East Point Lighthouse plays a vital role in the extensive fishery off the coast of Prince Edward Island and serves marine traffic using the Canso Strait to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It has remained an important coastal light throughout the century and a half it has been in operation.
East Point Lighthouse is notable as the last lighthouse built before Prince Edward Island joined Confederation. Although recommendations were made for a lighthouse on the site as early as 1851, it took a number of shipwrecks and pressure from the community before it was finally built in 1866-67.
East Point Lighthouse appears much the same today as it did when it was built, and is considered to be a fine example of an octagonal wooden tower. Many visitors come to the site to admire the beautiful scenery and explore the lighthouse, which is operated by a local non-profit group during the summer.
“Night patrols over the sea can be very dull except that now and then the unusual happens. Like unexpectedly seeing a distant pin-point light the night of 6 August 1944 – a tiny occulting blink. I counted, ‘A thousand one, a thousand two,’ every seven seconds a faint flicker of light. It could be a lighthouse bearing about 2 o’clock, far away on the right side of the flight path. If it was East Point Light on PEI then I was in the wrong place in the dark sky.
“Four hours before, I was having a late supper in the mess at #1 GRS Summerside, chatting with my friends. The chatty mood was (broken) suddenly by a loud speaker call for experienced staff night pilots to report to control. Down at the flight office I was told that one of our aircraft on patrol was missing somewhere north of Cape Breton Island. A search was to be carried out in the area, to be continued during the night.
“Considerable navigation skill is required to carry out different kinds of anti-submarine patrols. One of the most difficult is a ‘box patrol’ around a moving convoy of ships that from time to time makes evasive course changes. Diligence is required to maintain visibility distance around the convoy while the patrolling aircraft is carried in the air mass above the convoy. Course direction and degree of lift is different in each leg of the search pattern.
“The search for the missing aircraft was to be a ‘creeping line ahead’ patrol in which an aircraft might fly, say, 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) north, east for 25 nautical miles (46.3 km), north 10 (18.5 km), then west 25 nautical miles (46.3 km), repeating over and over within limits of fuel supply. To make a precise angular search track over the sea, allowance must be made for wind drift and duration on each course flown.
“The RAF sergeant who was assigned for the search had probably earned his wings on overland flights. A creeping line ahead search from land on a black night, without ‘astro fixes’, could be a bit of a challenge. Time flown during the search and fuel consumption were within the navigator’s and the pilot’s responsibility. And so the search dragged on, the aircraft black as night with no navigation or other lights showing. The dit-dah of Morse code beat a steady rhythm in my earphones. The eyes of all four crew were looking for a flare.
“Some time after midnight we had broken off the search at a fuel level calculated to reach base. Having flown for a short time on the course for the base given by the navigator, a glint of a distant light caught my eye. I asked the wireless operator for a bearing on Sidney which he confirmed to be off the port (left) wing. The bearing confirmed my mental picture of our position. If we continued on the present course, the flight would probably end in a night ditching in the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy as we ran out of fuel.
“I asked the navigator to confirm the source of the light and told him of the bearing on Sidney. I gave him a few minutes to review his ‘dead reckoning’ plot.
“I am sure that the East Point Lighthouse saved us from a nasty ending to an otherwise routine air search. After the navigator reported that I should stay on the course he had given, I told him I would be altering course to about ninety degrees to a westerly heading. His response was that he would take no further responsibility for navigation. I assured him it would be my pleasure to sign off his log to confirm his decision.
“Thanks to the East Point Lighthouse on a very dark night, we landed safely at #1 GRS. Regrettably, the missing aircraft had crashed on Cape Breton’s rugged, rocky coast.”
The lightkeeper was responsible for the overall operation of the light station including the lighthouse, fog alarm building, three dwellings, sheds for oil and coal, and a radio building. He was allowed time off to attend church and to vote. The head keeper hired assistants to help with painting, maintenance and other routine tasks, as well as taking shifts at the lighthouse and fog alarm building. Part of the assistant’s wages were paid by the Department of Transport and the rest by the keeper
According to Harry Harris, the last keeper at East Point, nothing was worse for an assistant than working for a keeper “who wore a shirt and a tie and kept his hands in his pockets.” Even when the assistants were on duty the keeper was usually close at hand. Harry said, “You carried your burden with you.” He recalled being called home from concerts and other local events when problems arose. If the keeper was seen out too often there would be complaints from others who wanted his job. He recalled one fellow who “wore the wheels off his wagon one summer with his petitions to get rid of a keeper.”
