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Sovereignty on the Pacific Coast: Fisgard Lighthouse

For the week of Monday November 13, 2000

Fisgard lighthouse, at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, became operational on November 16, 1860. It is Canada's oldest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.

The British Colonial Office and the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia had the lighthouse built out of a shared concern for safe shipping in the area. An increase in coastal traffic came about when the British Royal Navy used Esquimalt as a retreat for its ships during the Crimean War of 1854-56. Then the Fraser River gold rush attracted thousands of prospectors and immigrants to the colonies in 1858-60. Navigational aids were required to guide ships sailing through the Straight of Juan de Fuca, on their approach to Esquimalt. While the harbour itself was large, its entrance was not only hard to find, but was also narrow and perilous, with a jagged shoreline. 

Fisgard Lighthouse

Fisgard Lighthouse
© Parks Canada

The location for the new lighthouse was a tiny island at the harbour's entrance, named for the ship H.M.S. Fisgard, formerly on station in the Pacific. It was constructed of brick, which did not endure well in the damp, windy weather and, as a result, the outside of the tower was covered in cement. Within the tower, entered through the adjoining lighthouse keeper's residence, a cast-iron spiral staircase led up to the lantern platform. The original lantern, from England, was controlled by the keeper who lived there 24 hours a day. He and his wife often worked together, sometimes alternating in the lonely task of keeping watch.

Fisgard was the first in a network of lighthouses on Vancouver island which lit the way for coastal traffic. One month later, a second lighthouse, called Race Rocks, went into operation just a short distance west of Fisgard. Coastal traffic in the area increased with commerce, with the relocation of the Royal Navy's Pacific Squadron from Chile to Esquimalt in 1864, and with the construction of Fort Rodd Hill to protect the base in the 1890s. (At the fort, located right near the lighthouse, gunfire was sometimes so loud that it broke the lighthouse lantern!) By 1920 a system of aids had been established all along the coast of Vancouver Island.

Fisgard, due to the gentle slope of the sides of its tower, its fine proportions and careful detailing, is one of Canada's most attractive lighthouses. It still remains in operation, but has not required a keeper since 1928, when it was automated. Fisgard lighthouse and dwelling also house a museum. They were declared a national historic site in 1958.

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