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In 2010, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) declared more than 970 Canadian lighthouses surplus. At the same time, the Parks Canada Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act came into effect, simplifying the process for groups to acquire—and assume responsibility for preserving—lighthouses in their communities. In the preceding decades, preservation pioneers often spent years wading through federal bureaucracy, testing the limits of their faith, endurance and patience—simply for the chance to volunteer more hours restoring, maintaining and operating a lighthouse.

But old structures have a way of tugging on heart strings, and lighthouses, in particular, can inspire tenacity and fortitude that border on obsession. What is it about these sentinels of the sea that invokes such uncommon commitment? How do such connections, once made, become matters of the heart?

Rita Anderson crossed a narrow neck of land, wading through mucky bog, and ploughing through tuckamore bushes as she worked her way to the coast. The dismal call of a foghorn cut through the dense air, and she could hear the rhythmic crashing of waves breaking on distant rocks.

When she finally emerged high above the shore and looked down on the crumbling tower against the pewter backdrop of the sea—all that remained of the Rose Blanche lighthouse on Newfoundland’s Southwest Coast—she was smitten.

“You stood here for such a long time,” she whispered to herself. “How many people did you save?”

In that moment, Rita knew she had a new purpose: “The lighthouse just called to me to do something,” she says.

Members of the community had been discussing restoration for five years before Rita, then the only salaried member of the now-defunct Southwest Development Association, drove out to see the lighthouse in 1993. Although she’d grown up in Port aux Basques, this was her first visit to Rose Blanche, a mere 45 kilometres away. She had no particular connection to the community or the light—until that day.

Rita saw the lighthouse as a monument to the island’s early communities—sustained by the sea—and to the courageous seafarers who depended upon the light as their life-saving tether to home.

She took inspiration from this.

“I was told it couldn’t be done,” she said of the restoration, which took another six years to complete. “I guess nobody thought a woman would have the patience and tenacity to drive this.” She chuckles. “They didn’t count on me.”

Daunting as it was to resurrect a crumbling lighthouse that was arguably more rubble than it was worth, she was motivated to push through the first tier of naysayers and bureaucracy in order to “restore that grand old lady and put her back the way she was.”

Grand old lady?

“Lighthouses are the mothers of the sea, like women who keep the fires burning, while the men are on the water earning their living,” she says. “They mean home and safety, and if that ain’t a lady, then what is?”

With Rita’s help, the restored lighthouse has created employment and business opportunities where few existed before. Rose Blanche, once the end of the road, is now a favoured tourism destination.

Saving the lights: What can you do?

In 2010, Parks Canada’s Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act came into effect, allowing individuals to nominate surplus lighthouses to be declared heritage properties via a simple petition process. The deadline to submit a nomination is May 29, 2012.

Nominating a lighthouse signifies a community’s desire to designate the structure as a heritage property. Groups then have until 2015 to submit a viable business plan for the maintenance of the structure, should they choose to go this route.

Few Atlantic Canada lighthouses have been yet nominated.

“The petition doesn’t put a requirement on the petitioners,” stresses Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Protection Society. “That only happens when the business plan is submitted, which signals the intention of a group to take over the light.”

“It takes a strong personality with a singular vision to move such projects forward,” says Dennison Tate, a Moncton teacher who spearheaded the initiative to save the much-photographed Cape Enrage Lighthouse near Alma, NB.

After the May 29 deadline, lighthouses may still be acquired through the DFO Divestiture Plan (96-1)—but not as easily. Surplus structures are offered first to other federal departments, then to provinces, municipalities and non-profit-groups, in descending order.

As a last step, the surplus lighthouses will be offered for public sale at market value.

Online resources:

Cape Forchu, NS

Gert Sweeney experienced a similar surge of determination when, in 1994, she learned that the Canadian Coast Guard planned to demolish the 1912 lightkeeper’s dwelling at the Yarmouth light, formally known as the Cape Forchu Lightstation. The lighthouse remained safe for the time being, since it was still operational.

Gert, a nurse raised with a strong sense of civic duty, helped circulate petitions. “We were in quite an uproar,” she says.

For her, the connection was intimate. Almost every window in her marital home affords a view of the beautiful and unusual apple-core-shaped lighthouse. Her mother-in-law was born in the lightkeeper’s dwelling and her husband’s family manned the lighthouse for years.

“My husband has never lived away from the light,” she says. “It holds his family history. When he started fishing, he always said, ‘When I saw the light, I knew I was home.’”

