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.
During the first half of the 1800’s the population of Prince Edward Island increased rapidly. So too did the shipping. For some time shippers had paid a Light Duty, but no lighthouses had been built. This fact was brought to the attention of the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Henry Vere Huntley, when two memorials dated August 23, 1844, were presented to him on March 11, 1845. The first memorial was written by the Directors of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which ran the St. George, a steam ship which operated regularly in the summer between Charlottetown and Pictou, Nova Scotia. The second memorial was written by a group of influential merchants and ship owners.
The memorials pointed out the dangers to shipping because of the lack of lighthouses and the fact that the government had been collecting a Light Duty for years without supplying any lights. Apparently the timing was right, because action soon followed.
On April 5, 1845, the House of Assembly stated that the sum of five hundred and fifty pounds be granted and placed at the disposal of the Governor in Council “to defray the expense of a lighthouse on Point Prim, of stone and brick, agreeably to a plan and specification submitted to the House by Mr. Isaac Smith.” A further five pounds was allocated for clearing the land for the site.
The following appeared in The Islander, a discontinued local newspaper, on April 5, 1845: “On Monday last, a Committee appointed by the House of Assembly, consisting of Hon. Joseph Pope, Speaker F. Longworth, W. Douse, G. Coles, A. MacLean, and D. Montgomery, Esqs., accompanied by the Hon. T. H. Haviland, W. Cundall, Esq. High Sherrif, L.W.Gall, Esq. Land Surveyor, and J. D. Macdonnell, W. Bremmer, George Birnie, J. Longworth, M. Dogherty, and Isaac Smith, Esqs. and the two Masters Dopuse, proceeded, in ten sleighs, to Point Prim, for the purpose of selecting a site for the intended Light House. The party left the Queen’s Wharf about ten, and after crossing the Portage to Belle Vue, drove out on the ice in a direct line about thirteen miles to Point Prim. On landing, a site was chosen for the building, which commands a beautiful view of some thirty miles of the Straits of Northumberland, the different points at that distance being easily distinguished. The land was surveyed by Mr. Gall, and the clearing of the woods for the building disposed of to persons from the neighbouring settlements.
The party partook of a lunch and returned the sixteen miles, on one hour and twenty minutes, thus showing the facility with which travelling can be performed on good ice in winter.
We may observe that the site for the building was given by the Right Hon. The Earl of Selkirk through his Land Agent, Wm. Douse. Esq., and will add much to that part of his Lordship’s property. The House of Assembly have provided a grant of money for its erection, and the work will commence forthwith.”
On April 17, 1845, an Act was passed to make provision for the support of Lighthouses, Buoys and Beacons.
Isaac Smith, the lighthouse designer, was English born. He immigrated to PEI in 1817 at the age of 22. He had little formal training but was a talented carpenter and architect. By the time he designed the Point Prim Lighthouse he had already designed some of the most prominent buildings in the Colony, including the Lieutenant Governor’s residence, Fanningbank, St. Paul’s Church in Charlottetown, the Round Market, jails, an asylum, and Province House.
As well as designing the lighthouse, Smith oversaw its construction. An account of expenses for the lighthouse at Point Prim for 1845 includes a charge for “travelling expences, etc. paid by I. Smith in ten journies to the Point to oversee the work including expences when there – house him 2 days each time & sometimes 3.”
In late May, Richard Walsh received the contract to build the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage. Then an unfortunate event occurred. Someone took the plans for the lighthouse away from the House of Assembly. A request for the return of the plans was published in the June 6, 1845, issue of The Islander and on June 10, 1845, in the Royal Gazette. Apparently they were returned and work progressed rapidly.
Construction was completed by October 25, and the Royal Gazette noted on December 16, 1845: “Notice to Mariners: The new lighthouse at Point Prim was lighted for the first time on Thursday Evening, the fourth inst., and will continue to be lighted as long as the navigation season remains open.”
The 15 m (49 foot) circular tower is built of local brick which weathered so rapidly it had to be sheathed and shingled within two years of being built. It was painted in 1848. The base diameter of the tower is 7 m (23 feet) and the top diameter is 3.3 m (11 feet). The cast iron lantern is 3 m (10 feet) in diameter and 4 m (13 feet) in height for a total lighthouse height of 18.9 m (62 feet), although it is generally stated as 18.2 m (60 feet).
