Point Prim Lighthouse was the first lighthouse built on Prince Edward Island and remains virtually unchanged from its original state. It is unique in that it is the only stone lighthouse on the Island. The local Island brick was so soft and susceptible to weathering that it had to be covered in boarding and shingles in 1947, only two years after it was built. The original brick walls are still visible from the interior of the lighthouse, which features four floors connected by steep wooden stairs leading up to the polygonal cast iron lantern room.
Today the tower stands alone on the point, close to the capital city of Charlottetown, but was originally surrounded by various outbuildings and a keeper’s cottage. Erosion of the coastline is a constant concern at Point Prim, as at many Island lighthouses, so a retaining wall was built in 1982 on the south and west sides of the point to help protect the site.
Visitors to Point Prim Lighthouse can tour the tower during the summer months, and it has been a popular destination for tourists and Islanders alike who come to admire the province’s solitary stone lighthouse.
In common with most parts of Prince Edward Island, especially along the coast of the Northumberland Strait, Point Prim has a story of the Burning Ship. Once during the spring months when the lighthouse was not yet in operation a ship was sighted in the Strait. It was so real to Angus Murchison that he went to open the light as he was obliged to do if a ship was sighted in the Strait. When he had everything in working order to give guidance to the burning vessel, it disappeared!
Manson Murchison also saw the Phantom Ship across the Strait, west of Pictou Island, Nova Scotia.
Another story told in the area is that of the missing Acadian bell. A number of Acadians had settled in the Point Prim area and had built a small church. The building was also used as a school. In 1758, when the Acadians were expelled from Isle St. Jean, as Prince Edward Island was then called, the people are rumoured to have buried the church bell to keep the British Army from finding it. People have searched the nearby marsh for the bell but it has never been found. The building survived until recent years, but never divulged the secret whereabouts of its prized bell.
Another true tale occurred much more recently. 1964 was called Centennial Year, and there were Island-wide festivals and events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first meetings held in Charlottetown to discuss the formation of the Dominion of Canada. Because of these meetings, the Island is known as the Birthplace of Canada and the Cradle of Confederation.
As the highlight of the celebrations, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were invited to come to Charlottetown. They travelled there on board the Royal Yacht, the Britannica. Keeper Manson Murchison had been instructed ahead of time to make sure the light was in good working order. Wanting to do an extra good job, he put more air in the tank than required so the lamp would burn brighter. However, the extra air was too much pressure for the old tank and created a leak. Thus, the light went out at a very crucial time and the Queen arrived without the guiding beams of the Queen of Island lighthouses.
There was a total of twelve full time and interim lightkeepers at Prince Edward Island’s oldest lighthouse from the time it opened on December 4, 1845, until it became fully automated on March 10, 1969. Except for the first keeper, John Ings, of Charlottetown, the others were all from the Point Prim area. Over the years, the job of lightkeeper was a much sought after position. That is not surprising as it offered a home, a year round salary and a position of responsibility and respect - not only in the rural community, but also within the seafaring community. Hiring preference was given to veterans, but not all keepers fell into that category. Politics often played a role in selecting the keeper.
The keeper’s duties were outlined in The Rules and Instructions for the Guidance of Lighthouse Keepers. They were to “keep the lighthouse and other property in the manner that a prudent man would treat his own property.” There were detailed instructions as to the maintenance and repair of the lighting apparatus. The light was to be operated from sunset to sunrise and then immediately prepared for the next lighting. The blinds had to be put upon the lantern windows and linen covers put over the lenses or reflectors. This was done in case the sun’s reflection on the lens caused a fire. Oil had to be carried from the oil house to the top of the lighthouse. The keeper was responsible for supplying coal or wood to heat the lighthouse and cottage. Keepers also often served as fisheries wardens at no additional pay.
The lighthouse was originally illuminated by four lamps. These proved to be insufficient from a distance, so on February 5, 1850, Commander Beecher of Her Majesty’s Navy made the following recommendations: “the Light would be very much improved by the addition of the three lamps and reflectors…. The additional lamps would not only add to the power of the light, but they would also remove all ground for excuse in the event of the light becoming dim or disappearing again, as in the instance related by Commander Jenner.
“The lighthouse keeper at Point Prim has no assistant, and his salary is not such that he can reasonably be expected to provide one. It is improbable that he, or anyone, can always be sure of avoiding sleep during the thirteen or fourteen consecutive hours of a November or December night, and I therefore recommend that he should be allowed the requisite assistance to insure constant and wakeful attendance.” This assistance was never granted.
The keeper kept a daily log, noting weather, shipping, duties such as painting, and notable events. There was a considerable amount of paperwork. The lighthouse had to be kept spotless and whitewashed or painted as needed. The Federal Department in charge of lighthouses had to be informed of any repairs the keeper couldn’t make and approve of both the carpenter and the cost of any additional materials. Nothing was to be done without approval from headquarters in Charlottetown or Ottawa.