Maisie Adams was Prince Edward Island’s only female lightkeeper and Canada’s first female keeper. Her story is a fascinating one that she was always willing to share. She was born May 22, 1913, and was the youngest daughter of Hugh John and Mary Lamont of French River. In August, 1934, she married Claude Adams of Seaview.
Hugh John MacRae was the keeper of the New London Light from 1931 until he went on military leave on October 31, 1940. He was temporarily replaced for a month by his brother, Charles Earle MacRae. When Claude Adams took over as keeper on December 1, 1940, he was already ailing, and his wife Maisie assumed most of the duties of lightkeeper.
It must have been a daunting task for the twenty-nine year old woman – looking after two small children, a sick husband, a lighthouse and a range light. Robert and Gertrude were born before the couple moved to the lighthouse. Nearing the end of her third pregnancy on October 2, 1941, during their first year at the lighthouse, Harris Blakney stopped by on his mail route and noticed that Maisie was not looking well. He brought Aunt Jane, the midwife, to the house in the late afternoon. At the same time, Maisie sent her son Robert to contact the local doctor. Dr. Beer arrived at the lighthouse and delivered his first baby there at 8:35 pm during the midst of a blackout order, which were frequently given during the World War Two period to confuse enemy submarines. Dr. Beer was also the doctor who cared for Maisie’s husband Claude, who died of cancer on January 23, 1943.
After Claude’s death several men from the area went to the office of the Department of Transport and recommended that Maisie be hired as official lightkeeper. She had no other means of support and had been doing the work all along, so she was certainly capable. She kept the lighthouse for a total of fourteen years, from 1940 to 1956. She lived in the lighthouse for a year after Claude died, but later moved to a small house several kilometres from the lighthouse so that Robert would be closer to the school. She walked to the lighthouse each afternoon to light the lamp and again in the morning to put it out. The range light was further still and had to be tended as well.
Maisie always said she could not have done the job if it wasn’t for the fine people in the French River area. She was a small woman and some jobs were too heavy for her, Cecil and Preston Hardy helped her load oil barrels on a stand so she could transfer the oil into a 23 l (5 gallon) can to take to the lighthouse and range light. At the lighthouse she would transfer the oil again to a smaller container and carry it up the steep steps to the top. In later years she was amazed that someone had put in stair rails; there had never been any when she was working at the lighthouse.
If she had to be away at night for some reason Maisie knew she could depend on the MacRae family to look after the light. Some helped her in other ways, like Tommy Gallant, who always gave her a cod fish when he was passing by. Maisie’s brother Donald Lamont gave her a pig every spring, which she would raise for meat. One particular year, the pig she was given escaped and headed straight for the water. The swimming pig made it quite a distance before the tide turned and brought it back to shore. It was so tired that Maisie and her son Robert had no difficulty catching it. They covered it up with hay and fed it hot milk and bread. It survived and provided food for the family the following winter.
J.K. Lacey was sent from the Charlottetown Department of Transport to replace the old wooden foundation of the lighthouse in 1944. He jacked up the lighthouse and had it resting on four oil barrels. While it was perched there a summer storm caused the tides to rise so high that the water came up over the barrels and covered the kitchen floor. Maisie said she was thinking a lot but saying very little. She figured Mr. Lacey was worried enough for both of them. The local men didn’t come down to get them out because they figured Lacey and the Department of Transport needed to know what she and the kids were going through for $13.00 a month. They stayed there throughout the night. When Lacey left he didn’t ask her what he owed for room and board but gave her a cheque for $150.00. He also saw that she got an increase in pay to $19.60 a month. Maisie’s daughter Mary recalled that her mother was earning $47.00 a month by the time she retired in 1956.
Another adventure that could have had tragic consequences was related by Maisie with a hearty laugh. Once when she was tending the light a spark caught in her dress. She had to pull the dress off and was wondering how she was going to walk home with almost nothing on. She found an old rain coat in the porch and her dignity was saved.
When Robert was fourteen he got a job in the Kensington Bank. Later he worked at the Summerside Air Base. His sister Gertrude moved to Summerside with him so she could go to school there. Maisie gave up her career as a lightkeeper in 1956 and moved to Summerside where she worked as a seamstress and cook at Summerset Manor until she retired in 1978.
Maisie had many interests and hobbies, including rug hooking and even acting. In 1995, at the age of 82, she was part of the cast of the Emily television series. She passed away on October 27, 2000, at the age of 87. No matter how old or how busy she was, she always had time to share stories of her days as Canada’s first woman lightkeeper. Long may her light shine!
The following true story was related by Sister Hilda Gorman about an event which happened in 1915. It had been related to her by her Aunt Bessie who was born in the 1890’s.
“Aunt Bessie’s mother-in-law, Sarah, lived along the North Shore of Prince Edward Island in a small fishing harbour bordering along the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. She lost her young husband in the waters of the Gulf while their son was yet a small child. The young mother had no income or other means of support, so like others of similar circumstances, she decided to give her child to others to care for while she went to (the U.S.) to get work. She told her parish priest, Father Ken MacPherson, her plans, and his response was: “Nothing can replace a mother’s love and care. Stay at home and God will provide.” A few days later she got a job looking after the lighthouse in Naufrage Harbour (also called Shipwreck Point).
“In those days the light was run by a system of weights and pulleys using a clock-like mechanism. One night the system failed. The waters were rough and stormy, and Sarah knew there were fishermen out at sea depending on the light to guide them home to a safe harbour. Remembering the loss of her own husband at sea, Sarah decided to operate the system by hand. This meant cranking the mechanism precisely so that the light would continue to flash in the night. Sarah did just that, and her son, now a young boy, kept the fire going and climbed the stairs of the lighthouse to bring her hot tea to sustain her throughout the night.
“Some time later, a captain of a vessel wrote to the Premier of the province, expressing thanks for saving him and his crew who were in dangerous waters that stormy night. They and others would not have been saved had it not been for the light in Naufrage Lighthouse that this brave and dedicated woman kept going by hand.”