Panmure Island Lighthouse

Panmure Island Lighthouse was the second lighthouse built on Prince Edward Island, and the first to be constructed of wood – a trend that all later lighthouses on the Island would follow. The octagonal shape was also a style that would be followed by the majority of lighthouses built on the Island until it joined Confederation in 1873.

Panmure Island Lighthouse guides shipping into Cardigan Bay on the east coast of Prince Edward Island. Since its construction in 1853 the site has seen numerous outbuildings and living spaces, including keepers’ cottages, barns, sheds and a fog alarm building.

The last lightkeeper at Panmure Island Lighthouse, William MacDonald, retired in 1985. The lighthouse has since been repainted by the Canadian Coast Guard, and the shoreline has seen restoration efforts in response to erosion and storm surges. The late keeper’s daughter and her partner look after the lighthouse and maintain a display and gift shop within the tower.

Panmure Island Lighthouse History

Panmure Island Lighthouse, built in 1853, was the second lighthouse on Prince Edward Island. It was built to guide the heavy shipping in eastern Prince Edward Island such as that described in the Royal Gazette, August 25, 1835: “On Sunday last there were one hundred and seventy-five vessels at anchor in the harbour at Three Rivers, chiefly American fishermen.” Panmure Head, as it is sometimes called, was the first of the Island’s octagonal wooden towers. The lighthouse was built at the northeast point of Panmure Island which is, in fact, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. At high tide ships sometimes met their doom trying to enter Cardigan Bay by crossing over the water covered isthmus. The lighthouse is located at the entrance to Cardigan Bay and Georgetown Harbour.

The sum of twenty pounds was paid to Archibald MacDonald for one acre of his land and right-of-way through his fields to access the lighthouse. Maintenance of the lighthouse was a local government responsibility until PEI joined Confederation in 1873.

The keepers lived in a small cottage, which was later used as an oil house and then a garage. Panmure Island had one of the earliest fog alarms on the Island. The 1908, the Department of Transport built a fog alarm building that operated by a Type F diaphone and compressed air. That alarm was replaced by a Stone-Chance electric fog horn in 1971. The building was declared surplus in 1980 and moved to an adjacent property. In 1909 a spacious two storey house was built. Over the years it deteriorated and was replaced with a one-and-a-half storey cottage in 1957. There were also barns and other sheds as the keepers usually kept animals.

The tower is of heavy timber construction with many techniques similar to those used in shipbuilding - the use of wooden pegs called tree nails or trunnels, for example. Heavy crosspieces of timber were used above and below the windows. Wooden splines were placed between the floorboards to ensure a close fit. The windows were fitted with narrow strips of wood that fit into side grooves, which permitted the windows to be easily removed. The ceilings were left unfinished so one could see the wide floor boards on the next level. Heavy timbers support the weight of the top deck and lantern. Strong metal turnbuckles attached to the main upright timbers secure the building firmly to its foundation.

The lighthouse is 17.8 m (58.4 feet) in height from base to vane. The tower has a cedar shingled exterior and a masonry foundation. The countless steps of the keepers are evident in the worn wooden steps linking the four floors and leading to the lantern room. There are wooden hatches at the top of the stairways. The interior walls are covered with painted wooden boards cut to the shape of the tower.

This lighthouse is one of the most beautiful on Prince Edward Island. It has good proportions and details such as the corbelled cornice brackets beneath the lantern deck add to its appeal. The pedimented caps over the windows and door are much more evident since they were painted red in 1997. A metal railing ensured the keeper would be safe when he went onto the lantern deck to clean windows, paint or do other maintenance. There is a bullseye beehive lens with a 700 watt flashing light that can be seen for 32.2 km (20 miles).

There was major work done at the light station in 1955. Crews from the Department of Transportation boarded with the family of keeper George Creed while they installed new machinery in and made repairs to the fog alarm building. The following summer crews shingled and painted the 103 year old lighthouse.

The fifties were a time of major change to Island lighthouses. Electricity was installed in most of them by the late 1950’s; often the dwellings were demolished if the keeper was no longer needed following electrification. In 1955, when George Creed requested a bathroom be installed in the old dwelling, he was advised that a new house would be built. The older home was sold and moved after the new house was finished in 1957.

There were changes in the inside of the tower over the years as well. A weight shaft was added when the kerosene vapour light was introduce in the late 1950’s. A generator room was constructed on the first floor of the lighthouse when it was automated in 1985. A ventilator was placed in the lower window of the tower. The generators were removed from all Island lighthouses in the late 1990’s as use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) equipment became more widespread and vessels did not depend on lighthouses as heavily as they once did. There was also an auxiliary light affixed to the railing of the lantern deck. It was removed in the late 1990’s.

An area on the second floor was partitioned off as a fog alarm room. Sensors would automatically trip the alarm if fog was detected within a certain distance. Fog alarms have since been removed from all Island lighthouses.

The lighthouse was automated in 1985. Lightkeeper William MacDonald retired and the dwelling was rented to his daughter Margaret and her husband Roger MacLeod, who later purchased it. They operate the lighthouse in the summer months on behalf of the Panmure Island Lighthouse Association Limited, which was formed in 1996. Although not a museum there are a number of artefacts, pictures and items relating to the area on display for visitors’ enjoyment. There is also a gift shop on the first floor.

A storm surge in 2002 caused severe damage to the causeway leading to Panmure Island. Rocks and sand were hauled in to repair the damage. A year or two later another storm removed all the sand, but the rocks held firm. The shoreline has again been restored.

In 1994, the lighthouse received the Federal Heritage Building Review Office (FHBRO) designation of “Recognized”. It has had a long and distinguished history protecting schooners, steamers and fishing boats. May the good luck brought by rainbows continue well into the future for this much loved beacon.

Panmure Island Lighthouse Stories

In keeping with most other lighthouses on Prince Edward Island, Panmure Island has its story of the Phantom Ship. It differs, however, in that its tale is not of a sighting, but because within the light of its beams is Cape Sharp, which lays claim to be the original home of the Burning Ship.

This is the story as related in the Bristol Notes, a column in The Guardian newspaper written by Walter O’Brien during the 1950’s and 1960’s:

“In answer to many requests for the story of the phantom or burning ship seen off the shores of PEI through the many years, we sent out a request for the true story and Mrs. Basil Farrell in the Newton Cross District sent us what she said is the true story.

She said there was a family that lived in Gaspereaux at Cape Sharp, PEI, near the shore. They were a French family, name of Coursir, and they had one daughter who was going with a sailor. They were in love, but her parents were against the match. They disapproved of it, so the girl and her boyfriend planned a meeting. When his ship would be in the Island port, she was to watch for three signal lights and then come to the ship or he would come to her.

So she watched for the signal lights every night and when she saw them she knew it was him and he came ashore for her. When her parents missed her they started a search for her and her father saw the signal lights and started out to the ship to bring her back. When he got to the ship it seems they got into a fight and in the fighting they upset the oil lamp.

The ship and its load of hay caught fire. So the girl went to the after rail of the ship and turned to her father and said, ‘This will haunt you for all time!’ and then she jumped overboard and was never seen again nor was her body ever found. The markings where her home stood (are) still there today at Cape Sharp.

Mrs. Farrell said this is the true story and she saw the burning ship herself 50 years ago and knows many others who have also seen it, especially in the fall season.”

Mrs. Farrell’s sighting would have been about 1900.

Panmure Island Lighthouse Keepers

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!”

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.