Travellers to Grand Manan are always greeted by the iconic Swallowtail Lighthouse, which stands proudly at the entrance to North Head Harbour. However, few people today are familiar with the fascinating history of this beacon or the challenges faced by its devoted keepers.
On January 19, 1857, the 1,009-ton, three-masted Lord Ashburton, constructed near St. Andrews, encountered a gale while traveling from Toulon, France to Saint John. The ship ran aground on the northern shore of Grand Manan.
James Lawson, a crew member, climbed the nearby rocky headland, now known as Ashburton Head, before stumbling a mile to Long Eddy and collapsing in a hay barn. His body was discovered later that morning, and a subsequent search saved seven other crew members out of twenty-nine, although they were severely frostbitten.
A memorial for the twenty-one drowned seamen from the Lord Ashburton is located in the cemetery at the Anglican Church in North Head. James Lawson, a Danish sailor, had partial amputations of both feet. After recovering for over five years at the marine hospital in Saint John, he returned to Grand Manan, married a local, and worked as a shoemaker.
The Lord Ashburton tragedy highlighted the need for a navigational aid at the northern end of Grand Manan. In 1857, the New Brunswick House of Assembly recommended constructing a lighthouse on the Northern Head of Grand Manan, with funds from the Bay of Fundy Light House Fund. The government subsequently authorized an investigation into the feasibility of establishing a lighthouse in the area and its construction if deemed suitable.
In 1859, plans and specifications for the lighthouse were developed, and a contract was signed with John P. McKay of Saint John for £495. McKay and I. Woodward, Superintendent of Lighthouses in the Bay of Fundy, traveled to Grand Manan on June 27th aboard a steamer. Over the following two days, they selected a location for the proposed buildings on “the Swallow’s Tail” and arranged the purchase of up to four acres from James Small, the property owner, for $25 per acre.
John McKay went on to build the lighthouse and accompanying dwelling during that year, with the exception of a deck on top of the tower. This could not be completed until the lantern room was finished the following spring. Once the work was finished, James Small and Joseph W. Drugan, a carpenter, signed a certificate to confirm its completion.
“We the undersigned having been called by Mr. John P. McKay to examine a Light House and Keeper’s House, built on “Swallow’s Tail,” and having examined the Specification we find the work done in accordance therewith, in every respect, in substantial workmanlike manner with the exception of the outside of the Light House, which is specified to be clapboarded, but is shingled with the best pine shingles, which we consider is a much superior job and is done in a faithful workmanlike manner.”
The Swallowtail Lighthouse’s lantern was successfully installed on the octagonal tower, and the beacon was first illuminated on July 7, 1860. The wooden tower measures 45 feet from base to deck and is situated 103 feet above the water, resulting in a focal plane of 148 feet. Initially, Keeper Jonathan Kent used nine lamps with 20-inch reflectors to cover three-quarters of a circle. However, an additional lamp and reflector were added to illuminate five-sixths of a circle for the benefit of vessels traveling to the western part of Long Island Bay. A bridge connecting the lighthouse’s point to the headland was built in 1861.
When the Saxby Gale struck on October 4, 1869, the Swallowtail Lighthouse was in excellent condition. The hurricane, accompanied by an unusually high tide, produced a two-meter surge, causing significant damage in the Bay of Fundy. The station’s boat was destroyed, and a large portion of the landing slip was washed away. The storm’s intensity shook the keeper’s dwelling so much that two chains had to be strung over the roof and secured to the rock on each side to keep it in place. The lighthouse’s foundation was severely damaged, requiring the construction of a substantial stone wall on the solid rock beneath the tower. Keeper Jonathan Kent retired in 1873 and was succeeded by his son, John W. Kent, who initially earned an annual salary of $400.
Keeper Kent consistently received praise in the Department of Marine’s annual reports, as exemplified by this excerpt from 1877:
“Everything at this Station is in first class condition, and Mr. Kent takes great pride in keeping this Station, and its appurtenances in good order. He is a man of good taste, and this Station is visited by great numbers of strangers and excursionists who come to the Island during the summer season. Mr. Kent had given the lighthouse a coat of paint, which had lightened it up and greatly improved its appearance. Altogether, this Station may be considered the model station of the Department.”
As reported by the Department of Marine in 1875, a landing at the station was essential due to the lighthouse’s location on a steep cliff with no access from the mainland, except over a deep gorge with a narrow footpath. Landing ways, 200 feet long and 3 feet 6 inches wide, were built on an incline to reach the hilltop where a 19-by-22-foot shed was situated. This shed housed the station’s boat and supplies and also featured a capstan and winch for hauling a car up the landing ways.
In 1887, the lighting system transitioned from the catoptric principle, which used reflectors, to the dioptric principle with the installation of a lens. The light’s signature remained fixed white. A fourth-order, 360° French lens was installed in 1907, along with a Chance vapour installation, and the signature changed to occulting white.
G. N. Breen completed a wooden building in 1914 for $974 to house a fog bell. In 1920, the structure was relocated from the peninsula’s edge to a spot near the tower for easier maintenance.
Swallowtail Lighthouse experienced a tragic event in August 1936 when Elodie Foster, tending to the light in her husband’s absence, accidentally overfilled the alcohol burner. When she tried to light the fuel, her clothes caught fire. Despite her injuries, she managed to exit the lighthouse, where her son Leonard and two daughters assisted her. Leonard extinguished the lantern room flames before they could spread to the tower. Unfortunately, Elodie succumbed to her burns the following day.
