Anyone who has ever traveled to Grand Manan has been welcomed to the island by the Swallowtail Lighthouse, which overlooks the entrance to North Head Harbour, but few today know the amazing history of this beacon or appreciate the hardships endured by its dedicated keepers.
The 1,009-ton three-masted Lord Ashburton, which had been built near St. Andrews, was en route from Toulon, France to Saint John when it foundered on the northern shore of Grand Manan during a gale at 1 a.m. on January 19, 1857.
A member of the crew, James Lawson, climbed the rocky headland, now named Ashburton Head, near where the ship grounded, and stumbled a mile to Long Eddy, where he collapsed in a hay barn. His body was discovered later that morning, and a search launched that resulted in seven other members of the crew of twenty-nine being saved, though they were badly frozen.
A memorial to the twenty-one seamen aboard the Lord Ashburton who drowned at Grand Manan can be seen in the cemetery at the Anglican Church in North Head. James Lawson, a Dane, had both his feet partially amputated, and after spending over five years recuperating at the marine hospital in Saint John, he returned to Grand Manan, married an islander, and worked as a shoemaker.
The Ashburton disaster punctuated the need for a navigational aid on the northern end of Grand Manan, and that same year, the House of Assembly of New Brunswick recommended “that for the better security of vessels navigating the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Saint Lawrence, that His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor be authorized to cause a Light House to be erected on the Northern Head of Grand Manan, in the Bay of Fundy, the cost of the same to be taken out of the Bay of Fundy Light House Fund.” The government authorized that steps be taken “to ascertain the propriety of establishing a Light House on the Northern Head of Grand Manan” and to pursue the construction of such a structure if advisable.
Plans and specifications for the proposed lighthouse were drawn up in 1859, and a contract was entered into with John P. McKay of Saint John “for the construction of a Light House and a Keeper’s House at Swallow tail on the Island of Grand Manan” at a cost of £495. Mr. McKay and I. Woodward, Superintendent of Lighthouses in the Bay of Fundy, left Saint John on June 27th of that year aboard a steamer and proceeded to Grand Manan, where over the next two days they selected a spot for the contemplated buildings on “the Swallow’s Tail” and arranged to purchase up to four acres, at a cost of $25 per acre, from James Small, the owner of the property.
John McKay then proceeded to construct the lighthouse and dwelling that year with the exception of a deck atop the tower that could not be built until the lantern room, which would not be finished until the next spring, had been put in place. When the work was complete, James Small and Joseph W. Drugan, a carpenter, signed the following certificate:
“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.”
After the lantern was successfully installed atop the octagonal tower, the Swallowtail lighthouse had its inaugural lighting on July 7, 1860. The wooden tower stands forty-five feet from base to deck and is perched 103 feet above the water, giving it a focal plane of 148 feet. When first lit by Keeper Jonathan Kent, the lighthouse employed nine lamps set in twenty-inch reflectors to cover three-quarters of a circle, but an additional lamp and reflector were added to light five-sixths of a circle to benefit vessels going to the western part of Long Island Bay. A bridge to connect the point on which the lighthouse stood to the headland was constructed in 1861.
Swallowtail Lighthouse was in first-rate order when the Saxby Gale struck on October 4, 1869. The hurricane, accompanied by an unusually high tide, created a two-metre surge that caused significant damage in the Bay of Fundy. The station’s boat was destroyed, and a large portion of the landing slip washed away. The keeper’s dwelling was so shaken by the storm that two chains were strung over the roof and secured to the rock on each side to keep it in position. The foundation of the lighthouse was significantly damaged, necessitating the construction of a substantial stone wall, resting upon the underlying solid rock, beneath the tower. Keeper Jonathan Kent retired in 1873 and was replaced by his son, John W. Kent, who initially earned an annual salary of $400.
Keeper Kent regularly received praise in the annual reports of the Department of Marine. The following example is 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 noted by the Department of Marine in 1875, it was necessary to have a landing at the station, “as the lighthouse is situated on a high cliff of rock, nearly perpendicular on all sides, and there is no approach from the main land except over a deep gorge, which has only a small crossing for foot passengers.” Landing ways, measuring two hundred feet in length and three feet six inches in width, were built on a very steep grade to reach the top of the hill where a shed, nineteen by twenty-two feet was located. Besides housing the station’s boat and supplies, the shed also contained a capstan and winch for hauling a car up the landing ways.
In 1887, the illuminating apparatus was changed from the catoptric principle, which employed reflectors, to the dioptric principle through the installation of a lens. The signature of the light remained fixed white. A fourth-order, 360° French lens was put in place in 1907 along with a Chance vapour installation, and the signature was changed to occulting white.
A wooden building was completed in 1914 by G. N. Breen for $974 to house a fog bell. This structure was moved in 1920 from the extreme tip of the peninsula to a spot adjacent to the tower, where it could be more readily serviced by the keeper.
Tragedy struck Swallowtail Lighthouse in August of 1936 when Elodie Foster was tending the light while her husband was away at Southwest Head Lighthouse. Elodie accidentally overfilled the light’s alcohol burner, and when she attempted to ignite the fuel, her clothes caught on fire. She managed to make it down the tower’s stairs and outside the lighthouse where she soon received help from her son Leonard and two daughters. Leonard raced up the tower and managed to extinguish the flames in the lantern room before the fire spread to the tower. Sadly, Elodie passed away the next day from her burns.
A new dwelling was constructed for the lighthouse keeper in 1958, and the old one was torn down. Keeper Grimmer Ingersoll moved the old boathouse from Grand Harbour Lighthouse to a spot up the hill from the Swallowtail Lighthouse in the 1960s and then in 1980 organized the relocation of the fog bell used at the station to the grounds of the Grand Manan Museum. The beautiful twelve-over-eight windows that adorned the sides of the lighthouse were removed by the Coast Guard in the 1960s to reduce maintenance and prevent water leakage. Ingersoll was the final lightkeeper at Swallowtail, leaving the station in 1986 when it was automated.
Ownership of the lighthouse property was transferred to the Village of North Head in 1994 and then to the Village of Grand Manan in 1996, when the villages on the island were amalgamated.
After filming the horror film Hemoglobin at the lighthouse in 1996, the movie producers paid to have the keeper’s dwelling restored. Soon thereafter, the dwelling opened as the Swallowtail Inn, a bed and breakfast run by islanders Catherine Neves and her sister Crystal Cook. After operating for nearly a decade, the inn was shuttered in 2004, and the dwelling now sits vacant.
In March of 2008, the village council announced that the keeper’s dwelling would be sold as upkeep was proving to be too expensive. Repairs had cost the community $80,000 in recent years. A well-publicized meeting was held on April 4th to come up with ideas to save the dwelling and resulted in the creation of the Swallowtail Keepers Society whose mission is to rejuvenate Swallowtail Lighthouse and make it a symbol of civic pride for the island. The village council, a bit surprised by the islanders’ feelings on the matter, rescinded the motion to sell the keeper’s dwelling during their April 7th meeting.
The Coast Guard initiated a cleanup effort in 2008 to remove soil from the station that had become contaminated due to the use of lead paint on the buildings. This project was completed in May of 2009, and later that summer members of 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 that will enable the group to apply for grant money to maintain the site.
Swallowtail Keepers Society organized a celebration at the lighthouse on July 7, 2010, one hundred and fifty years to the day since the beacon was first activated. During the festivities, it was announced that the provincial government would contribute $55,000 to further the goals of the society. Laurel Hinsdale, daughter of Keeper Grimmer Ingersoll, was on hand to share her memories of living at Swallowtail. Laurel related that during the Groundhog Gale in 1976 she and her father had to crawl across a wooden bridge to get to the dwelling. On another occasion, she was blown off her feet while walking and holding her mother’s hand.
During the fall of 2012, a wooden deck was built 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. A boom truck from M. G. Fisheries was used to transport the bell from the museum to the hill overlooking Swallowtail Lighthouse, but the difficult task of moving the bell the final 300 metres remained. The Canadian Coast Guard was contacted to see if they could move the bell one of their helicopters. While no promises were made, the Coast Guard told the Keepers Society to have everything ready in case a helicopter was in the area.
In November the Coast Guard required a helicopter to transport material to Partridge Island to construct a new landing pad, and the Keepers Society received a call at 8:30 a.m. on November 21, informing them that the helicopter would come to Grand Manan at 1:30 p.m. that day to move the bell. About a dozen onlookers watched as the bell was hooked to a cable and then lifted high into the air before making a wide arc and being gently lowered onto the new platform. The bell is part of a tribute to the keepers of Swallowtail Lighthouse.
In February 2013, a concrete block, that supported 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 restricted while the condition of the stairs and footbridge was 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. During 2013, the society received over $200,000 from various sources, including the provincial and federal government, to improve the footbridge, construct a boardwalk, produce marketing materials, and cover administration costs.
As the lantern room atop discontinued Great Duck Island Lighthouse obscured the new light erected nearby, the lantern room was removed and was helicoptered to Swallow Tail Peninsula on October 28, 2015. In June 2017, the Great Duck lantern room 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 lifted off the lantern room that had capped Swallowtail Lighthouse since about 1970, and then hoisted in place a new lantern room, constructed by Dexters Machining. The new aluminum lantern room has a diameter of ten feet, roughly three feet more than its predecessor, and has welded seams, which it is hoped will make it watertight. 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 house information and artefacts related to lighthouse history of the Grand Manan archipelago. Flights of stairs lead from one floor to the next. A ladder creates access to the lantern room and spectacular views on a clear day. Access to the bell house is also accessible on the first floor.
A small entrance fee is required to help with ongoing maintenance and associated costs.
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