Lighthouse Architecture

Lighthouse architects faced a number of challenges. They had to design structures that could withstand exposure to high winds, salt water, snow and ice. Island lighthouses were constructed by local builders using locally available materials whenever possible.

Consideration had to be given to the placement of the lighthouses in more ways than one. They had to be placed to warn of headlands and hidden reefs as well as at harbour entrances. Another major factor to be taken into consideration was the height of the site above sea level and the distance the light had to shine to warn mariners. A report in the Journal of the House of Assembly stated the following concerning the construction of Point Prim Lighthouse:

“That the elevation of the proposed Lighthouse should not be less than eighty feet (24.3 m) above the level of the sea. That the site on which the lighthouse itself should be placed, is about twenty feet (6.1 m) above the sea. That the building itself, therefore, will require to be about sixty feet (18.2 m) high. That this elevation will place the lights at about seventy-five feet (22.8 m) above the sea, which will render them visible on the horizon at a distance of eleven miles and a half (18.5 km). That a person standing on the deck of a vessel approaching the lighthouse, having his eye raised twenty feet (6.1 m) above the sea, will be able to observe them at about seventeen miles and a half (28.1 km), which appears sufficient for ordinary occasions; and in emergency, by sending aloft, a sight of the light might be attained at a distance of twenty miles (32.1 km).”

Although the technology of lighthouses has changed over the years, these historic beacons are symbols of guidance and help in time of need. They are still used and they are still loved.

Some lighthouses, such as the one at Howard’s Cove in western Prince Edward Island, are placed on a higher cape and in a narrower part of the Northumberland Strait, so they could be built much smaller. This small tower, built in 1978, is only 5.8 meters (19 feet) high. The Strait in that area is approximately 24.1 km (15 miles) wide.

The enclosure at the top of the lighthouse that houses the light is called the lantern, the lantern room, or the light room. The lanterns were made of metal and heavy plate glass and typically weighed several tonnes. The lighting mechanism was also heavy, so the structure had to be very strong. The deck outside the lantern had to be built with sufficient room for the keeper to go outside to clean the glass. Wooden or metal railings were placed around the deck for the keeper’s safety. The supports for the lantern deck ranged from heavy ornate wooden brackets to simple metal brackets.

The architects had to be sure that the light had proper air circulation for optimum performance, particularly when the fuel was animal oil. Vents were placed in a variety of locations, such as the walls and floor of the lantern room and in interior walls. The keeper was expected to open windows and doors if necessary to keep the air circulating freely.

In addition to keeping a constant air supply to the light, another factor to be considered was that heat inside the lantern room would cause condensation on the glass if the temperature was cold outside. This was critical because ice or condensation would limit the visibility of the signal. Hatches were placed at the top of the stairs to keep heat from rising, particularly in the lighthouses that had heated dwellings attached.

If the air circulation is restricted condensation will build up inside the lighthouse, damaging the plaster walls and ceilings. When the lighthouses were de-staffed, some windows on the lower levels were replaced with ventilators.

Lighthouses built by the British Colonial governments in what was known as Upper and Lower Canada and in some parts of Atlantic Canada were made of stone. However, as there is no building stone on Prince Edward Island that was not an option. The first Island lighthouse was built in 1845 at Point Prim using locally made bricks. Within two years the bricks and mortar had deteriorated, so the tower was sheathed in wood and shingled.

By the mid-19th century the link between safe navigation and development of the colonies was realized. The need for a large number of lighthouses on all Canadian waterways influenced the decision to use wooden towers for small Canadian coastal, harbour and range lights whenever possible.

According to Col. W. Anderson, the only lighthouse engineer in Canada for many years: “In the early days of the country, when money was scarce and timber was plentiful, masonry expensive and skilled workers difficult to secure, it was only natural that timber structures should be used.” The low building cost of wooden towers (under $8,000, versus $100,000 for masonry towers) and their uncomplicated structure endeared them to the colonial governments and the Department of Marine when it became responsible for lighthouse design in 1871.

Anderson also stated: “By adopting cheap wooden lighthouses and placing in them illuminating apparatus not too complicated to be operated by the uninstructed lightkeeper…it was possible to rapidly surround our coast with a cordon of lighthouses, not of first rate quality possibly, but sufficiently effective to give valuable aid to our growing commerce.”

On Prince Edward Island, wooden pre-Confederation or Colonial lighthouses were built at Panmure Island, Seacow Head, North Cape and East Point. They were built in the heavy-timbered, octagonal style popular throughout the country at that time. Shortly after Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873, a review of Island lights was undertaken and improvements were made to existing lights.

West Point Lighthouse, built in 1875, was called the first of the “second generation” of lighthouses on the Island. It was the first of the square tapered towers. A typical square tapered tower would be three or four stories in height, combined with a rectangular 1 ½ to 2 storey gable-roofed residence. There would be living space in both the tower and the dwelling.

Architects used decorative details such as straight or flared (coved) cornices where the upper walls of the tower met the lantern deck. They also used triangular decorations (pediments) above the windows and doors.

There were a number of variations on the square tapered towers – especially the lanterns and their decks – some relating to decorative purposes and others relating strictly to economy of construction.

Lighthouses that were placed in the water or on rock breakwaters had to be compact and particularly strong in order to withstand extreme conditions of waves and ice. The Indian Head Lighthouse at MacCallum’s Point is the Island’s only example of a “wave washed” lighthouse.

Taking into account all of the considerations mentioned above, the architects of old created beacons that have guided ships for more than a century and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.