Digest>Archives> May 2002

Canada's Cape Bonavista Lighthouse Recovers from Disaster

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The Bona Vista Lighthouse, photo courtesy of the ...

The town of Bonavista, Newfoundland is reputed to be the spot where John Cabot became the first European explorer to set foot on North American soil. It’s said that when he caught site of the high bluffs at Cape Bonavista in 1497, he exclaimed, “O Buono Vista! (Oh Happy Sight!),” thus giving the cape its name. A replica of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, is now a major tourist attraction in the town.

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The Bona Vista Lighthouse in flames. Photo ...

The proximity of Bonavista to rich fishing and sealing grounds made it an important port. By 1677, Bonavista was the second largest town in Newfoundland, and by 1900 the area had about 20,000 residents. The town today has more historic buildings than any community in the province except St. John’s. One of those historic buildings, the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse, narrowly averted destruction a few months ago and now is well on the road to recovery.

Cape Bonavista Lighthouse was built on the cape’s headland between 1841 and 1843, established to mark the entrances to Bonavista and Trinity Bays and to aid mariners headed for Labrador. It is the fourth oldest lighthouse in Newfoundland. The two-story wooden dwelling is built around a masonry tower surmounted by a lantern. The first lighting apparatus came from the Inchcape (Bell) Rock Lighthouse in Scotland. This apparatus was later replaced by a catoptric system from the Harbour Grace Lighthouse on the Isle of May in Scotland. In 1962 the lighthouse went dark, replaced by an electric light on a nearby steel skeleton tower.

The first keeper at Cape Bonavista was Irishman Jeremiah White. White lived at the lighthouse with his wife Mary and four children until his death in 1876. A later keeper also lived at the lighthouse for an unusually long time — local resident Hubert Abbott, who was in charge from 1923 to 1960.

In the 1970s the lighthouse was restored as a museum by the provincial government. The building contains furniture and artifacts representing the pre-1870 period when Jeremiah White was keeper. The rare catoptric lighting system, made up of Argand oil lamps and parabolic mirrors of polished silver, is on display. There are also exhibits on local industry including coopering, fishing, whaling and sealing, as well as the ecological history of Cape Bonavista. Guides in period costume show visitors around the site.

On August 3, 2001 a disastrous electrical storm struck Cape Bonavista. “It was like a battlefield,” says Don Johnson of the lighthouse museum. As lightning struck repeatedly all around the cape, the lighthouse tower was hit three times, igniting a fire. Lighthouse staff used a cell phone to call the fire department, and quick action prevented what could have been a much worse tragedy.

“We are saddened that one of the most historically significant buildings in the province was damaged by this act of nature,” said Kevin Aylward, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation. “As result of the quick action of the staff and the local fire department, the fire was brought under control within minutes.”

The timing of the fire was actually “lucky” in a way. There was restoration work in progress inside the lighthouse’s lantern room, and the lens and other artifacts had been removed for safe keeping. The fire did destroy the building’s electrical system and did much damage to the second floor and stairwell of the tower. A conservator made an inspection to determine which elements could be cleaned and saved and what needed to be replaced. Exact reproductions were made to replace damaged elements.

An insurance policy covered the costs of repair and restoration following the fire. All repairs are expected to be completed by June 2002 and a grand re-opening will be held. The Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation is looking forward to a busy season at the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site.

If you would like more more information, contact the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site by email at capebonavista@nf.aibn.com or call 1-800-563-6353.

This story appeared in the May 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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