nails disappeared and that wall had to be rebuilt.  The shingles were stripped off the bellhouse, the boards renailed, and new shingles returned.  Shingles on some sides of the tower were also falling out because the nails were gone.  Face nailing to hold them in place during previous work only complicated the problem with water getting behind the shingles and rotting the wood.  Several places on the tower, notably where the windows had been boarded up, were in worse shape than the rest of the lighthouse, even though the boards were only 40 years old compared to over 150.  As the rot continued, longer nails were used to hold the shingles which further exacerbated the problem.  It was very noticeable while scraping the sides where the problems were located because of the sponginess.  Replacing the rotted wood and shingles where required, caulking the nail heads, plus one to two coats of primer and two coats of finish paint will prevent this for a few years. Because of the extreme weather conditions experienced on the point we hope in the future only the paint will suffer and not the wood behind.

Northern wall of the bell house.  The nails had rusted off and the boards had to be nailed back in place before the shingles could be attached. 
Areas on the lighthouse that needed repair because of water penetration causing rot.  The area around the fog horn was because of caulking and flashing failures.  The upper area on the tower was probably because of face nailing shingles allowing water to penetrate.

Custom blade on paint scraper.
The entire lighthouse and bell house were scraped, primed and received two coats of paint.  The new shingles were primed twice.
Removing the windows in the tower in the 1970s was actually beneficial in many respects since there was little maintenance after the lighthouse was destaffed, but it changed the interior with no natural light or ventilation.  Having the opportunity to return the windows to the original locations in the lighthouse was a goal during the restoration but a challenge since everything had to be built from scratch.  One window could not be returned because the current fog equipment is located in that spot on the first floor.  Windows from an 1849 house in Ontario were donated by the owners, who had once worked at a lighthouse in British Columbia.  They were honoured to have them reused at Swallow Tail.  The storms and gablets (or dormers) were new construction from mahogany with copper flashing and sills in an attempt to resist the harsh climate.  The interior has been completely changed with the additional of natural light and makes it a very pleasant inside.

Reglazing 1849 windows donated for the lighthouse.  The bottoms had to be cut down to 8 from 12 panes.  New glass was installed in each window.
Window unit - gablet with storm, all new construction

Windows restored on the southern side of the lighthouse.
The harsh winter weather stopped work in mid-December at the lighthouse.  Work will begin again sometime in April.  The windows and interior will be completed including repairing the lathe and plaster and painting, the boardwalk from the keepers house (cabled in place to protect it from the strong winds) will be built, and museum displays installed.  We are hoping to have the lighthouse open again this summer.  Restoration work could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Regional Development Corporation, New Brunswick Built Heritage, Village of Grand Manan, Grand Manan Rotary Club, and generous donations.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 Sea Ice Storm

A spring blizzard  moved through quickly March 26, leaving behind sunny skies, either bare ground or snow banks and sea ice on exposed coasts after storm to hurricane force winds.  As in February 2013, Swallow Tail took the brunt of the storm but the quick movement of the storm resulted in some sea ice frozen across the peninsula but not nearly as thick as in 2013. 

Power was out on the point for 24 hours after the salt spray tripped a breaker on the pole (over 36 hours in 2013).  Two of four webcams no longer work after the wind, salt spray and power outages took their toll.  The antenna for the WiFi for the ferry blew off the boathouse, laden down with ice.  The poor flag that was flown for the first time only two weeks ago is now a tattered shred, despite reinforcing the outer edge.

Here are some photos:

Ice covered northern side of the boat house.

WiFi antenna blown off the boathouse, covered in ice.

Thickness of ice on lighthouse.

Frozen sea ice on bell house attached to lighthouse.  Ice froze horizontally as the spray was blown across the building wall.  Taken by Sarah McDonald.
Ice covered railings leading to bronze fog bell.

Ice covered rope safety lines along foot path.

Ice and snow on bronze fog bell.

Ice covered wooden bench facing away from freezing  salt spray.

Ice covered wooden bench facing freezing salt spray.

Ice covered fog horn.

North side, roof and chimmeys of keepers house covered in ice.  A couple of shingles lifted on the roof replaced in 2011.

Swallow Tail peninsula covered in sea ice.

