Digest>Archives> April 2002

A Dream Fulfilled

By William Baker


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Thirty years ago, when I was working for the Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company in Cleveland, I suggested that the company buy a lighthouse to use as an employees’ retreat. The company’s corporate logo was a lighthouse, and I couldn’t imagine a more serene or inviting getaway. These structures represent a safe harbour, good deeds and selfless service to humanity. My boss didn’t like the idea. He told me I was a crazy romantic. So I started looking for another job.

Many years later I finally got my lighthouse. After dipping into my personal savings and securing a low-interest loan, I bought Henry Island a 150-acre island with a beautiful 100- year-old, 65-foot-high wooden octagonal lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper’s house.

The lighthouse is still owned by the Canadian Coast Guard, but they let me take care of it. Henry Island, with its glorious views, crystal water and amazing beaches, is a happy contrast to my other, faster-paced life on a very different island, Manhattan.

Henry Island sits just a little south of Port Hood Island in St. George’s Bay. It isn’t very big, as islands go, but for a century it has provided a guiding light for fishermen and mariners who must navigate the rocky shoals of the channel that runs between the western coast of Cape Breton and the mainland.

The Henry Island lighthouse was built in 1902 by Joseph McDonald for $3,489. Its octagonal red and white wood tower houses a red polygonal iron lantern that flashes white every four seconds and can be seen for six miles out. As it approaches its one hundredth birthday, the Henry Island light still stands tall today and continues to guide seafarers to safety as they come and go through the Bay.

The first keeper of the light was Angus McLennan who was appointed on July 21,1903. His house was built in 1901, and still stands looking much the same today as it did back then. In 1966 the operation of the light was given over to automation.

The Canadian Coast Guard, which operates the light, has nurtured a friendly relationship with the Henry Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, a non-profit volunteer group headed by Bertie and Shirley Smith of Port Hood Island (www. henryisland.com).

When we purchased the island, much work had to be done to it before we could become inhabitants. The house had fallen into disrepair over the forty years since the last light keeper left, the property was in terrible condition, and there was no electricity or water. Nevertheless, we were thrilled! Here was an idyllic place, away from New York City, where we could experience total peace and quiet-a wonderful contrast.

We happily made the acquaintance of Bertie Smith and his family and friends from the neighbouring Port Hood Island, and that friendship turned out to be a dream come true. Bertie’s fishing boat provided us with transport to and from Port Hood, and his incredible carpentry skills provided rehabilitation for the keeper’s house, which was lovingly restored as close as possible to its original state.

For the most part, we don’t miss a flush toilet. However, one may hear an occasional grumble as we haul heavy containers of water up a three-quarter mile hill to the house.

We do enjoy a few modern conveniences-a solar-powered radio and a video alarm system. Through my ham radio contacts, we have developed a wonderful network of supportive friends, who stand ready to help us with any emergent need, affording us a wonderful feeling of security. Occasionally we become trapped on the island due to prevailing winds, enhancing the excitement of living in such a remote environment.

Considerable time has been spent researching the history of Henry Island, and we have discovered, among other things, several grave sites. We wonder about Albert Hagen, whose carved marker near the light reads August 17, 1928. The original lighthouse keeper, Angus MacLennan’s daughter, Sadie, lived at the lighthouse and now runs a gift shop in Port Hood.

We are proud of the restoration and improvements we have made, and are happy to share our good fortune with others. In order to protect the security of the property, and because the entire island is private property, we ask that for their own safety and for the protection of this historic place, sightseers visit only when accompanied by an authorized guide. Tours can be arranged through Bertie Smith of Port Hood Island (902-787-2515) or Donald MacDonald of Port Hood (902-787-3490).

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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