Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site of Canada
From the mid 1800s the lighthouse at Cape Spear has flashed its message from this point of land. This was only the second light to offer aid along any of Newfoundland's rocky coasts, even though the island had at the time been populated for two centuries. A light was placed at Fort Amherst, at the entrance to St. John's Harbour, in 1810. In 1832, the newly created legislative assembly authorized the construction of lighthouses for the safety of coastal navigation. Because of its proximity to St. John's harbour, Cape Spear was chosen as the site for the new lighthouse in Newfoundland.
Nicholas Croke and William Parker, two St. John's builders, won the contract for the lighthouse and work began in 1834 or early in 1835. The original building was a square, two-storey structure, with the light tower itself in the middle of the building. The light was operational by September 1836, and in 1878 a fog horn was added to help guide mariners into St. John's harbour.
The Old Lighthouse, 1836
Photo: ©Parks Canada/HRS 0121/ J-P. Jérôme
The light for the tower was not new. Shipped from Scotland, the light had been in use since 1815 at the east coast lighthouse of Inchkeith. Curved reflectors concentrated and intensified the light rays from seven Argand burners, named for their Swiss inventor. Lamps and reflectors were arranged on a metal frame, which rotated slowly to produce a 17-second flash of white light, followed by 43 seconds of darkness. The movement of the light was controlled by a clockwork mechanism.
As technology progressed, the light underwent many changes. The last of the lights that resided in the old Cape Spear lighthouse was a glass dioptric system, installed in 1912. First lit by oil, acetylene was adopted in 1916, and electricity in 1930. In 1955, the dioptric system was moved to a new light tower, not far from the original lighthouse.
Today the Cape Spear lighthouse has been restored to its original appearance and refurnished as a light keeper's residence to the period of 1839. Cape Spear lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador.
During the Second World War, a very different kind of danger focused activities at Cape Spear. On a direct convoy route from Europe to the North American continent, Cape Spear took on a whole new significance. German submarines and raiders off the coast of the Island posed a considerable threat. A coastal defence battery, equipped with two 10" guns was constructed here to protect the entrance to St. John's Harbour. The gun emplacements were built at the tip of the Cape and connected by underground passages to magazine and equipment rooms. From 1941 to 1945, troops were stationed here, and barracks, mess halls and canteens were built. With the end of hostilities in 1945, most of the fortifications were demolished but the gun emplacements stand as a sombre reminder of that important period in our military history.
Today, the bunkers and gun barrels provide a sheltered view of the ocean. No longer watching for the enemy, visitors survey the horizon for whales, icebergs, seabirds and ships headed in and out of St. John's harbour.