Harry’s father was a mechanic and Harry inherited his mechanical ability. During World War Two there were very few men left in the area to work, and fewer still who had any experience with hydraulics. So it was that Harry, at eleven and a half years old, started helping his uncle, Wilbert Stewart MacIntyre, the lightkeeper. It was a busy time helping with the lighthouse and fog alarm building, which had three stoves going 24 hours a day. There was no heat in the lighthouse as the temperature had to be constant inside and out to prevent condensation on the glass of the lantern room.
On Prince Edward Island most of the lighthouses shut down during the winter when heavy ice formed. During World War Two, however, East Point Lighthouse remained open year-round to aid the British Commonwealth Air Training Schools in Summerside and Mount Pleasant. Harry recalls listening to the sound of the submarines recharging their batteries off the coast. Encoded radio messages were sent over local radio stations informing keepers to put out the lights because of the presence of enemy submarines. He said keepers did not fear their lighthouses would be fired upon because the enemy wanted to use them for navigation. Some lighthouses placed war screens over the light to limit its illumination, but at East Point the signal meant “douse the light!” and it was left dark until the “all clear” signal came over the radio.
Toward the end of the war, Harry joined a reconnaissance unit and was injured. He went to work for the telephone company for a few years after leaving the service. He enjoyed the work and the people, but was still drawn to the lighthouse. By 1960 he married and was hired at the East Point Lighthouse on a permanent basis.
Landing supplies for the lighthouse was “one awful job.” The Sorel and the Brant were two of the supply ships for Maritime lighthouses. The ships would anchor off shore near the lighthouse. A tug towed the launch to the beach where the barrels of oil and bags of coal were unloaded. It was such hard physical work pushing the heavy barrels of oil across the sand to the high water mark that it is said one fellow wore out a new pair of overalls in just one landing! The keeper would then hire a farmer with a wagon and team of horses to haul the supplies to the lighthouse. Later it was found to be easier and cheaper to dock the supply ship at Souris and truck the supplies to the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was a gathering place for local people, boat crews and other visitors. Pearl (MacKenzie) MacIntyre, the wife of a previous keeper, was involved in a number of volunteer groups and the keeper’s home was often used to host meetings. Mary and Harry Harris raised a family of seven at the lighthouse and often entertained there. On one occasion the entire crew of a grounded ship stayed at the lighthouse.
The keeper was on duty all night. Harry recalled sitting in the radio building adjacent to the lighthouse listening to the radio station in Wheeling, West Virginia, and calling in hourly weather reports.
There was a bit of friendly competition as to which lighthouse would be in the best condition. Harry remembered having an artist paint pictures on the big tanks in the fog alarm building. The lawn was improved, an attractive red and white fence was erected, and the buildings were always well tended and painted so it was no wonder that Department of Transport and Coast Guard officials brought their top brass to visit the East Point Lighthouse.
Harry had an opportunity to move up the ranks to become a supervisor in Charlottetown but he declined. He loved his job and his home and felt it was an ideal place to raise his family. The East Point Lighthouse was one of the last three on PEI to have a keeper. When it was de-staffed in 1989 Harry bought the keeper’s house and land and retired beside the lighthouse where he had devoted most of his life to guiding ships safely past the perilous point.
East Point Lightkeepers
1867-1901: Alexander R. Beaton
1901-1921: Lauchlin MacDonald
1922-1926: Angus C MacIntyre
1926-1960: Wilbert Stewart MacIntyre
1961-1989: Harry James Harris
The following people were assistant keepers: Ronald J. Mac Donald, Augustus Mallard, William Aeneas Harris, William Hubert MacDonald, Norman Henry McKay, K.S. MacDonald, Joseph P. Gillis, Donald Gillis, Donald Francis MacIntyre, W. A. MacMillan, and John Doucette.