West Point Lighthouse is called “the first of the 2nd generation” of lighthouses on PEI. It was the first one built by the new Department of Marine (also called Department of Marine and Fisheries). West Point was the first of the square towers, and the highest at 20.6 m (67 feet 8 inches) from ground to vane. Built by the firm of Messers. Mugridge and Co. from Shediac, New Brunswick for $4,559.59, it consisted of a square tapered tower of frame construction set on stone foundations. It had a 1 ½ storey, gable-roofed house with a lean-to storage shed. There were only two keepers during the 88 years before the tower was electrified in 1963.
In 1983, a volunteer group, the West Point Development Corporation, leased the tower from the Canadian Coast Guard and on July 1, 1984, began operating it as “Canada’s only Inn in a Lighthouse”. On May 21, 2002, it became the first lighthouse on PEI to have ownership transferred from the Federal Government to a community group.
The early settlers in West Point were from Scotland and Ireland, and they brought many of their beliefs and superstitions across the Atlantic. There was a strong belief in witches, pixies and forerunners, and supernatural explanations were often given for things they could not explain.
For example, they could not understand why there were natural pathways through the wooded dunes behind the lighthouse, so they concluded that fairies had made the paths and kept them swept clean so they could walk on them. Today in Cedar Dunes Park you can walk on the Fairy Trails created over the centuries as successive waves of sand dunes became covered with vegetation and eventually trees. Not all of the folklore can be so easily explained.
Just behind the lighthouse dwells a mystery that has tantalized more than one eager gold-digger. Legend says that a treasure was buried there many years ago. Some say it comes from one of General Wolfe’s pay ships which was wrecked on the reef. Others claim the infamous pirate, Captain Kidd, stopped here to hide some ill-gotten treasure.
According to the legend, a man named John Campbell of Enmore had a dream or vision three nights in succession. In the dream he was told to take sixteen men and seek a cove shaped like a half moon. There they would travel over the dunes and find three pine trees, blazed with a knife. They were to dig in the dark of the moon and say nothing or the treasure would disappear. He assembled his men, who eventually found the location not far from the West Point Lighthouse. They dug until someone’s shovel struck wood and a shout of elation went up. The minute the voice was heard, there was the sound of a ship hauling anchor, and the terrified men saw a fully rigged ship heading out to sea. At the same time, the sand began to pour down the hole on top of the diggers so quickly they were almost trapped. For many years people sought the treasure in vain. And this is where legend meets reality....
Bertha (Smith), Lighthouse Willie’s daughter, was born at the lighthouse and spent all her childhood summers there. When she was interviewed in 1975, she vividly recalled that some nights there would be a crowd of men staying there until it got really dark. Then they would get her brothers, Jack or Stan, to take them to the old Money Pit, as they called it, so they could dig for the treasure. Eventually the pine trees died from all the digging and the place was marked by stakes. They would dig all night, and in her words, “Mother would give them a fine big breakfast.”
There was supposed to be a curse associated with the treasure, which said that someone in the digging party would die soon after. One man who dug in the rain later died of pneumonia. It was the Curse! Another fell off a barn roof and was killed. It was the Curse! As time went on there were fewer treasure seekers. The last dig was in 1925. John Noble Ladner, a MacWilliams man, and one other man set out to get the treasure. They methodically dug a pit, and built a deep square box to keep the sand from caving in on them. While they were digging, something terrified them so badly they fled and never came back, even to get their lumber. The next year Ernest MacDonald got married and set up housekeeping about a half-mile from the lighthouse where his grandfather, Lighthouse Willie, had tended the light for fifty years. He and his brothers got the lumber and made a well box from it. Earnest died in September, 2005, at the age of 103. He said if anybody got the treasure, they never told anyone. Who knows, it might still be there, over the dunes, through the woods….Do you dare to dig in the dark of the moon?
When the first settlers arrived in the West Point area they were told by the natives that there was a huge snake that dwelt in the waters just off the Point. They were warned not to harm it. Over the past two centuries there have been numerous sightings, some as recently as 1992 and 2002.
