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.
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.
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.