Digest>Archives> April 2002

People on Trial

By Eric W. Manchester


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Aerial view of Trail Island Light Station.
Photo by: Eric W. Manchester

“My goal was to make 35 years’ service,” says Ian McNeil, principal keeper at Trial Island light station. That explains why he didn’t accept a retirement inducement in 1996, but now that he’s exceeded the goal his perspective is different. The absence of mandatory retirement for light-keepers has allowed McNeil to become the second-longest-serving active keeper on Canada’s west coast. “I couldn’t exist without working at something, and I wouldn’t get a better job than this.”

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Trial Island light station showing the keeper’s ...
Photo by: Eric W. Manchester

That’s not to imply that light keeping is idyllic. Far from it, according to historical accounts of the lives, insanity and deaths of light-keepers and families on the British Columbia coast over the past 141 years. The record mostly shows they persevered despite unimaginable hardships, endless labor, isolation, near-starvation, and outright cruelties by their governmental employers. That they remained dedicated to upholding their end of the bargain, often was all that stood between reliable navigation aids and countless maritime disasters.

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Trial Island light station. Principal keeper and ...
Photo by: Eric W. Manchester

Light keepers were not provided with the necessities of life at their isolated posts, having to supply their own food among other things. Keepers even had to pay relief staff out of their own pockets in order to get off the station for vacation or emergencies. According to McNeil, “We provided our own heating fuel until the 1980s.”

Since entering Canada’s lighthouse service in 1964, Ian and spouse Joan have raised six children on eight light stations. Postings ranged from as brief as nine months, up to 19 years during one of their three stops at East Point on Saturna Island. Moving usually required boats and helicopters to get the family and belongings to their new station.

For several years the children were home-schooled. “It was a real challenge because they were all in different grades,” says Joan. Whatever the children missed from traditional classrooms, was compensated by exploring tidal pools or playing football on the helipad. “It was a healthy setting for kids,” says McNeil, “Home-schooling was tough but Joan did a great job.” The kids have long since moved on to their own careers, apparently with some fond memories. Many have been back to visit the stations they called home, and, one son has recently joined the light keeping service.

Today, McNeil shares the duties of the light station with assistant keeper Geoff Tasker who, with spouse Mandy, also resides on the largest of the Trial Islands. Reputedly, the name of the island group grew out of the Royal Navy’s 19th-century practice of sea-trialing vessels completing refit at Esquimalt. The common route was from the harbor to the islands near Oak Bay, which eventually became known as Trial Islands - today, more popularly referred to in the singular form, Trial Island.

Legend has it that Trial Island was home to both a hermit, and a bootlegger before the low-rise rock sprouted a light station. Today, the island supports antennae for local radio stations, and, much of it is a provincial park. “I’m told there are 29 endangered species of flora and fauna here,” says McNeil who is also a volunteer park warden. “The permits needed to land are stringent, so we’ve only seen a half-dozen tourists this year. It makes the place seem more remote.”

A light was not considered for Trial Island until after a disaster, and at least one other close call, brought pressure to bear on the authorities responsible for navigational aids. In 1895 a nighttime gale claimed two vessels and torturously extinguished the lives of many sailors, when a tug and its tow grounded in narrow, swirling Enterprise Channel. In 1898 a survey ship ran aground in fog, prompting its captain too strongly recommend that a light and fog signal be installed. Since the federal government of that era had little interest in west coast marine safety, it took another seven years before the project commenced.

In 1906, a fog signal and light finally became operational at Staines Point on the southernmost tip of Trial Island, at a cost of $11,939. The first light was atop the keeper’s residence. The white concrete tower supporting the present light was built in 1970, the original light being removed for display at Bastion Square in downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

The wondrous views of the Olympic Mountains and Mount Baker belie the savage nature of the light station’s environment. The depths of Juan de Fuca Strait abruptly climb to meet the surrounding reefs where six-knot currents converge from several directions, often driven by brutal winds. Nautical publications of yesteryear warned mariners to keep clear of Trial Island because of the mighty tidal currents. Decades of storms damaged the station’s buildings, blew off gutters, and destroyed the boat ramp.

Despite collecting rainwater, using an occasional desalinator and receiving the odd bulk delivery, maintaining a supply of potable water—in suitable quantity and quality—has been a problem at Trial throughout its 95 year history. “We must use a great deal of caution,” says McNeil, “We fill water cans every time we go over to Oak Bay for supplies.” Over the years there have been some improvements in other aspects of station life. “We’ve got better boats to use. The old ones were too small and underpowered for the job.”

Separated from the city by 600-foot wide Enterprise Channel, Trial Island epitomizes the phrase, so near yet so far. “We see the lights and hear the traffic, especially sirens and motorcycles,” says Joan, “But often we can’t get across for groceries because of the weather.”

According to the McNeils the worst aspect of light keeping is the ever-increasing amount of paperwork, but “The best part is the independence.” Asked if there would be journals to publish if ever they did retire, the response was no. “We just lived the life, and enjoyed it.”

This story appeared in the April 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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