Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ship wreck propels construction of lighthouse

One of the propelling causes of building Swallowtail (or Swallow Tail as it was called in the 1850s) lighthouse was the wreck of the Lord Ashburton on January 19, 1857 and the death of 28 crew men. The Lord Ashburton floundered on the northern shore of Grand Manan after struggling to get to the port of Saint John from Toulon, France, loosing its anchorage and being driven back in a nor'easter to the rocky shores of Grand Manan. One man, James Lawson, climbed the rocky headland, now names Ashburton Head, in his bare feet and walked until he found a barn where he collapsed. He was found and related the tragedy. Seven others were found alive but died shortly afterwards. If anyone know this area it was quite the feat to scale those cliffs.

The need for a light house had been discussed in the New Brunswick Assembly as early as 1840 but it took the Lord Ashburton tragedy to finally have the lighthouse built.

Construction of the light tower and keepers house began in the summer of 1859 after purchasing the land from James Small. Because the lantern had to be shipped from England, it took until the next year to arrive and be installed.

Winter storms are a part of life along our shores with a mix of snow and rain commonplace. Our streets are a glace of ice at the moment from a snow storm that turned to rain and then the temperature plummeted. The Bay of Fundy moderates the air temperature, often giving Grand Manan the warmest temperatures in the province in the winter (and some of the coldest in the summer). We also catch the tail end of hurricanes and some late fall and winter storms have winds of hurricane strength, although not hurricanes.

When the Swallowtail lighthouse was finally in operation, a number of storms including the Saxby Gale in October 1869 caused considerable damage to the light tower and the keepers house. Money to repair the lighthouse was slow in coming and it was discovered in 1873 that the tower was beginning to lean because the earth had been washed away from part of the timber foundation. These problems were eventually rectified and the tower has managed to last to this day, held down with heavy steel cables. The lightkeeper's responsibilities included helping with these repairs.

I look out at Swallowtail everyday or at least try to, it is sometimes shrouded in dense fog, and see its changing faces as the sun reflects off the brilliant white painted shingles or in the soft pink glow of the sunset or with a deep blue backdrop of stormy clouds. It is hard to believe all the changes that have occurred on this peninsula but the symbol remains a strong one.

As our neighbours to the south start a new history-making presidency, I am happy to be involved in trying to bring some of the glory back to the buildings that have been an important part of a lightstation whose rich history is entwined with that of Grand Manan's shipping and fishing history.

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