Cape Bear Lighthouse is perched on the southeastern tip of Prince Edward Island, where it has guided mariners since 1881. It was built soon after the Island joined Confederation, during a period when the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Northumberland Strait were teeming with fishing boats and international shipping fleets.
Cape Bear Lighthouse experienced many changes during its existence and was moved several times in response to severe cliff erosion. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station, famous for being the first Canadian land station to receive a distress signal from the sinking Titanic, was located on the site until 1922.
Although the light is now automated, Cape Bear Lighthouse continues to provide navigation to mariners in the Northumberland Strait. Under the direction of a local non-profit group the lighthouse has been restored and remains a popular draw for tourists and lighthouse enthusiasts in the summer months.
In common with all other Prince Edward Island coastal communities, especially those along the Northumberland Strait, Cape Bear residents have their own tales to tell about the Burning Ship. While all of the stories share some details, there are often differences regarding the origin of the ship and other particulars.
Many people in the Cape Bear area were interviewed previously and shared their experiences. While those who have seen the ship swear to its existence, others scoff at the idea of a Phantom Ship.
Believers say that no matter how close you approach the place where the ship appears to be it keeps the same distance away from you. Emmy Cohoon said she saw it three or four times, sometimes watching it for hours. People tried to row out to it, but couldn’t get closer than the original distance.
People say that the Burning Ship is always seen at night and under certain conditions. It is said to be a forerunner of bad storms. It has been seen at all times of the year, even when the Strait is full of ice.
“Clearly, there is some object ablazen (sic) with fire out in the Strait and many people distinguish this object as a ship. Some people see the details of the ship (the mast and spars) while others see only the shape of the ship. It is a…three-masted, square-rigged, sails set ship. This ship never seems to burn down. It disappears as it goes into the water bow first.”
Other sightings and comments:
Milton Howe saw flames running up the rigging.
June Fraser saw it from the Marconi Station “as plain as day.”
Chester MacKenzie saw “a blaze going up the spars. My grandfather and father tried to get to it but it disappeared.”
Emmy MacLeod saw the ship while on the water with a friend. He turned his head away from the ship to tell his friend about his discovery. Meanwhile the ship disappeared from sight.
The following stories attempt to explain the origin of the Burning Ship:
There was once a pleasure craft from a United States port that carried a drunken party and crew. It drifted into the Bay of Chaleur and, during a scuffle in the captain’s cabin, a lamp was upset and exploded. The ship was set afire and everyone on the ship met his or her death by fire or drowning.
There was an immigrant ship bound for Québec. It got off its course, mistaking the Bay of Chaleur for the St. Lawrence River. Meanwhile, a bolt of lightning struck the ship and it was grounded near the mouth of the Restigouche River; only a few people escaped.
There was a barque that left Pictou bound overseas. The barque was becalmed off the east side of Pictou Island. That same evening a three-masted, square-rigged vessel was seen on fire and everyone on shore thought it was the barque. Captain Adam Graham took his tugboat with many of the community members aboard and set off for the burning ship. To their surprise the ship disappeared before they could get near it. The next day there was word that the barque made it safely through the Strait of Canso and on its journey overseas.
There was a ship that sailed from Scotland shortly after the Hector first arrived in Pictou that was never heard from again.
Whether or not the Burning Ship is real we will never know. Some say it is real and that they’ve seen it unmistakably with their own two eyes. Others say it is a mirage, and still others claim the vision is a result of phosphorescent gases (also called Will O’Wisp or Jack O’Lanterns).
Whatever it is, it has been seen for hundreds of years, and believers will be keeping an eye seaward in the nights ahead.
The position of lightkeeper was an important one and much sought after. Throughout the years most of the keepers and fog alarm attendants were men who came from the small community of Panmure Island. The island was approximately 800 acres in size and in the early days was heavily forested. The people on the island cut lumber, farmed and fished. They had their own school which was commended by the Department of Education for the fine education it provided.
The lighthouse was not open during January, February and March when the Northumberland Strait was frozen over. This meant that the keeper had more time to do things on his own land and visit friends and neighbours in the evenings, which he couldn’t do during navigation season.
Keepers were not allowed to hold meetings at the keeper’s house. That meant not even being able to host neighbourhood card games or the monthly Women’s Institute meetings. Regular visiting was permitted.
David Bryon lived in a small cottage close to the lighthouse and was keeper from the time the lighthouse opened in 1853 until 1887. As was common at the time he grew his own vegetables and raised farm animals as well. The pigs became such a nuisance that, in 1861, a fence had to be built around the lighthouse to keep them from digging at the foundation. At that time the lighthouse was painted and more insulation was added. New lamps were also installed so the signal from the lighthouse could be seen at a greater distance. The painting was done by the keeper, although if more complicated work was required he could get authorization to hire help.