The original stone foundation has since been covered in concrete. The four windows are on the west side, each directly above the other. The tower has four floors, connected by steep wooden stairs. A strong wooden floor supports the lantern. On the exterior, the platform is supported by decorative wooden brackets. The brick walls, which are about one foot thick, can be seen from the interior of the tower.
The lantern has 10 glazed panels, each measuring 76.2 cm (30 inches) by 152.4 cm (60 inches). From 1845 to 1849 there were four lights to illuminate the lighthouse. Their light was not sufficient and the reflected rays from the parabolic reflectors did not meet at a long distance from the light, creating blind spots. In 1850 three more lights were added. These early lamps burned seal oil. Records show amounts ranging from 668 litres (147 gallons) to 750 litres (165 gallons) being bought per year from a number of Island men in the years 1847-1856. The early lamps were replaced with kerosene lamps, which were described as having a 25 mm burner and a D4 lens, which was a sector light that could be seen on all sides.
The lighthouse was originally situated on nine acres of land. That amount has been so greatly reduced by erosion that a retaining wall had to be built in 1982 along the south and west sides of the Point.
A keeper’s cottage, 19.5 m (34 foot) by 4 m (14 foot), was built south of the lighthouse. Because of its small size it was not suitable for year round accommodation for the keeper’s family. The keeper stayed there alone at nights during the navigation season, except for the summer months when he would be joined by his family. In 1912 a 3.6 m (12 foot) by 3.6 m (12 foot) extension was added to the dwelling at a cost of $197.51. In addition to the cottage there were a number of other buildings, including a small pump house. The cottage has since been sold and moved. The horse shed, which stood just inside the gate of the lighthouse lane, was moved to McAulay’s Wharf and used as a bait shed. The oil storage building was purchased and moved in 1969. Today the tower stands alone on the point.
Manson Murchison, keeper from 1956-1969, recalled in an interview with Goldie Gillis that the kerosene lamps had to be filled, cleaned and trimmed each day. The keeper’s work load was lightened considerably in 1958 when the multiple fixed beam lights were replaced because they were being confused with the truck headlights of Irish moss fishermen driving along the beach searching for moss. The light was changed from fixed white to flashing white with increased intensity. This was done by installing six panel lenses complete with clock gear and replacing the kerosene lamps with 35 mm kerosene vapour equipment, which had been removed from Cape Egmont.
At this time the light was rotated mechanically by a system of weights and pulleys similar to those on a grandfather clock. The cables were located in a central shaft, which extended from the bottom floor to the lantern room. The keeper had to reset the weights every four hours to keep the light rotating. The clock gear was set for a 5 second flash (flash 4 seconds, eclipse 4 seconds.
The kerosene vapour burner floated in a mercury bath. Mercury was used for this purpose mainly because it acted as a lubricant bearing for the light to turn in, and also because it was not greatly affected by changes in night and daytime temperatures.
The light was converted from kerosene vapour to automatic electric on March 10, 1969, and the last keeper, Manson Murchison, retired. Shortly afterwards, all of the auxiliary buildings were sold and moved. For a time there was a back up lighting system, but by the early 2000’s those systems had been removed from all Island lighthouses by Canadian Coast Guard.
Because there have been so few changes to the building since it was built, Point Prim Lighthouse is designated “Classified”, the highest heritage designation bestowed by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office. Most of the other historic Island beacons have had more changes and are in the next lowest category of “Recognized.”
In 1975 the location became a picnic site and community park. The lighthouse was established as a community museum in 1980. The lighthouse is leased from the Canadian Coast guard to the Belfast Community Development Corporation. The Point Prim Lighthouse is operated by a three member committee of the Point Prim and Belfast Women’s Institute. It is open during the summer months.
This proud beacon has an enduring place in the hearts of the people of the area, and indeed the whole Island. Generations of children have visited there and it has always been a favourite picnic place for families.
When the 150th anniversary celebrations were held in 1995, people came from all over the Island to the event. People in period costume, many of them descendants of former keepers, were on hand to celebrate the occasion. The local Belfast Pipe and Drum Band provided music and dancing. Other celebrations such as weddings are held there as well.
In the words of Goldie Gillis, who married Gilbert Gillis there in 1974: “In a wonderful state of preservation, buffeted by salt spray and storm and hurricane for over a century and a half, the old Pharos of Point Prim still stands proudly erect. In its long vigil, the lighthouse has witnessed much Island history and has guided many a mariner safely past the treacherous reefs of Point Prim. No doubt it shall continue to give guidance for many more years to those that go down to the sea in ships.”
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.