Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2008

Sambro Island: The Sound of Silence

By Chris Mills


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The Sambro Island fog-whistle building in 1877. ...

After more than two centuries of service to mariners, the Sambro Island fog signal is no more. On October 12th, 2007, the Canadian Coast Guard cut the power to the island’s powerful 2,000-watt foghorn. It was an unceremonious end to the last in a long line of signals that have helped identify North America’s oldest operating lighthouse in fog and thick weather.

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Two of three complete cannons that remain on ...
Photo by: Chris Mills

Sambro Island sits about 12 nautical miles due south of Halifax Nova Scotia. Established in 1758, it was only a few years before the station received a fog signal, in the form of cannons. According to one account, three men staffed a signal station on the island, beginning in the summer of 1796. Two cannon were used to provide direction to His Majesty’s vessels traveling to and from the garrison town of Halifax, and to signal their arrival to naval authorities at the Halifax Citadel.

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Chris Mills stands next to the 2,000 watt AGA ...
Photo by: Bruce Flemming

By 1833, a detachment of artillerymen manned two 24 ponders. By 1868 the number of cannons had doubled — in the meantime, the Nova Scotia government installed a Daboll trumpet on Sambro, powered by a “caloric” engine. This reed horn proved unreliable, and the station once again returned to cannon signals in foggy weather.

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In dire need of repair and restoration the old ...
Photo by: Chris Mills

In 1876 workers installed a steam whistle on the island. This remained in service until 1891, when work crews moved it to the nearby Chebucto Head lighthouse. Back out on Sambro, an explosive “bomb rocket” took the whistle’s place. This was in turn replaced by an acetylene gun in 1935 (acetylene was manufactured on the island in a structure which still stands at the edge of the island’s main landing cove). Interestingly, the acetylene gun remained in service until 1963, when it made way for the mighty diaphone, a Canadian-developed horn that was used extensively around the world for much of the 20th century.

By 1971, the Canadian Coast Guard’s plans to automate its lighthouses caught up with Sambro Island, and a Stone Chance electronic horn system replaced the powerful diaphone. This system proved to be unreliable, and was replaced with the 2,000 watt AGA system that served until the fall of 2007.

Despite the increased use of GPS, as well as radar, many fishermen and pleasure boaters are not pleased with the Coast Guard’s plans to permanently discontinue the Sambro Island horn. A petition, signed by 50 fishermen, as well as intense media coverage, has made some internal waves within the ranks of Coast Guard brass, and there is some hope that the island may soon have another sound signal.

However, it is unlikely that the old AGA will blast again - the undersea electrical cable to the island has been broken for some months, and instead of repairing it, the Coast Guard plans to solarize the Sambro light.

The Sambro Island lighthouse celebrates its 250th birthday in 2008. It would be a travesty to have this station silenced after the centuries of service it has provided to all manner of vessels seeking safe passage to and from the busy port of Halifax. We can only continue to make the government listen to the wishes of the people who want to hear the Sambro Island horn once again blast its warning into the fog.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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