Digest>Archives> February 2002

Fort Amherst: Rescuing Newfoundland's First Light Station

By Jeremy D’Entremont


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Fort Amherst Lighthouse draped in snow. Photo ...

Scenic South Head in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is home to the Canadian province’s oldest lighthouse station. Historic Fort Amherst Light Station almost fell victim to government cost cutting, but local residents Jack and Rosalind Power saved the day.

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Fort Amherst Light, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of ...

St. John’s is considered to be North America’s oldest city, and as early as the 1660s there were English defenses in the area. In the 1770s, a military installation called Amherst’s Tower and Battery was installed at South Head overlooking the Narrows, as the entrance to St. John’s Harbour is known. This installation has been known as Fort Amherst since the 1840s, and the Fort Amherst name has also come to apply to the surrounding community. Fort Amherst’s lighthouse history dates back to 1810 when the first lighthouse in the location was erected on top of a barrack at the fort.

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Leo Power, keeper at Fort Amherst from 1952 to ...

Although it still belonged to England, Newfoundland in 1832 was given the right to govern itself. The very first act of the legislature was to provide funding for the light at South Head, which had previously been paid for by local contributions. A new Lighthouse Board was soon formed and commissioners were appointed.

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Jack and Rosalind Power, saviors of the Fort ...

In 1849 the Lighthouse Board decided to build a new stone lighthouse adjoining the old one, and it was finished by the spring of 1852. The new lighthouse was the first lighthouse in Newfoundland to receive a Fresnel lens.

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Captain R.C. Sheppard and son Robert at Swansea, ...

John Sheppard became keeper at Fort Amherst in 1852. His son Austin was appointed assistant keeper at the age of 16. Austin Sheppard would later serve as head keeper at Fort Amherst from 1887 to 1924. By 1870 all English troops were withdrawn from the fort. In 1900 Fort Amherst became a one-keeper station again, with Austin Sheppard in charge.

During World War I the light was extinguished and St. John’s Harbour was closed. A drill house was built near the lighthouse and soldiers held gunnery practice on the grounds. The buildings deteriorated, and a new lighthouse, powered by acetylene gas, was built in 1919.

Austin Sheppard’s grandson, Robert Carl Sheppard, was keeper from 1924 to 1938. The younger Sheppard, who became known as Captain Bobby Sheppard, was a master mariner who had been wounded in World War I. In the 1930s, Captain Bobby Sheppard and his wife ran a tearoom in the old drill house at the station. The tearoom became the scene of popular Thursday night dances. One local man later recalled that the Sheppards would retrieve ice from icebergs offshore for drinks.

The heyday of the tearoom ended when the military took over the building to use as a barrack. Almost 200 soldiers lived at Fort Amherst during World War II. In March of 1942 the fort was struck by torpedoes from a German U-boat, causing only minor damage.

In 1949, the Department of Transport decided to destroy the lighthouse buildings and the fort. Despite protests, the buildings were all razed over the next few years. The 1810 limestone lighthouse building was destroyed in 1954, and the adjacent barracks were removed in 1959. Some ruins of the military installation still remain.

In 1951 two new houses and a new lighthouse were constructed. Assistant Keeper Leo Power, who had come to Fort Amherst Light Station in 1943, reminded the builders that he had 11 children — he wanted to make sure there would be enough room for everybody. Power told his children repeatedly about the efficient new furnace and all the “ducts” they would have in the new house. The children misunderstood and were disappointed to find no ducks when they moved into the dwelling in February of 1952.

Leo Power was originally from Argentia, a port on Placentia Bay, west of St. John’s. He served as keeper of the Fox Island Lighthouse starting in 1936, replacing his father who had been forced to retire due to an injury. Argentia was the site of a United States military base during World War II, and all local residents were evacuated, including the Powers. After his stint as assistant keeper, Leo Power became keeper at Fort Amherst in 1953. He remained until his retirement in 1972 on his 65th birthday.

Leo Power’s wife, Nellie, acted as an unofficial assistant keeper. “He’d be sleeping and I’d have to watch to see if the light was still going or if the horn was stopped,” she said later. On one occasion in 1959, Nellie Power was hanging clothes outside when she was nearly hit by a flare fired by the vessel Newfoundland, signaling incoming mail.