When William Archie MacDonald was keeper from 1887 to 1908, his family lived in a house of their own close to the lighthouse rather than the cottage. Twice a year supplies arrived by ship and had to be taken ashore in dories. The keeper was responsible for the landing, safe storage and strict accounting of all supplies. His job was no doubt made easier by the construction of a storage shed near the lighthouse in 1901.
In 1909 a large two storey keeper’s house was built to replace the small cottage, which was then used as an oil house. The house was sheltered from the strong winds by nearby trees. In those days the keeper and his family were expected to provide room and board to the lighthouse inspector and any other officials, as well as workmen on the site. They were reimbursed for their effort. The lighthouse, dwelling and other buildings had to be kept in excellent condition at all times as the inspector might arrive unannounced. Colin Steele and his family were the first to live in the new house during his term from 1908 to 1910.
The light station would have been a busy place in 1908 when a large wood frame building was constructed to house one of the first fog alarms on Prince Edward Island. Mathias Condon was appointed as fog alarm engineer. The fog alarm had to be turned on whenever fog, snow or rain dimmed visibility. Keeper George Creed’s daughters related that they became so accustomed to the sound of the loud foghorn that they would have to stop what they were doing during foggy weather and listen to make sure the fog alarm was still sounding.
William Albert MacDonald followed Wallace Graham in the 1920’s and continued until his retirement in 1936 at the age of seventy. He was following in the footsteps of his father, William Archie MacDonald. We get a glimpse into the life of a keeper from the following excerpts written by his granddaughter, Therese MacDonald, in August 2003:
“You may wonder what a lightkeeper’s job was in 1930. Granddad, with his assistant, Matt Condon, shared a seven day week, twenty-four hour duty. One of them, usually William, daily lit the light at sundown, and Matt’s contribution was extinguishing it at sunrise, with hourly checks that it was revolving…. These Federal employees also started and cared for the machines which put the fog horn in action, to blast out every two minutes its loud, weird sound.… William and Matt took their responsibilities seriously and valued their work, which put a cheque in their mailboxes – an envied appearance to their neighbours!”
Thomas Hugh Munn was born in West River in 1823. Sources say he was the person who began the process to have a lighthouse built at Cape Bear. He was a carpenter who became the first keeper there when the lighthouse opened in 1881. His salary was $300.00 a year. He married Janet Emery. After his first wife died, Thomas married Margaret MacKay. They had a daughter, Joanna, who was born at the lighthouse, and a son, John Thomas. Family history says that Thomas Munn fell from the lantern and was bed ridden for three years before he passed away in 1893. His son John tended the light during his illness and for a short period of time following his death.
William Harris was the second lightkeeper. He was married to Annie Jordan. Their children were Ada, George, Jane, Tryphena, Elizabeth, William, Louis, Daniel, and Gertrude. Annie had a boarding house built near the lighthouse site after William’s death at the age of 57. One of the Marconi telegraph operators, Elwood Champion, boarded there with his wife and children. Annie outlived her husband by many years. She died at the age of 89.
Martin Luther Jordan was the third keeper. Luther and his wife Ada (Beck) bought the farm of the former lightkeeper Thomas Munn. There they raised a family of ten children: Fletcher, Annie, George, Carl, Florence, and Beatrice, twins Hazard and Julia, and William. Florence married Ewart Keeping, who became the sixth Cape Bear lightkeeper.
Hiram Hyde of Murray Harbour was the fourth lightkeeper. He was married to Margaret Murphy. Hiram and Margaret raised two boys: Wilfred, Margaret’s son from a previous marriage, and William. When Margaret’s brother Jim died the Hydes also raised his children: Agnes, Mabel and Jimmy.
Hiram died while he was still keeping the light. He was laid out in the parlour on the first floor of the lighthouse. According to local legend Wallace White and a friend decided to see Hiram laid out, for the simple reason they had never seen a dead man before. They ran over to the lighthouse, cutting through Viny White’s yard. She chased the boys with a stick, threatening to beat them for running through her yard. Wallace said they took off in a hurry because their fear of her overcame their eagerness to see a “real deceased man”. It was thought that Hiram, who was noted for his good sense of humour, would have enjoyed that.
Clarence White was the fifth keeper. He was a veteran of World War One. He was married to Margaret (Peg) Richards. They had three children: Gordon, Corinne, and Clarence. Clarence died of tuberculosis in 1925, forcing Peg to run the lighthouse by herself for the winter until Ewart Keeping and his family arrived to take over the duties in 1926.
Ewart Keeping was the sixth and final keeper. He also served for the longest time, from 1926 until the light was automated in 1959. Ewart went to western Canada after World War One, where land was being offered to returning veterans. Florence joined him there and they were married in 1919. They had nine children: Ruth, Bessie, Inez, Vivian, Beatrice, Eileen, Billy, Billy and Billy. The first two boys died as infants but the third survived to preserve the family name.
