Wood Islands Lighthouse was put into service in 1876 and is unique for being the last lighthouse on Prince Edward Island where the lightkeeper and his family lived within the lighthouse. The dwelling, which received some changes during its lifetime, is still attached to the tower.
Wood Islands has a long history of inter-provincial transport. A mail run between Wood Islands and Pictou, Nova Scotia, was the Island’s only water link with the mainland until 1827. Construction of the Wood Islands Ferry Terminal began in 1937 and made this harbour a very important one.
The lighthouse is now operated by a dedicated group called The Keepers of the Light, who established exhibits in the lighthouse on the history of the community, lighthouses, the fishery and ferry industries, and bootlegging.
There have been numerous reports of a phantom ship appearing at various places on the 209 km (130 mile) long Northumberland Strait. The first documented sighting occured in 1786 at Sea Cow Head Lighthouse where the keeper saw a three-masted schooner driven toward the treacherous cliffs. Just as all seemed hopeless, the ship turned into the storm and was lost to sight in the rain squall.
Reports continued from that time to the present day. Those who have not seen it scoff, and those who have seen it keep their eyes turned seaward in hopes of another glimpse of this tantalizing mystery. The following are some reported sightings from the Wood Islands area.
In 1968, Percy Richards was 16 years old. He started fishing when he was 11 years old when the fishermen would go over to Pictou Island in their small boats and spend nights sleeping in fishing shacks. Around 2:00 a.m. one of the fishermen woke him up to witness a burning ship about 1.6 km (1 mile) offshore. There was no smoke, only red and white flames. The rigging was burning and falling down. The masts and yardarms were aflame and people were running back and forth on the deck. It burned for about three hours until daybreak. Some people rowed out in their dories, but when they got close to the ship it vanished and reappeared on the other side of them. Mr. Richards said the burning ship is usually seen before a southeast gale.
Roland Sherwood of Cape John, Nova Scotia, reported an appearance of the phantom ship by telephone: “Soon word spread to River John some six miles away and within an hour the road was blocked with cars as the curious came to see for themselves.” Those who made the trek were treated to a full technicolour version of the apparition. In the words of one on-looker: “It was a vessel outlined with a fiery glow. I wouldn’t say it was actually flames I saw…but the whole vessel was aglow and it was moving fast. I watched it for an hour until it went out of sight into the Strait. Two nights later the whole thing was repeated as the vessel sailed back in the opposite direction.”
Captain Lester White related his experience: “I was running the (first) Prince Nova, and we had finished our last run of the day and had tied up at Wood Islands dock for the night. I was settled in my cabin where I planned to spend the night.”
Captain White said he had heard vivid accounts from people who claimed to have seen the burning ship, but up to that time he had never seen it with his own eyes. “But there it was! It looked pretty real. I could see what appeared to be two or three spars all burning and the fire was running up to the masts!”
“A fire is a serious thing at any time, and especially on the water. We wanted to do what we could, so I got the crew out, got the Prince Nova running, and sailed out on the Strait towards the fiery ship. But then a strange thing happened,” he said. “The closer we got to the ship the more it faded away. It looked real and we all saw it. It was a strange experience and one I won’t forget.”
In telephone interviews with Wood Islands writer and resident, Linda Stewart, a number of area residents shared details of their phantom ship sightings:
Malcolm MacLean (Jr.) was around 12 years old when he witnessed a dramatic display in the Northumberland Strait off Little Sands. He was heading home to supper on a clear day and looked out over the water when suddenly a curtain of black came down and blocked his view of the Nova Scotia shoreline. Then he saw a ship ablaze. People were scurrying about the deck and jumping off the ship. The scene was close enough that he could even make out the kind of clothing they were wearing, describing them as “old-fashioned, sailor-type clothes.” He continued to describe the sighting: “the people jumping overboard appeared to be on fire themselves. The curtain of black reminded me of the kind of black curtain that unveils before a big show and the burning ship was the highlight; the only thing you could see.”
Larry Hooper of Murray River remembers more than one sighting of the burning ship. The first was in early October, sometime in the 1980's, while he was on lookout on the bridge of the Prince Nova around 10:00 p.m. It appeared to be just off Pictou Island. “It was a clear night. You could see for miles. The sails were on fire with people all around the deck. Then it disappeared.” His second sighting was on a clear evening in the late 1990's when he and his uncle, Haldon, were driving on Norman’s Road. They saw the burning ship with sailors aboard running about on the deck.
