Wood Islands Lighthouse

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.

Wood Islands Lighthouse History

Wood Islands, once known as Port Woods, was so named by the settlers because there was nothing but woods in the area when they arrived. The site of the Wood Islands Lighthouse was called Young’s Island. It was accessible by boat, which the keeper had to supply, or a long route through fields and beach. The present road was built with material dredged from the harbour between 1937-1940 in preparation for the Wood Islands Ferries.

The lighthouse was built on a site 60.9 m by 66.4 m (200 feet by 218 feet) purchased from Thomas McMahon and his wife on June 1, 1875. The lighthouse was established to aid marine traffic and fishing boats in the Northumberland Strait between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

In the early years of settlement a fortnightly mail run between Wood Islands and Pictou, Nova Scotia, had been the Island’s only winter link with the mainland. In 1775, Governor Walter Patterson initiated the iceboat service across the 22.5 km (14 miles) to Caribou, Nova Scotia. Later the service moved to the 14.4 km (9 mile) crossing between Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, and Cape Travers, Prince Edward Island.

During the Parliamentary Session of 1874, the sum of $6,000 was allotted for a lighthouse at Indian Rocks, Wood Islands. It was built at a location east of Indian Rocks.

In 1875, Archibald MacKay of Moncton, New Brunswick, signed a contract to build the lighthouse for $3000, but made little progress, and eventually abandoned the work. Donald MacMillan, a blacksmith and master carpenter, was hired to complete the project. He was the first person to own a kerosene lamp in Wood Islands, and he was known to always keep it burning in an upstairs window to aid those who travelled the Northumberland Strait.

Wood Islands was the second lighthouse built after the Island joined Confederation. A storage shed and an oil shed were built about the same time. The original building plans, dated 1875 and initialled “W.P.A.” (possibly William P. Anderson, Chief Engineer of Marine and Fisheries), were found in the attic of the dwelling when it was leased by the present operators. It shows the main level had an entry, a kitchen, sitting room with closet, and two bedrooms as well as a 5.1 m by 3.6 m (17 foot by 12 foot) wood shed. The second floor had four bedrooms. The third floor was a single room with stairs extending to the lantern room.

The tower is 15.2 m (50 feet) high from base to vane, with an overall height of 16.4 (54 feet). The base is 6.3 m (20 feet 9 inches) square. It is a wooden structure clad in shingles. Inside is a straight flight of stairs with two landings. Both floors of the dwelling are 8 m (26 feet 6 inches) by 4.8 m (16 feet). The height of the dwelling is 7.6 m (25 feet). Some hand-hewn lumber was used. An interesting feature of the lantern is the fact that the metal base is square, while the glass part of the lantern is octagonal. The light shows a full 360 degrees. The vent on the top of the lantern is a round ball rather than the usual funnel shape.

The dwelling has been retained because of strong community opposition to its removal, whereas the dwellings were removed from most of the square towers when they were electrified and de-staffed in the 1960’s. The lighthouse has pediment windows that enhance the tower, along with a flared cornice and wooden lantern railing. The attached dwelling is very simple and has seen a few changes over the years.

In 1950, the dwelling attached to the tower was completely renovated with a new kitchen built to accommodate the lightkeeper, George Stewart, and his family. In 1958, the dwelling and lighthouse were wired for electricity. The light then operated on a 1000 watt airway beacon lamp and changed from a fixed light to a revolving flashing light, which is still in use. In 1979 the fog alarm became automated.

The Wood Islands Lighthouse was the last one on Prince Edward Island where the keeper and his family lived in the lighthouse. However, the condition of the dwelling deteriorated over the years so, in 1981, keeper Leon Patton moved into a bungalow that had been moved adjacent to the lighthouse. It was removed after Mr. Patton retired in 1990.

After the keeper moved out, the lighthouse was considered an industrial site. Renovations were undertaken in 1984 with the installation of a generator and fog alarm equipment. A balcony, which was installed then for the fog alarm equipment, was removed in 2001, along with the generator and fog alarm, which had been discontinued in 1999.

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. Water had to be carried to the site for many years.

In the early days supply ships would come with food, 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. The 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 were nine keepers and several interim keepers at the Wood Islands Lighthouse. Most of them lived year round at the lighthouse, although at least two lived there only during the ice-free months. At times the keepers had an assistant, but typically it was one individual who attended to all the duties.

The Wood Islands Front Range Light was constructed in 1902 and is modelled after the Bras d’Or, Nova Scotia, and Stribling, Ontario, lights. It is a square, wooden, tapered light with metal siding, standing 4.5 m (18.4 feet) in height from base to vane. It was designed by the Department of Marine and built by M. Walsh. At one time the range light was not much more than an enclosed frame, surmounted by a square lantern. It later acquired a slope-walled attached shed and a gable roof over its door. It is believed that the range light was moved in 1940 with the beginning of the ferry terminal construction.

The Wood Islands Back Range Light, built in 1902 by the same builder and designer, has remained a very simple design with its most outstanding feature being the lantern deck’s wooden railing and supporting wooden brackets. Both range lights are on the east breakwater of the harbour entrance.

In 1998 the lighthouse was taken over by a dedicated committee known as the “Keepers of the Light.” The lighthouse now features eleven themed rooms. The first floor begins with the entrance to the gift shop showcasing Island artisans, a late 1950's period kitchen, the Rum Running Room, the Northumberland Ferries Room, and the PEI Lighthouse Interpretive Room. The second floor features a lightkeeper’s bedroom, circa 1940’s, the Fisheries Room depicting the area fishing industry, and the Burning Ship Room. On the third floor you will see the light room housing the air and kerosene tanks used to light the lamp. Stairs from the fourth floor lead to the lantern room.

The Wood Islands Lighthouse thrives today as a popular tourist attraction. Moonlight tours and ceilidhs held throughout the summer appeal to both locals and visitors.

Wood Islands Lighthouse Folklore

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.

Wood Island Lighthouse Keepers

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.