Natural Wonders & Cultural Treasures
© Denis Roy
In 1861, with shipping companies sailing regularly between North America and Europe, Pointe-au-Père was chosen as the exclusive embarkation point for pilots boarding steamships, local experts who took the helm of vessels that ventured here to ensure the voyage went smoothly. As it was called in the 16th century, the “great river of Canada” - the St. Lawrence - was indeed a challenging one! Among the most important in Canada, the navigational aid station of Pointe-au-Père today helps us better understand the complexity of the river and the role played by its lighthouse, one of the tallest in the country. Transformed into exhibition spaces, the foghorn shed and the lighthouse keeper’s home explain the development of sound signals and provide insights into the world of underwater archaeology.
Who was the “père” in “Pointe-au-Père”?
The name of the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse refers to the Jesuit father (père, in French), Henri Nouvel, who, after arriving in Canada in 1662, celebrated the first mass on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, in the vicinity of the point, on December 8, 1663. From that time on, the site went by the name of “Pointe-au-Père” – the French equivalent of “Father Point”.
Prior to the lighthouse, a point for pilots
Upon entering the St. Lawrence River, any well-informed ship’s captain will bring a professional river pilot aboard to steer the vessel into Québec City in complete safety. River piloting dates to the earliest days of the French regime. The St. Lawrence pilots are seasoned navigators who possess in-depth knowledge of the river, currents, wind direction, tides, obstacles and hazards. For this reason, since the 17th century they have played a vital role in navigation on the St. Lawrence.
As early as 1805, pilots began working out of Pointe-au-Père, even though the official pilot station was at that time located on Île du Bic, an island lying a few miles upstream. The reason is simple: Pointe-au-Père, which juts out into the river, offers an exceptional vantage point. Turning this location to their advantage, the Pointe-au-Père pilots were thus the first to row out and offer their services to ship’s captains sailing up the St. Lawrence. In 1861, the shipping lines offering regular service between Europe and the American continent even selected Pointe-au-Père as the exclusive boarding place for the pilots steering their steamships.
The first lighthouses
The Montreal Ocean Steamship Company built the first lighthouse on Pointe-au-Père in 1859. As the exclusive carrier of mail between London and Montreal, this shipping company had already been stationing its own crew of pilots at Pointe-au-Père. The shoreline’s low relief, coupled with frequent periods of fog, prompted the firm to build a lighthouse equipped with both a light and a foghorn. The government of Canada purchased this lighthouse two years later, in 1861.
The second lighthouse at the dawn of the 20th century © Claveau Fund, HR-133510, Musée régional de Rimouski
The first tower, which was destroyed in a fire, was replaced by a second one in 1867. The first two lighthouses at Pointe-au-Père were built using the same model – i.e., a wood house surmounted by a tower housing the lamp. The lighthouse keeper and his family lived on the lower floors.
Pointe-au-Père: a hub of navigational services
Charles-Auguste Lavoie, lightkeeper from 1936 to 1964 © Claveau Fund, HR-13367, Musée régional de Rimouski
The first decades of the 20th century represented a kind of heyday in the history of Pointe-au-Père. As the number of navigational aid facilities and services grew, so did the crew of those required to man them – including the lighthouse keeper, keeper’s assistant, fog alarm engineer and pilots. The result was to turn Pointe-au-Père into a thriving hub of activity.
In 1894, a Tidal and Current Survey station was established, which later became known as the Hydrographic Service. The lighthouse keeper personally measured the movement of tides and the action of currents.
Pointe-au-Père also served as an elevation reference point for several Canadian and American agencies. The Hydrographic Service pursued its operations until 1985. Today, a geodesic monument, laid by the Canadian Hydrographic Association, commemorates the importance of benchmarks laid at Pointe-au-Père in establishing and monitoring major elevation references in North America.
Official pilot station
The second lighthouse was transformed into pilot living quarters © Claveau Fund, HR-13369, Musée régional de Rimouski
The St. Lawrence pilots officially set up quarters at Pointe-au-Père in 1905. Following the construction of a wharf (1902-1905), the government of Canada was able to transfer the Île du Bic pilot station to Pointe-au-Père, in response to the persistent demands of ship owners and shipping lines. The early 20th century was a boom time for maritime transport, with more than 1000 ocean-going vessels embarking and disembarking their pilot at Pointe-au-Père each year!
From 1923 to 1937, the Pointe-au-Père pilot station took over a portion of the activities associated with the Grosse Île quarantine station – specifically, the medical inspection of passengers. Accordingly, the quarantine service’s physician-inspector, who was lodged on site, set out in the pilots’ bark to examine the state of health of passengers aboard all ships sailing up the river.