Ewart taught school in Alberta and British Columbia. In Alberta he taught in a log cabin that also contained the family living quarters curtained off from the classroom. Florence and the two little girls, Inez and Eileen, had to be very quiet while Ewart taught school on the other side of the curtain.
While teaching in British Columbia, Ewart had to walk to school, teach all week and then walk back home to spend the weekend with his family. Ewart applied for the position of lightkeeper when it became available at Cape Bear as preference was given to veterans. He was successful and returned to Cape Bear where he kept the light for the next thirty-three years. His daughters Inez and Eileen sometimes helped him with his duties. He was the keeper during World War Two when a watch was kept for German submarines. He and his family were living at the lighthouse when it was moved back from the cliff’s edge in 1946.
She told of the keeper climbing the four flights of stairs to the top where he would wind up the weights used to revolve the lighting mechanism and then light the Aladdin lamp. In summer, due to the short nights, one winding was sufficient, but during the longer fall days he had to take an oil lantern and climb the stairs through the pitch dark to wind the mechanism at midnight.
When a two-way radio was installed William was assigned an hour each day to turn it on and listen for instructions from headquarters in Charlottetown.
William had a spyglass that he used to keep track of ships, especially the notorious rum runners who smuggled illegal rum from the West Indies or the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. They tried to drop off their cargo clandestinely on Island beaches as the sale of liquor was forbidden during Prohibition. His spyglass may have foiled many landings!
Therese MacDonald: “About the first of May, 1937, I was thinking about how I would celebrate my tenth birthday when Granddad, normally not an excitable man, roared into the kitchen shouting, ‘Quick, outside everyone the Hindenburg is passing over!’ All the family rushed out and crossing the horizon was what looked like an enormous, oval shaped grey object – the Hindenburg. One by one, Granddad allowed us to close one eye and peep through the famous spyglass as this amazing phenomena passed slowly from our vision.”
George Creed was a prisoner of World War II. He became keeper of the lighthouse when he returned to Canada in 1946. He hired his friend and fellow soldier, William J. MacDonald, as his assistant. They each worked six hour shifts. He had to pay a portion of his salary towards the assistant’s wages.
Things were not always easy, especially during the early years of his term. Most of the land at the light station was still covered with trees. To make room for crops and pasture, he cut the trees by hand and used a horse to pull out the roots.
George and his wife Theresa had two sons and three daughters. Liz Dalton and Leona Creed have many happy memories of growing up at the lighthouse and the new house built in 1957. The children helped wind up the weights and could be depended on to switch the light on and off after electricity was installed. They also turned on the fog alarm. Like generations of keepers’ children before them, they enjoyed living at the lighthouse. They went horseback riding, swimming and boating in summer, and enjoyed snowmobiling and horse races on the ice in winter. When the supplies came in by ship or helicopter all the families turned out to help.
The lighthouse and children were featured in tourism promotions. By the 1970’s there was a constant stream of visitors to the lighthouse. The children were kept busy accompanying tourists to the top as no visitor was allowed to go up unaccompanied.
Today the navigation light is operated automatically. Margaret MacLeod, daughter of the last keeper, William MacDonald, is the modern day keeper who operates the lighthouse as a tourist attraction during the summer months. Visitors receive a warm welcome, lots of information, and a chance to climb to the top of the Panmure Island Lighthouse.
List of Panmure Island Lightkeepers
There is incomplete information regarding the lightkeepers at Panmure Island. The following list has been compiled from Department of Fisheries and Oceans records as well as local records. DFO records list some people as fog alarm engineers. It is unknown whether they were also lightkeepers.
1853-1887: David Byron, keeper.
1887-1908: William Archie MacDonald, keeper.
1908-1910: Colin Steele, keeper.
1908: Mathias Condon, fog alarm engineer.
1910 until approximately 1920: Wallace E. Graham, keeper.
1920’s-1936: William Albert MacDonald was keeper until he resigned at the age of seventy according to family records.
1936-1939: Charles A. Steele was keeper until his death.
1938- 1940: Augustine Jamieson was the fog alarm engineer until his death.
1940-1946: Louis Jamieson took over his father Augustine’s duties as fog alarm engineer.
1946-1967: George Creed, keeper.
1960-1980: William J. MacDonald (grandson of William Albert MacDonald) was an assistant keeper.
Following George Creed’s retirement, the position of keeper changed hands frequently. The following is a partial list of keepers during that time:
Alfred Condon: summer 81 and maintenance 1985
Boyd Patton: September 1981
Waldo Taylor: December 1981
Peter Jackson: November 12, 1984
November 1984 – March 31, 1985: William J. MacDonald, former assistant, became the last lightkeeper of Panmure Island.