Back in the fall of 1973, Marvin MacLeod was coming home from Murray Harbour via the shore road around 12:30 a.m. The night was frosty and clear. It was hunting season so he had a pair of binoculars in the car. “I could see what appeared to be a three-masted schooner with its sails on fire and people running around the deck and jumping overboard. I was about to head home and call the Coast Guard when it up and disappeared before my eyes.”
In October, 1978, the last lightkeeper at Wood Islands, Leon Patton, received a phone call from Bernice Smith, a lady who lived up the road. She asked him, “What are you burning?” He replied, “I’m not burning anything.” She told him to look out one of his windows heading east. When he did, he could see the phantom ship heading down the Strait towards Murray Harbour. It was a schooner totally ablaze. As he watched it vanished into thin air.
Lightkeepers at Wood Islands had some extra challenges to meet because of the location of the lighthouse. Built on a peninsula connected to the main island by a narrow strip of land, it could only be approached by a long road through woods and along the beach west of the lighthouse. Most of the time the keepers reached the lighthouse by a rowboat that they had to supply themselves.
The difficult approach meant that the keepers had few visitors before the present road was built in the late 1930’s. In the days prior to consolidated schools and buses, country schools rarely, if ever, closed due to storms, so there were likely some difficult crossings to get the children to school. Some of the children found it lonely, while others spoke of the usual childhood activities and their love of the beach.
Water had to be carried to the lighthouse from the bottom of the long lane where there was a hand pump for water. George Stewart’s daughter, Glenda, recalled on cold windy days starting up the lane with two buckets full of water and finding that by the time she got to the top of the lane, the wind had blown nearly half of the water away, forcing her to make another trip.
Not all keepers and their families lived at the lighthouse year-round. While the keeper had to be there during the ice free months, some families remained at their homes and moved to the lighthouse for the summer months.
In the early days, supply ships such as the Brant would come with spare parts, paint for the interior and exterior, kerosene and items for the household. The supplies would be loaded into smaller boats and rowed ashore. Supplies would then be taken by wagon to the lighthouse. The lightkeeper had to check all items delivered. Any items not being used at the lighthouse were to be returned. There was very strict accounting of supplies.
Before electricity was installed, the lighting apparatus consisted of a number of lamps that had to be filled and have their globes cleaned and wicks trimmed daily. Oil had to be carried from the oil house to the top of the lighthouse by hand. Some children assisted with the chores while others were not, as they termed it, “allowed the run of the lighthouse”.
In addition to operating the light, the keepers had to manually operate the fog horn supplied to assist the car ferries in 1941. Other duties included repairs, maintenance, and painting. Some of the families had gardens and planted flowers and shrubs such as the lovely roses planted by Leon Patton. These Victorian roses are still enjoyed by visitors today.
If a ship travelled through the Northumberland Strait in winter, the keepers would get a telegram from the Department of Transport to turn on the light.
Travel was much easier after the road was built. Visitors often dropped in while waiting for the car ferry and were given tours by the keepers or their children. Even as late as 1972 when George Stewart finished his term as lightkeeper, there was no wireless, television or even telephone. The family enjoyed reading magazines and books. In a 1975 interview in the Eastern Graphic Magazine George Stewart recalled, “Hard and unceasing work it was, too, in the days when everything was done manually, from lighting the unblinking vapour gas light each night at sunset, to going down to the small outside range light in fog and starting up the engines to pump air for the fog horn.”
“It’s less work now with the light and the horn bein’ automatic and a helper for the other shift, but I was my own boss then even if I did work real hard”
We do not have information about wages for earlier keepers but, by the time Leon Patton became keeper at Wood Islands in 1977, the keeper worked 7 days a week for 11 months of the year and earned $22,000 per year plus free quarters and telephone. Electricity had already been installed. The light would be turned on in the spring whenever the waters opened for the ships to sail. It would remain on until ice made navigation impossible in early winter. Daily activities included sweeping up the flies, painting inside or outside, if it was needed, maintaining the lawns and checking the equipment.
The Wood Islands Lighthouse was never a centre for community events due to its remote location.