Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grand Manan Museum Lighthouse Life Evening

On Tuesday, July 27, the Grand Manan Museum held a "Lighthouse Life" evening with a number of guest speakers who had lived and worked at a number of lighthouses and fog stations around Grand Manan.

Howard Ingalls started off the night. He and his wife had been stationed at Swallowtail in 1957-1959. A wealth of information about the technical aspect of running a light station, tending the light at Swallowtail in the late 1950s was relatively easy because the light was electric. He did need to turn it off at dawn and on again at dusk.

He lived in both the original keepers house and the "modern" duplex. When the wind blew hard, he said the roof would lift on the old keepers house so much that you could see daylight. He couldn't understand why the roof didn't completely blow off. It was a real treat to have a new house that could be heated and wasn't in need of constant repair. The heat for the house was initially coal brought by the government steamers and winched up the hill on the tramway. This was also how all the building materials for the new house were landed. The boathouse had a large barrel stove in it and a Wisconsin engine and a Fairbanks winch to bring the car up the tram way. There was another winch further down the cliff where a derrick was located and supplies were winched from boats into the car and carried up the cliff. The boathouse was used as a workshop and also a place to store the dory which could also be winched up and down the cliff. Even a high water it was necessary to use the derrick to lower or lift items into the cove because the tram way did not go all the way to the water's edge. There are many records of the tram way needing repair after storms but that was also the case for the buildings and walkways which took the full force of storms.

He and Perry Ingersoll, son of Gilbert Ingersoll who was an assistant keeper at Swallowtail and also a casual keeper himself, related getting water at Swallowtail in the new house. The water was brought from Saint John by the government steamer and pumped into the cistern. There was a manual pump that was used to pump the water from the cistern to the attic and from the attic was gravity feed throughout the house. When an electric pump was installed, it greatly improved the ease of pumping the water to the attic. Although the keepers duplex was equipped with gutters to catch rain water from the roof, the wind blew so hard that very little rain was ever captured. This water could not be trusted as drinking water and cans of water were often carried onto the point. As Perry Ingersoll related, no one ever walked out to the point empty handed. A 308' well was drilled in 1966 at the top of the stairs. This provided water to the house but it took a long time to fill the cisterns and in the winter the line would freeze so the cisterns could only be filled during a warm period, above freezing. Perry remembered missing school one day when a load of "bad" water was brought from Saint John. It took quite a while to flush the cisterns, pump them dry, and replace with better water.

Each keeper had to supply furniture and food at each light or fog station and lived with their families. They were on call 24/7 and had two weeks a year for vacation. The modern system has changed the lives of light keepers. They work 28 days on and 28 days off and have everything supplied. Grimmer Ingersoll had a garden where he grew many of his vegetables. The large garden was located on Lighthouse Road. There was an annual moving of the garden tractor from off the point to the garden each spring and then back again when the gardening ended. The thin soil at Swallowtail didn't yield much produce. Once the concrete stairs were built (wooden stairs were there until the 1960s), the tractor could be winched up and down the stairs. The extra width to the stairs with the flat portion to one side helped when the tractor needed to be moved. Planks were temporarily placed over the stairs and the wheels could then run freely up or down the stairs. The only short coming of removing the tractor from the peninsula for the summer was that everything once again had to be carried by hand. The path had to be widened for the tractor and rocks were removed by pick-axe or dynamite!

Children often boarded with relatives to go to school, although the luxury of living at Swallowtail meant that there was access to the North Head village and school after hiking across the point, the bridge and the stairs, although Perry Ingersoll and Laurel Hinsdale, daughter of Grimmer Ingersoll and cousin to Perry, said that they sometimes headed off to school (in all kinds of weather), only to find it cancelled. Laurel clearly remembers the Groundhog Day Gale in 1976. Small pebbles were being carried through the air and hitting on the school house. The children were sent home but the wind was so strong that Laurel couldn't get home herself and her father came to walk her to the house. The wind was so strong they had to crawl the entire way. Whenever the weather was bad he would pick up the children at the school or at the bus stop and help them get home so they wouldn't be blown off the trail and potentially over the cliff edge. Communication was not as convenient as today but there was a crank phone which connected the garage at the top of the hill to the keepers house to the lighthouse.

When the Fish Fluke Point Light or Grand Harbour Light was decommissioned, Grimmer Ingersoll got permission to move the garage to Swallowtail. Penny O'Neill remembered having a trapeze in the building when her family lived at Fish Fluke Point. They also kept the rabbits they trapped in the building. Perry remembers being involved with his father Gilbert and Grimmer. Both had Jeeps, a Landrover and a Scout. They jacked up the building and removed parts of the floor where barrels were fitted to help the building float. They manoeuvred the building to the water's edge and towed it to Ingalls Head. Although when they started the wind was light, a stiff breeze was blowing by the time they started towing the building across Grand Harbour. They were not sure they were going to make it to Ingalls Head but fortunes prevailed and they were able to make the crossing. On the Ingalls Head side, they fitted wheels under the building and were able to tow it to the head of the Ingalls Head road and left it by the theatre until the next day. They only used both Jeeps on steep sections and had little problem getting the building almost to Swallowtail. The very steep hill did cause problems and they had to use both Jeeps and all the horsepower they had to get the building the last distance. The building was perched out over the knoll and Grimmer installed a hatch in the floor so he could work on vehicles.

The walls of the garage are covered in various colours of paint that Grimmer used to paint the interior of the lighthouse and the keepers house. He was known to mix colours together to come up with new colours and when he cleaned his brushes, the colours were added to the walls. The lighthouse was open to the public and the keepers were responsible for keeping it looking presentable. There was a guest book and furniture in the lighthouse on the second of the three floors. Each level was painted a different colour. It wasn't until the strobe fog detector system was installed in 1970 and a room built to contain the equipment that the lighthouse was then locked.

A lightkeeper's life was not easy and the whole family joined in whether it was learning how to light the light, run the fog horn or just general maintenance. The work was not easy and the living standards varied depending on where the light house was located. Swallowtail was considered one of the better locations. But along with the light and fog horn duties, the keepers had to fill out weather reports, maintenance reports, paint, make minor repairs, welcome visitors and as a courtesy, the fog bell at Swallowtail was rung every time the ferry went by.

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