Estimates of the length of the creature vary from 12 m to 24 m (40 to 80 feet) in length. The body is snake-like in appearance but does not have a scaly skin. One witness described it as having short dark hair, similar to a short-haired dog. It undulates through the water with only parts of the body visible. These humps or coils of the body rise out of the water so high that they are entirely out of the water. Some people have reported seeing as many as three coils. The head resembles that of a horse, rising about three feet out of the water on a slim neck.
On a summer evening in August, 1992, a Newfoundland couple and two American journalists separately watched the serpent in the waters near the lighthouse. It would go underwater for long periods of time and then resurface along the shore. The couple drew a picture which lighthouse manager, Carol Livingstone, showed to people, inquiring whether there had been other sightings. It turned out at least seven other people had seen something large and unfamiliar swimming there. Ryan Morrison described what he and two of his father’s fishermen saw from their boat, “It looked like a big snake with a number of humps. It was moving quickly through the water.”
The most recent report was in 2002, when Allison Ellis was riding an ATV with his grandson and great-grandson to the beach at West Cape. It was so calm that the surface of the water was like a mirror. About 300 m (1000 feet) out from the shore, they could see something sticking out of the water. At first they thought it was a log about 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter, sticking about 61 cm (2 feet) out of the water. They had to change their minds when it began to travel out to sea so fast it left quite a wake behind it. Ellis, who spent 43 years fishing the Northumberland Strait, had never seen anything like it.
Similar creatures are reported in Lake Okanogan, British Columbia, Lake Utopia, New Brunswick, Lake Champlain, Vermont, and off the coast of Cape Ann in Massachusetts. The sea serpent visited Cape Ann for nearly two weeks in 1817, and returned again in 1886, according to the Harvard Linnaean Society and numerous other documents. An article in the November 1977 Yankee Magazine tells about another sighting at Cape Ann in 1975. Accounts are so alike people were plainly describing the same kind of animal. They said it looked like a huge brown snake, as large as a half-barrel, and carrying a “head like a horse or a big dog,“ over 1 m (4 feet) above the water. Behind it they saw a number of dark humps as the creature moved rapidly forward with an up-and-down motion. From the number of humps and the distance between them it was calculated the Serpent’s overall length was not less than 30.5 m (100 feet).
The Cape Anne Sea Serpent is very similar to the one seen at West Point. Those who have never seen the serpent scoff at its very existence; those who have seen it find their eyes ever turning seaward in hopes of another tantalizing glimpse of the West Point Sea Serpent.
During the first three years that the West Point Lighthouse operated as an inn, volunteers would stay overnight at the lighthouse two nights a week to give the manager time off. If there were no overnight guests there by 9:00 pm, the volunteer would go home.
One evening in the summer of 1984 Merna Boulter was the volunteer on duty. The Chowder Kitchen had closed earlier and the staff had gone home. When nine o’clock came and there wasn’t a soul but her at the lighthouse, Merna decided she might as well go home. She climbed to the top of the tower to check that all was well, and then left the lighthouse, locking the door behind her. As she got into her car, she noticed a light on in the bedroom over the veranda. She thought it was rather odd that she hadn’t noticed it when she went by the open door only moments before. At any rate, she unlocked the door, went back upstairs and turned off the light. She went back downstairs and out the door, locking it behind her. Imagine her dismay when she looked back at the Lighthouse and saw the light was back on in the upstairs bedroom! When asked later what she did then she said, “I left! I figured if there was someone in there who wanted the lights on that bad, they could darned well have them on!”
That wasn’t the last time there was a mystery with the lights. In 1987, an addition was built to the lighthouse. Within the next year or two, it became obvious that some changes needed to be made to make the kitchen layout more efficient. One evening in late winter a group of the volunteers went to look over the kitchen and see whether the architect’s drawings would work out. There had been a problem with a very high electricity bill previously because the electric heat had accidentally been left on, so when the people finished in the kitchen they turned off the lights and gathered at the front desk.