Gert and neighbour Craig Harding formed the Friends of the Yarmouth Light Society, devoting countless hours to restoration work. They also joined an advisory group established by the Canadian Coast Guard that helped form the framework for a divestiture policy, allowing non-profit groups with business plans to assume ownership of a lighthouse for a nominal fee.

On March 1, 2001, the Cape Forchu light officially became the first operating Canadian lighthouse signed over to a municipality. While the Municipality of the District of Yarmouth/Yarmouth County owns the property, the Friends of the Yarmouth Light Society maintains the grounds and operates the museum, gift shop and tearoom.

Cape Enrage, NB

Dennison Tate, the New Brunswicker responsible for saving the Cape Enrage lighthouse, on the Bay of Fundy, acknowledges that it takes a strong personality to move these kinds of projects forward. But he also believes that at some point, the visionary must step aside and let others take over.

Dennison’s love of lights began when he was a young lad on White Head Island, part of the Grand Manan archipelago. His dad kept the White Head light.

“I would wake in the morning and know the weather by the sounds of the horns. Duck island had a melodic trombone horn—deafening. I could hear that in the northerly direction. I could hear Long Point and knew from the sound whether it was fogged in, and I could hear Gannet Rock. Listening to the sounds of the horns, I knew the conditions in all directions.”

The day he watched the keeper’s dwelling on Long Point go up in flames remains in his memory. The Coast Guard had begun burning structures they no longer needed, a disturbing trend that saw many cherished and familiar light stations reduced to cinders and smoke. “Every time this happened, it took a piece out of me,” he says.

Years later, as a high school teacher in Moncton, Dennison began visiting the Cape Enrage light, which is near Alma, noting its steady deterioration. In the summer of 1992, he came up with a plan to turn the preservation and development of the site into a life-skills training ground for youth.

He envisioned an outdoor adventure program that would teach students the skills of running a business, encourage appreciation of environment and heritage, and generate enough profit to maintain and preserve a piece of history.

Like others, he navigated a tangle of politics, process, rules and finances that tested the depth of his commitment and patience. But, in the end, Cape Enrage became a flagship model for alternative light station use, and one of the province’s premiere tourist attractions.

But the Cape Enrage story doesn’t stop there. Beginning in 1995, Dennison, his wife, Ann, and their staff—high school and university students—actually lived at the keeper’s house for the summer months because its remote location made travel difficult. The Tates laid down rules of conduct, but it was the students who enforced them, resulting in an environment where peers governed peers. Out of this grew the so-called Cape Image, a loosely defined attitude grounded in values of mutual respect and community service.

“Our lighthouse was a focal point for developing youth,” notes Dennison, “but it also gave us a reason to bring people together to make something good. And maybe that is what lighthouses are about these days.”

Although the Tates “retired” from Cape Enrage in 2008, the gift shop, dining room and outdoor adventures continue, now overseen by a board of directors, and managed by a collaborative group of tourism operators.

West Point, PEI

It was an interest in making her community a better place for both residents and visitors that first drew Carol Livingstone to the West Point Lighthouse, overlooking the Northumberland Strait in PEI. First, she gathered a small group of volunteers in her community of 120. “We wanted to put the light and heart back in our community,” she says.

She became founding president of the West Point Development Corporation, which leased the lighthouse in 1983, opening it the next year as an inn, restaurant and museum. West Point was Canada’s first lighthouse inn, and the structure became a rallying point for the community.

“Everyone took ownership,” says Carol. “It’s a unifying source of pride. It got people working together.”

Carol has fond childhood memories of the West Point lighthouse. Her great-grandfather, William MacDonald, was the first lightkeeper.

The next was Benjamin MacIssac, a wounded First World War veteran, who delighted in telling the local kids stories of phantom ships, buried treasures and sea serpents.

“We’d be delightfully terrified and race home in the dark, saying we’d never do that again. Weeks later, we’d be back.”

Carol says that historically, the West Point lightkeeper offered accommodations and hospitality to visiting inspectors, government officials and captains. His family tended to sick crew members and when ships found shelter from storms, sometimes lingering for days, extra food was provided to see the captain and crew back home again.

“The fact that it is standing straight and tall and beautiful is important. I think the people of West Point see it as something enduring, part of our past and hopefully part of our future.

“It’s symbolic, not just of community, but a guiding light looking out for people, for travellers.”

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