In 1958, a new dwelling was built for the lighthouse keeper, and the old one was demolished. Keeper Grimmer Ingersoll relocated the old boathouse from Grand Harbour Lighthouse to a spot up the hill from Swallowtail Lighthouse in the 1960s. In 1980, he organized the fog bell’s relocation to the Grand Manan Museum grounds. The Coast Guard removed the lighthouse’s twelve-over-eight windows in the 1960s to reduce maintenance and prevent water leakage. Ingersoll was Swallowtail’s last lightkeeper, leaving in 1986 when the station was automated.
In 1994, ownership of the lighthouse property transferred to the Village of North Head and then to the Village of Grand Manan in 1996 following the island’s village amalgamation.
In 1996, following the filming of the horror movie Hemoglobin at the lighthouse, the film producers funded the restoration of the keeper’s dwelling. The dwelling was subsequently transformed into the Swallowtail Inn, a bed and breakfast run by islanders Catherine Neves and her sister Crystal Cook. However, after nearly a decade in operation, the inn closed in 2004, leaving the dwelling vacant.
In March 2008, the village council announced plans to sell the keeper’s dwelling due to the high cost of maintenance, which had amounted to $80,000 in recent years. A well-attended meeting on April 4th led to the formation of the Swallowtail Keepers Society, which aimed to revitalize the Swallowtail Lighthouse and make it a symbol of civic pride for the island. The village council, surprised by the islanders’ passion, withdrew the motion to sell the keeper’s dwelling at their April 7th meeting.
In 2008, the Coast Guard began a cleanup project to remove soil contaminated by lead paint from the site, completing the work in May 2009. Later that summer, the Seminole Rotary Club from Florida arrived on the island to help the society paint some of the station’s buildings. On November 2, 2009, the Village of Grand Manan signed a twenty-year lease with the Keepers Society, allowing the group to apply for grants to maintain the site.
The Swallowtail Keepers Society organized a celebration at the lighthouse on July 7, 2010, exactly 150 years since the beacon was first activated. During the event, it was announced that the provincial government would contribute $55,000 to support the society’s goals. Laurel Hinsdale, daughter of Keeper Grimmer Ingersoll, shared her memories of living at Swallowtail, including harrowing stories of crossing a wooden bridge during the Groundhog Gale in 1976 and being blown off her feet while walking with her mother.
In fall 2012, a wooden deck was constructed near the keeper’s dwelling to display the station’s 900-kg (2000-lb) fog bell, which the Grand Manan Museum had generously donated to the Swallowtail Keepers Society. M. G. Fisheries used a boom truck to transport the bell from the museum to a hill overlooking the lighthouse, but moving the bell the final 300 meters remained a challenge. The Canadian Coast Guard was contacted for assistance, and though they made no guarantees, they advised the Keepers Society to have everything ready in case a helicopter was available.
In November, the Coast Guard arranged for a helicopter to transport materials to Partridge Island for constructing a new landing pad. On November 21, the Keepers Society received a call at 8:30 a.m., informing them that the helicopter would arrive at Grand Manan at 1:30 p.m. that day to move the bell. About a dozen spectators watched as the bell was attached to a cable, lifted high into the air, swung in a wide arc, and gently lowered onto the new platform. The bell serves as a tribute to the keepers of Swallowtail Lighthouse.
In February 2013, a concrete block supporting the transition between the bottom of the concrete stairs and the wooden footbridge broke loose and became lodged in one of the metal support legs for the footbridge. Access to the lighthouse was temporarily restricted while the stairs and footbridge were assessed, but it was restored later that year as the Swallowtail Keepers Society, which now has a long-term lease on the light station, began offering limited tours of the lighthouse. In 2013, the society received over $200,000 from various sources, including the provincial and federal government, for footbridge improvements, boardwalk construction, marketing materials, and administrative costs.
In October 2015, the discontinued Great Duck Island Lighthouse’s lantern room was helicoptered to Swallow Tail Peninsula, and in June 2017, it was equipped with a DCB-36 beacon believed to have been used on Machias Seal Island at some point.
On June 10, 2019, a Coast Guard helicopter removed the lantern room that had topped Swallowtail Lighthouse since around 1970 and replaced it with a new lantern room built by Dexters Machining. The new aluminum lantern room has a diameter of ten feet, approximately three feet larger than its predecessor, and features welded seams for watertightness. A fourth-order Fresnel lens illuminated by an LED light is mounted in the new lantern room.
Keepers: Jonathan Kent (1860 – 1873), John W. Kent (1873 – 1893), George T. Dalzell (1893 – 1912), George A. Lahey (1912 – 1936), Wallace Lahey (1916), R.S. Lahey (1917), L.E. Foster (1936), Thomas P. Foster (1936 – at least 1937), Walter Griffin, Addison Naves, Grimmer A. Ingersoll (1960 – 1986), Ken Ingersoll (2013 – ).
Three of the four floors have been repurposed to display information and artifacts related to the lighthouse history of the Grand Manan archipelago. Stairs connect the floors, while a ladder provides access to the lantern room, offering spectacular views on clear days. The bell house is also accessible on the first floor.
A small entrance fee is charged to support ongoing maintenance and related expenses.
On July 7, 2020, Swallowtail Lighthouse celebrated its 160th anniversary.
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