There they shut off all the power switches at the main control panel, except the one switch that controlled the navigation light at the top. Just as they were about to leave they realized that the architect’s drawings were in the kitchen, so someone took a flashlight and retrieved them. Everyone got into a car and headed for home. On the Cedar Dunes Park Road, they were stopped by a person who asked if they had seen a neighbour who was distraught with grief. They feared he might have gotten into the lighthouse with the plan to jump from the top. No one had seen him there, but it had to be checked out. One car went directly to the lighthouse, while the other sped to the nearest house to drop of someone to alert more neighbours to help in the search. When the people unlocked the lighthouse door and went in, the lights were back on in the kitchen, in spite of the fact they were turned off at the switch and the fuse box! The man they were looking for was found elsewhere, so it was not him who turned on the lights in the empty lighthouse. Was it Lighthouse Willie and Bennie reminding everyone that they were still the keepers of the light?
There have been numerous incidences of the lights being turned off or on in various rooms when no one was there. Today if it happens and someone reports it to they staff, they are usually told with a laugh, “ It’s just the old keepers, playing tricks with the lights!” After all, these two men spent 88 years sending signals with lights. What better way to remind the present day keepers that they are still watching over their old light.
When the Shore Road was widened in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, there was a need for fill, so the contractors used machinery to obtain fill from a gully at the edge of the nearby capes. They were careful to take the fill from one side of the gully, because there was known to be a number of bodies buried on the other side. To their dismay, they found skeletal remains of at least three people, one of them clearly a young child. Jelly’s Funeral Home sent out young Doug Ferguson to re-bury the remains, and a cross was erected to mark their grave. However, over the years the soft sandstone capes continued to erode, so Coulson Wood and others re-buried the bones further inland a number of times over the years.
In 1993, there was a wedding on the beach and one young guest got ammunition for years of stories when she stumbled upon a skull and other skeletal parts on the shore below the cross. The bones were removed, this time to the University of Prince Edward Island where they were studied and later interred in a graveyard, far removed from the capes, so now perhaps they can rest in peace.
There are various stories as to who was buried there, but no one knows for sure. One explanation is that they were people who got sick and died on board a ship, and were taken ashore and buried at West Cape.
Another story related by Tryphosia (Smith) MacDonald to her granddaughter, Carol Livingstone, tells a more blood-thirsty explanation. She said that the old people used to say that long ago, before there were any regular settlers in that area, that sometimes ships would be lured ashore by wreckers who would place lights along the shore to what would appear to be a harbour. The wreckers would then plunder the ship. When Carol commented that they would never get away with it, because the survivors would tell, her grandmother said, “According to what the old people said, they made sure there were no survivors!”
That explanation was further reinforced by a story told to Carol by Percy MacPherson. He said that when his son Hartley had used his new heavy equipment to plough an area on the other side of the road which had never been ploughed before, they ploughed up a lot of old bones. When asked what they did then, he said, “We just kept on ploughing. We didn’t want to dig up those old stories!”
When Carol asked Coulson Wood about that story, he said that dogs and farm animals were buried there, which might explain the bones which the MacPhersons found although one would think that experienced farmers like Percy or Hartley would have known the difference, and Percy was firm in his belief that it was human bones they found.
The position of lightkeeper was a vital role, especially in the days when all goods and people arrived or left Prince Edward Island by ship. The lightkeeper was held in high esteem. In one community a resident said, “After the priest, he was the most important person.”
The keepers were supplied with a manual such as the 1879 Rules and Instructions for the Guidance of Lighthouse Keepers and of Engineers in Charge of Steam Fog Alarms in the Dominion of Canada. It outlined, in great detail, all aspects of the keepers duties. In addition to all the minute details of lighting the lamp, the keeper was to make sure in the morning that everything was ready for the next evening. This involved cleaning, polishing, replenishing the fuel, etc. Particular instructions were given that “the glass prisms and lenses of a dioptric apparatus are to be cleaned every day when in use, being first freed from dust by using the linen dusters slightly damped, and then rubbed with perfectly clean and dry chamois skins."