Years later, Nellie recounted another close call. She was walking to church from the light station one winter Sunday. Pregnant at the time, Nellie slipped on the ice near the edge of the cliff. Her children Leo, Jr., and Mary screamed “Mommy’s going over the cliff!” Nellie managed to grab hold of a stick frozen in the ice and held on for dear life. “Leo came down with socks over his rubber boots and got me up out of it,” she said. “It’s a wonder any of us never fell over the cliff, it used to be so dangerous.”

The Powers’ children enjoyed life at the lighthouse station. “There were 13 of us in that house,” Jack Power says. “My father used to scream at us, ‘Hold your tongues!’ so he could hear if the foghorn was still blowing.” As they played on the grounds, the children sometimes found bullets left behind by the military.

Living in such an isolated location made innovation a way of life for the Powers. Jack remembers that his brother, Pat, asked their mother if she could make a baseball glove from his leather book bag. “Wait ‘til school is finished,” she told him. On the last day of school Pat threw his books into the ocean, and soon he had his leather baseball glove fashioned from the book bag. The only problem was that Pat had to return to school in the fall and was left without books and a book bag.

Jack Power says he didn’t go to school until he was seven because it was such a long walk. After home schooling from his older brother and two older sisters, Jack started school in the third grade.

The Powers’ oldest son, Leo, Jr., was taking his mother to town in a motorboat by the time he was 12. At 27, he left Fort Amherst to work on the mainland, and a few months later he drowned in an accident in Tillingstonburg, Ontario. “It’s so ironic. We ran around those cliffs all the time and then my brother went away to Ontario to drown,” says Jack Power.

On August 29, 1970, a small ceremony was held to commemorate the naming of Fort Amherst Light Station as a National Historic Site. Two years later Leo Power retired as keeper. On his retirement, Power said, “I feel out of place now, but there are certain things in life that you just have to do.” He offered his opinion on the automation and destaffing of light stations, saying, “I don’t believe automation will ever take over the lighthouses.” Unfortunately, he was wrong. In 1982 Fort Amherst Light Station was automated and destaffed, and by the late 1980s the government was again talking about destroying all the buildings.

In 1991 Jack Power and his wife Rosalind visited the lighthouse, Jack’s childhood home. There were signs on the houses saying “For sale and removal.” That day, says Rosalind, she vowed to save the buildings from demolition. The Powers wrote to the Canadian Coast Guard repeatedly in an effort to have the houses leased to them. They eventually convinced the Coast Guard to allow the Fort Amherst Reunion Committee, which included Jack and Rosalind Power, to use the larger dwelling for a photo gallery.

In preparation for a 1992 reunion of Fort Amherst residents, Jack Power replaced hundreds of panes of glass that had been broken by vandals. The buildings were painted, and over 200 photos were displayed in the larger dwelling, illustrating a century of Fort Amherst history. The temporary gallery was a success, and during the reunion hundreds of tourists stopped by. The potential for tourism at the site became apparent.

In 1994 the Powers proposed to renovate the boarded-up smaller keeper’s bungalow at their own expense. They also volunteered to live in the dwelling as caretakers. In the summer of the following year the control of the Fort Amherst Light Station was passed to the City of St. John’s. The Powers’ proposal for the property, with much public support behind it, won out over two others. The Powers were granted a 30-year lease on the property.

Jack and Rosalind Power have restored the buildings at their own expense, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. They have received no help from the provincial tourism department. There were obstacles and scares along the way. On one occasion Jack Power caught some young children breaking windows. Another time a group of young people started a bonfire at the old gun batteries below the lighthouse station. They had started using pieces of a bridge to burn, and Jack Power worried that the lighthouse buildings would be next. And during the winter of 1995-96, someone broke in and stole all the large heavy doors from the buildings.

Undeterred, the Powers forged ahead with restoration. A museum and tearoom opened in the larger two-story house in early June 1998, with exhibits on the Fort Amherst area. By December 1999 the smaller house was restored and the Powers were able to move in, just in time to watch the first sunrise of the new millennium from their kitchen window.

The City of St. John¹s, the St. John¹s Rotary Club, and the nonprofit Johnson Family Foundation are now funding a study of the Fort Amherst site. Work has already started on safety improvements around the old bunkers, and interpretive signs will be placed around the site. And it looks like Canadian Coast Guard personnel will be returning to the lighthouse. Jack Power says hopefully, “Fort Amherst is not going under ­ it’s going to be revived. We expect a busy summer.”

For more information contact the Fort Amherst Museum Phone (709) 754-0619. Email: jpower@mun.ca.

This story appeared in the February 2002 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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