A pilot boarding an ocean-going vessel © Claveau Fund, HR-13244-03, Musée régional de Rimouski
The Pointe-au-Père pilot station was transferred to Les Escoumins in 1959. However, in 2000, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada selected the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site for the laying of a plaque to commemorate the national historic significance of the St. Lawrence pilots.
The Marconi station was situated on property to the west of the station © Claveau Fund, RH-13341, Musée régional de Rimouski
In 1906, a Marconi wireless telegraph station was established at Pointe-au-Père. For the lighthouse keeper, this innovation was a welcome replacement for the system of international code of flag signals, serving to improve communication with ships. In its time, the Pointe-au-Père Marconi station was one of 20 wireless telegraph stations operated by the federal government across Canada.
On May 29, 1914, the Pointe-au-Père Marconi station received the distress signals of the Empress of Ireland, which sank off Sainte-Luce in 14 minutes. The wreck of the Empress of Ireland, which took 1,012 people to their death, today remains the most serious maritime tragedy in Canadian history.
The Pointe-au-Père Marconi station ceased operations in 1959, when the pilot station was transferred to Les Escoumins.
An avant-garde, buttressed lighthouse
The third lighthouse under construction in 1909 © Claveau Fund, RH-13366, Musée régional de Rimouski
In 1909, work was begun constructing a third lighthouse – a more impressive and indeed avant-garde structure. Its octagonal tower rises to a height of 28 metres, making this light one of the tallest in the country. Boasting an architecture with practically no counterpart in Canada, the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse remains one of the rare examples of a buttressed, reinforced concrete structure.
The skeleton tower, Pointe-au-Père’s fourth lighthouse © Parks Canada / Nancy Barbeau
In 1975, a fourth lighthouse – a skeleton tower – was erected nearby. Beginning at that time, the light station was automated, thus requiring only the occasional visit of an inspector. This lighthouse and the associated sound signal remained in operation until the station was closed in 1997.
Ownership of the 1909 lighthouse was transferred to Parks Canada in 1977. In 1979, Parks Canada carried out major improvements on the lighthouse for conservation purposes.
Today the bold, elegant profile of this third lighthouse continues to rise above the St. Lawrence shoreline. In the region, the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse stands as an important landmark and identity reference point; as such, it constitutes a historic building having outstanding architectural and heritage value.
The fog alarm – from cannon fire to the electronic sound signal
Whenever weather conditions reduced visibility at sea, the lighthouse keeper had to replace the usual visual signal (i.e., the beacon) by a sound signal. The Pointe-au-Père lighthouse played an important role in testing different types of sound signals, which were subsequently implemented in other Canadian lighthouses.
The first sound signal used at Pointe-au-Père was produced by a cannon, which the keeper had to load with gunpowder and fire every half hour.
A semicircular rail behind the building allowed the horn to be oriented depending on wind direction © Claveau Fund, HR- 13238, Musée régional de Rimouski
The cannon signal was replaced by explosive bomb signals (1894 to 1903), and then by a Scotch siren fog signal (1903). A diaphone, a kind of giant compressed air whistle operated by a fog alarm, was implemented in 1904. Finally, in 1972, this system was replaced by an electronic sound signal, which was used until the Pointe-au-Père navigational aid centre closed in 1997.
The main alterations made to the Pointe-au-Père fog alarm shed today continue to bear witness to this history of experimentation.
Main associated buildings
The lighthouse keeper’s house
Built in 1956, the lighthouse keeper’s house was home to both the keeper and his family until 1988. It is a square-shaped, two-storey wooden house topped with a wood-shingled hip roof. It evokes a more recent phase in the history of the lighthouse station.
Today, the building houses exhibits.
The engineer’s house
This house was built in 1905 for the fog alarm engineer but later became the home of the lighthouse keeper and then of the keeper’s assistant (1956 to 1980).
It is a two-storey wooden house, topped with a gambrel roof with drip mouldings on the downslope, wood shingle cladding, and three gabled dormer windows. Its gambrel roof makes it unique among other lighthouse buildings in Canada. In Quebec, it is the only remaining house of its kind.
It is one of the very rare examples of lightkeepers’ houses built in the early 20th century.
Fog alarm shed
Fog alarm shed © Parks Canada / Serge Ouellet
Built in 1903, the fog alarm shed is the lighthouse station’s oldest extant structure. It recalls the role that the station played in testing various sound signals prior to their implementation at other stations in Canada. In this building, visitors may view an impressive portion of the period diaphone as well as an exhibit explaining how various former and current sound signals function.
The Pointe-au-Père lighthouse station was designated a national historic site in 1974 because of the importance of its light and pilot station for navigation in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf.