The lighthouse. Is there any other infrastructure quite so romantic, that can capture the imagination of those who happen to pass by? Typically positioned in remote and hazardous terrain, they stand to help mariners navigate the forces nature throws at them—and have become a symbol of human resilience in the face of unforgiving elements.
The Merry Island lighthouse is one such facility. Poised on its namesake island, it welcomes all those who enter Welcome Passage and the Malaspina Strait. It is one of 27 lighthouses in the province that are still staffed—24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Two lightkeepers tend to the operations on the five-acre site, which is owned and overseen by the Canadian Coast Guard. Seven weather reports are dispatched by the keepers every day to the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, with more weather reports provided as the conditions change. Two stations at the site also monitor tidal and earthquake activity for Natural Resources Canada. The keepers also maintain the grounds and perform basic maintenance, as needed. In other words, they’re busy.
The lighthouse keepers were not available for an interview, and they also might not be interested, the Coast Guard media liaison says. The job is a solitary one by nature. So are many of those it attracts—and those who succeed. “It is a unique job but it is not a job for everyone,” she says. There have been at least nine lighthouse keepers charged with the duty before the two that live there today. The first lighthouse keeper served for more than half his life before retiring (and remaining on the island), and the location’s longest-serving lightkeepers held the post for more than 30 years.
Donald Graham, a former lighthouse-keeperturned-author, included Merry Island in his 1986 book, Lights of the Inside Passage. He wrote that its location separating the two waterways was a strategic position, as both became major arteries for commerce travelling to and from Vancouver. It began in 1901, when the Vancouver Ship Masters Association sent a petition to Ottawa with their Member of Parliament “praying for the establishment of a lighthouse and fog alarm on Merry Island” as they would surely be “an invaluable boon in dark and nights and foggy weather.”
Those prayers were answered by the lighthouse’s establishment in 1903. In the intervening century-plus, many arising situations have justified its existence: rescues—including the attempt to save the life of the island’s first radio operator after a gas-can incident, near endless warnings relayed through dire and fogged-in weather, and the increasing traffic. In the ’50s, one keeper reported he did not sleep more than four hours at a time for two months and often did not have time to change his clothes, as the work kept him so busy.
“Owing to the role played by the lighthouse in the security of shipping lanes as heavily used as Welcome Passage and Malaspina Strait, its contribution to the development of Vancouver and Canada’s West Coast is of inestimable value,” Parks Canada’s website says of the Merry Island Lighthouse. In 2015, the lighthouse of Merry Island earned heritage status under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act.
But what stands today dates back mostly to 1966. The facilities remained electricity free until the ’60s, but that too has changed.
A simple structure, the square tower rises 40 feet (12 metres) and is built of concrete, with exterior walls accented by a red roof and matching maple leaf adorning its sides. The light, the most crucial part of any lighthouse, is encased in red.
Merry Island is home to more than the lighthouse itself. There are two dwellings for the keepers, one built in 1956, the other in 1968. A storage shed, boathouse and bulk fuel storage system are also part of the facility. About 50-plus acres of the rest of the island are privately owned.
One person who is more than willing to speak about lighthouses is Kraig Anderson, one of the originators of www.LighthouseFriends.com, a website that documents information about most of North America’s lightstations, as recorded by a group of friends who have spent many vacations visiting them.
Anderson himself has visited every lightstation in the United States and began exploring Canada’s structures after he’d seen what Alaska has to offer. The U.S.’s lightstations have a variety of exteriors and colours, and all have been automated—except for a station in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, where the requirement of a lightkeeper was written into law. Talk about job security.
By comparison, Canada’s lighthouses are largely uniform in colour—red and white being customary—and 51 were staffed as of 2017. B.C. has the most at 27, followed by 23 in Newfoundland and Labrador, and one in New Brunswick.
“Whether warning of danger or marking safe passage into a harbor, lighthouses stand as beacons of safety and security,” Anderson writes on his website.
As an engineer, Anderson has an appreciation for the utilitarian design of Canada’s lighthouses and the lights themselves. As he describes the equipment and physics required to beam out a strong light to sea through all kinds of weather, he said, “It’s really like beautiful, functional art.”
Then there’s the evolution of the lights from candle to whale-oil lamps, through the electric age and now some solar power. The fog horns went from the boom of a cannon to hand-operated horns, whistles, and sirens that were later automated.
Over the phone, Anderson says his visit to the lighthouse of Merry Island many years ago was on a clear day. The lighthouse “was just a striking figure…the red and white contrasting with the blue sky.”
How to see the Merry Island Lighthouse today
While the pandemic continues to restrict public access to lighthouses, the Merry Island structures are close enough to be seen from Halfmoon Bay’s coastline. No boat? No problem. Simply head to Redrooffs Road, find one of the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s “Beach Access” signs, and follow the path to the beach.
Seaplane tours regularly give their passengers a bird’s eye view of Merry Island, the red and white making the structures easily distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. Even by air, the lightstation is a handy navigational and orientation tool.