“The lightkeeper must perform any repairs which can be made without the assistance of any skilled labour, and which may be necessary to the efficiency of the light, and must paint the different parts when they require it, or when directed by the superintendent, for which no extra allowance will be paid him.”
The lightkeepers were to assist with the landing of stores and “observe the strictest economy and most careful management in the use of the stores.” Even broken parts were to be returned. For this reason it was necessary that the keeper be able to read and write as well as keep accounts. There was a considerable amount of paperwork, with even the simplest request having to be made in triplicate.
Of course, they were to render any possible assistance to vessels or persons in distress. This sometimes meant providing food or shelter at the lighthouse.
The keeper was not to leave the lighthouse except to draw salary and attend church. He was required to be sober, industrious, attentive to his duties, and orderly in his family. Such were the duties undertaken by the only two keepers who kept the West Point Lighthouse for eighty-eight years: William MacDonald, 1875-1925, and Benjamin MacIsaac, 1925-1963.
William MacDonald Lightkeeper 1875 - 1925
William Anderson MacDonald was born on August 29, 1846, in Glenwood, Prince Edward Island, where his parents had settled when they arrived from the Isle of Skye, Scotland. As a young man he moved to West Point to work at the shipyards. He married Maria Dyment and they lived on a farm adjacent to the shipyard. They had 8 children: Effa (1870), Mary (1874), Walter (1878-1885), Jack (1880), Bertha (1884), Stan (1887), Helen (1890) and Annie (1892).
He was appointed as lightkeeper of the West Point Lighthouse in 1875 and helped to build the lighthouse. Because there were a number of William MacDonald’s in the area, he was often referred to as Lighthouse Willie.
Lightkeepers' wages were not enough to support a large family so he continued to farm. In addition to the usual animals and crops raised on a typical farm of the day, he raised driving horses that were much prized for use with a light wagon or jaunting sleigh. His sister Sarah and her son Dave lived on the farm as well. The family supplied fresh produce to the workers at the shipyard. William walked 3.2 km (2 miles) along the shore every day to work on the farm, and returned each evening to attend to his light keeping duties.
The lamps had to be lit early enough to have their full effect by the time twilight ended. In the morning when the light was extinguished, the eight lamps had to have the lamp chimneys or flues washed, the kerosene oil had to be replenished, and any soot which might have accumulated had to be removed with metal prickers.
All reflectors had to be polished to a mirror-like surface. The glass in the lantern room had to be cleaned on the outside as well as the inside. This meant climbing through the short, narrow door and venturing onto the lantern deck in all weather. The weights had to be wound up every four hours all night. Fire was a constant danger in wooden lighthouses. In a later type of light, there was a fine wire that would break, thus shutting off the oil supply if the flames got too high in the lamp. A box of sand, shovels and buckets were kept on the fourth floor in case of fire. There was also a shelf containing spare lamp flues.
There was very strict accounting of all supplies delivered to the lighthouse by the Brant or other supply ships. Daily weather reports had to be entered in a keeper’s log, as well as other events of note. The painting of the lighthouse and day-to-day maintenance was the keeper’s responsibility, although arrangements could be made to hire local carpenters for bigger jobs. Apparently the authorities thought the keepers didn’t have enough to do, because the following notice appeared on May 21, 1888, in the PEI Agriculture newspaper: “All the lighthouse keepers of the Island have been appointed Fishery guardians, and will be sworn in by Commander Spain at an early date. The duties of this appointment will be discharged in conjunction with those keeping the lights. There will be no extra pay, as it is considered that the work of the lightkeepers will not be materially increased.”
It must have been a challenge to raise a large family at the lighthouse because the place had to be ready to pass a white glove inspection at any time from the lighthouse inspector. Floors were scrubbed on hands and knees, using water, sand and a sturdy scrubbing brush. There had to be enough bread and other food baked to supply any visitors or fishermen looking for provisions. The girls helped their mother and took over much of the housekeeping when Maria died in 1905, at the age of 53. Stan went to sea in the summers with his uncle and grandfather when he was eight years old, while Jack worked mainly on the farm. The third son, Walter, was diabetic and died at the age of seven.