Ice covered iron eye ring and vegetation.

Icy sign post with Sarah taking photos from below.

Photo taken by Sarah McDonald of sign post.
Frozen sea ice on the railings for the steps.

Ice covered trees near the Sawpit.  No wonder they don't grow branches facing the water.

Windows in the keepers house covered in ice on the outside.

Tattered flag after flying for only two weeks.

Web cameras on Welcome Centre - only two still are working after wind and power outages.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cove of Many Faces

The Swallow Tail peninsula is named for its resemblance to the long tail of a swallow with wings extending on either side (Pettes Cove to the south) and toward Fish Head on the north.  Swallows were very common on the island, lining up along the power lines when the chicks fledged.  Unfortunately, it is rare to see swallows now as their population declines across North America.

Marine navigators often picked out rock features or other features along the shoreline to help find their way along the coastline before electronic devices took over.  This can be even more challenging where fog can more in suddenly and may stay for days in the hot days of summer.

There are a number of rock features around Swallow Tail that are distinctive.  Some are old, some are more recently formed from erosion, and others are just cool.
Two rock figures in Pettes Cove.  This is also where a small cave/rock arch is located where a group of Finnian raiders hid in the 1800s.  There may be other figures or faces in these rocks but these stand out, particularly at high tide for the one on the left.

Closeup of the figure on the left, reminiscent of a woman with long flowing hair.

Closeup of figure on right, reminiscent of a young boy sitting.

Perhaps a bit harder to see but two faces in the rocks near the footbridge.

Closeup of the nearest rock which looks like a face with large head, angular nose and chin - reminiscent of the Iron Man.  This rock could easily fall down the cliff because of the fragmented structure of the rocks and is part of the mafic dyke (iron based volcanic rock that filled in a gap in much older rock) which the footbridge spans.

Further face with juniper hair, long flat nose and slight smirk (crack in rock face).
Rocks that were pointed out as a woman with a baby on her back (in the centre) and a dog (on the left) but also described as a boy and girl with a dog or a child with a backpack and a dog.  This angle also includes two other rocks on the right which haven't been described.  These are located at the very end of the peninsula and visible from the ferry.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Webcams for Swallow Tail Live

Many thanks to the Village of Grand Manan and Alpha Securities for the web cameras and internet to broadcast the video.

The webcams are accessible on the Village of Grand Manan website:

Follow the instructions for access to the Swallow Tail Webcams. There are three camera views available, a view of the lighthouse (and also the ferries as they pass or any other vessel), a view of Pettes Cove and a view of the top of the stairs (helps for counting the number of visitors!).


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lighthouse Tours

Swallow Tail and a herring carrier seen from the north along the ferry route.
Now that Swallowtail Keepers Society has a long term lease for the complete Swallow Tail Light Station, we have begun to offer some of the programs we hope to run in the future.  This includes tours of the lighthouse.  These tours are given when our volunteer or student are available and are not offered at all times.  Each tour is personalized and you have a great opportunity to learn a little history of the lighthouse, visit all four levels including the lantern and take some amazing photographs of spectacular views.

People enjoying the view from the Swallow Tail lighthouse lantern deck.

Robyn Guptill's panoramic view from the light house, July 7th.
We will be doing some restoration work later in August and these tours will not be available at those times.  Because we are still raising money for the restoration work, the tours are not free.  A donation is required so make sure you have some cash with you.  You can check at the Welcome Centre if any tours are available on a particular day.

People enjoying both the lighthouse and the former site of the bell house before it was moved to the lighthouse.
People on the former bell house site beside the rock formation that resembles a family and their dog.
Even without access to the lighthouse, the peninsula is wonderful to visit.  Fin and minke whales, harbour and grey seals and harbour porpoises can be seen from the lookouts, as well as many species of seabirds.  Bald eagles and peregrine falcons are common visitors.  Fall migrating land birds often make first landfall at Swallow Tail.  The herring weirs are active this year and you may be lucky enough to see them seine the herring out.
Fin whale off the Intruder herring Weir below Swallow Tail lighthouse in Pettes Cove on August 5

Fin whale off the end of Swallow Tail August 5
Minke whale in Pettes Cove headed toward Swallow Tail July 1