This Week in History


Into the Light

For the week of Monday January 12, 2004

On January 15, 1840, the first Cape Forchu lighthouse went into operation. The current Cape Forchu light tower was built in 1962. Like the 122-year-old wooden structure that it replaced, this strikingly modern concrete tower sends its powerful beam of light seaward for the benefit of all mariners within its sight.

Cape Forchu lightstation with the original 1839 wooden tower, before July 1908
Cape Forchu lightstation with the original 1839 wooden tower, before July 1908
© Library and Archives Canada / PA 32400

The Cape Forchu light tower is located on a fork-shaped piece of land at the southwest side of the booming Yarmouth Harbour in Nova Scotia. This land shape was so distinctive that when Samuel de Champlain landed there in May 1604, he christened the site "Cap Fourchu." As the years passed, the name was anglicized to Cape Forchu.

The Cape Forchu light signals the entrance to Yarmouth Harbour and ensures the safety of ships throughout the harbour. The light shines twelve kilometres out to sea. Cape Forchu has been an important navigational point for more than a century and a half. In 1908, the original lighthouse had a Chance Brothers lamphouse and a large lens designed by French physicist and engineer, Augustin Jean Fresnel. The lens is now displayed at the Yarmouth County Historical Society Museum. As lighting technology improved, the type of light evolved from a kerosene lamp to a pressurized vapour lamp to an electric lamp.

Cape Forchu lightstation from the south
Cape Forchu lightstation from the south
© Canadian Coast Guard, 1990

When plans were made in 1961 to replace the original tower, the surrounding communities opposed the idea. They insisted that the federal Department of Transport build a replica on the site of the old wooden one. Local dissatisfaction with the proposal for a new tower caused the matter to be raised in the House of Commons. The tensions eventually settled, and some began referring to the new tower as "The Old Yarmouth Light."

The tall, narrow, multi-sided concrete shaft was the first of its kind in Canada. Its eye-catching modern design combines a dramatically simple and handsome appearance with a highly functional, low-maintenance structure. It marked a new achievement in Canada's long tradition of innovative lighthouses. Cape Forchu eventually became the prime monitoring station for automated lighthouses on the south shore of Nova Scotia from 1980 to 1993.

The Cape Forchu light tower still attracts many tourists to Yarmouth each year. The priceless photo opportunities are enjoyed by many. The Cape Forchu light tower was designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building by the Minister of Canadian Heritage in 1999.

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