Life at the lighthouse was not all work, and contrary to the isolation of many lighthouses, the West Point Lighthouse was in the centre of a bustling community. There was fishing, farming, shipbuilding, lumbering, and a number of lobster factories. The door was never locked, because sailors might need to come in for shelter from a storm. People loved to drop in for a visit to enjoy each other’s company and the hospitality of the family. There were relatives from “away” and visiting fishermen so the place was never lonely.
They bought a new organ when they moved to the lighthouse. Even though much of the visiting was done in the big kitchen, before people left, they would all go into the parlour where Maria or one of the children would play “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning”, a hymn about lighthouses which was based on a true story.
Sometimes strangers arrived wanting to climb to the top, so the youngsters learned to be good tour guides. In the early winter, before the Northumberland Strait froze over, young and old gathered to skate on a small lake behind the lighthouse.
According to a letter from his granddaughter, Wilma Robertson, (daughter of Annie), when World War I ended in November, 1918, William raised the flag on the lighthouse. The supply ship was sailing past, so it came in to see what he wanted. “Here he was, rejoicing over the peace at last and he thought they were pretty slow to know. He always had a little nip for the captain, of course”.
This is another of her recollections of her mother’s days at the lighthouse: “When my mother was still a young girl and her mother was still alive, they never had the opportunity to go shopping. Grandfather did it all. He went on the train to Summerside in the morning and came back in the evening. He would have to drive by horse and buggy the twelve miles to O’Leary to meet the train. There were two girls about the shape of Mom and Aunt Helen and their hair colour was similar. Aunt Helen had dark auburn hair and Mom’s was very dark brown, therefore he would have blue material for Aunt Helen and pink prints for Mom. Also hats for the girls and grandmother, and any other material she needed. They had their own sheep, so they carded their own wool and spun the yarn. Everybody could knit.”
Despite the lighthouse, several boats still ran aground on the reef at West Point. One of these was the Inveresh, a square-rigged ship that was wrecked there in 1879. The North Star was wrecked when she came ashore with a load of coal. Several others, including the Roseneath and the Ruth Robinson were also lost. Crew members from the shipwrecks took refuge at the lighthouse. It was another of the keeper’s duties to look after them until they could return home.
When William retired in 1925, he was awarded the Imperial Long Service Medal for fifty years of service. He never missed a night of lightkeeping during that time. He lived with his daughter Mary (Mrs. Charles MacWilliams) until his death in 1934 at the age of 88.
Benjamin MacIsaac Lightkeeper 1925 - 1963
Bennie MacIsaac replaced William MacDonald as lightkeeper on April 9, 1925. He was a World War I veteran who had spent two years in the trenches before being wounded in 1918. He spent a year in hospitals in England and Halifax. He had served in Canada, England, France and Belgium.
He was the keeper for thirty-eight years. In addition to his duties as keeper, he had a farm in Dunblane about 4.8 km (3 miles) from the lighthouse. The wages at that time were not enough to raise his large family: Chesley (1922), Lorna (1923), Donald (1924), Ada (1926), Annie (1827), George (1929), Robert (1931), Thelma (1933), Melba (1934), Elwood (1936), Foster (1938), Audrey (1939), Margaret Rose (1941), John (1943) and Debra (1947). Although the family did not live at the lighthouse, it was still an important part of their lives and they enjoyed the time spent there during summers with their father and friends.
Of course other family members learned the duties of the keeper. When Bennie became ill in October, 1959, his son George took over the physical work needed to run the light while his father kept up the considerable paperwork.
When Bennie stayed at the lighthouse during World War II, most of the responsibility for their family life fell to his wife, Pearl. He was only home for a few hours each day. One year he was issued a ton of coal, but many times he had to cut wood on his farm for both the lighthouse and the farmhouse.
The job of caretaker was a big responsibility for one man, especially during World War II, when day and night duty was required to guide ships and planes traveling in the area. He was equipped with a radio-telephone enabling him to make contact with the planes. His family could sometimes hear him on their radio, but could not contact him. The batteries for the radio were charged by a windmill at the lighthouse. He spent three winters at the lighthouse, which had never been meant for winter living. He said it was so cold a little white mouse crept into his bed occasionally and slept with him to keep warm. (He was such a great story teller that we never knew if that really happened.)
Being a lightkeeper meant looking after the light and repairing it when things went wrong. It also meant being able to make adjustments to the light with the change in seasons, as the mercury and weight which timed the light revolutions would stiffen in the cold weather and throw the timing off. The equipment was operated by oil and in the winter 15 l (4 gallons) of oil a day had to be hauled up to the top floor of the lighthouse. In summer, it only took a 2 l (half gallon) a day to operate the light.
In winter, the heat from the light would cause a heavy layer of frost to form on the windows. To prevent that from happening, he had to wash the windows with a heavy salt brine which was very hard on the hands. Alcohol would do the same thing, but was very scarce during the war.
The grounding of the Norwegian ship, the Nandi, was an event that has lived long in the memory of everyone in the area. It occurred in mid-November, 1938. It had started to snow in the morning so Bennie decided to go down to the lighthouse early. He got his car stuck and had to walk back home. He tried to get the car out but could not, so he walked the three miles through the blinding snowstorm. At the school, the wind and visibility was so bad he feel into the ditch in icy water up to his knees. As he neared the lighthouse, about 3:00 pm, he heard a loud bellowing noise. He quickly went inside and lit the light, but couldn’t see a thing. It wasn’t until 11:00 pm that the storm cleared enough so he could see the lights of the Nandi as it lay stranded on the beach a mile or two north of the lighthouse. He later learned that the crew had thought they were near the shores of New Brunswick. Because of the extremely high tide, they had crossed over the West Point Reef, and then, thinking they would find shelter, they swung in towards the shore, ending up high and dry about a hundred yards from the beach. Neither the ship nor crew was injured, but it stayed aground until the following spring when it was re-floated. The crew went by train to Halifax and by ship to their homeland. Captain Sam Smith and his family stayed on board all winter and spent much time entertaining the many people who came to visit the 76.2 m (250 foot) vessel stranded on the shore.
There were not as many social events at the lighthouse as there had been during William’s tenure. That is hardly surprising as many of the industries of William’s day had vanished and the Depression and World War II occurred while he was keeper. A fierce winter storm in the mid-forties destroyed the wharf, but the lighthouse escaped damage.
However, it continued to be a popular destination. People from miles around came to West Point on Sunday afternoon during the 1950’s. Many visited with Bennie in the evening. Bennie was a born storyteller, and many people visited him for the climb to the top while he lit the lamp, and then settled in for an evening of storytelling. The schoolchildren who went there in the evenings frequently ran home along the narrow trail, sure they were being pursued by ghosts or a headless man.
He was the second and last keeper of the West Point Lighthouse. He had kept the light from 1925 until 1963 when the lighthouse was automated on May 29, and a lightkeeper was no longer needed. Both Bennie and the social times at the lighthouse were missed very much when he retired, and an important chapter in the life of the community of West Point was closed.
My name is Carol Livingstone. I have been fascinated by lighthouses as long as I can remember. My great-grandfather was Lighthouse Willie MacDonald. My family lived in the house closest to the lighthouse, and some of my earliest memories are of seeing the light flashing in the night, and hearing my elderly relatives talk about growing up there. I was one of the children who was terrified but delighted by Bennie’s stories. I am devoted to lighthouse development and preservation. I founded the group that operates the West Point Lighthouse and managed it for 7 years. I founded the PEI Lighthouse Society and was co-chair of the Atlantic Lighthouse Council. Lighthouses are such an important part of my life that my husband said I was married to them, which led to my nickname, Mrs. Lighthouse.
Many of the descendants of both William MacDonald and Bennie MacIsaac have been involved in the restoration and ongoing operation of the West Point Lighthouse. I believe we have to involve the children of today, so they will become the lightkeepers of tomorrow.