This Week in History


Spotlight on Cape Spear

For the week of Monday August 28, 2006

On September 1, 1836, the Cape Spear lighthouse, the oldest surviving coastal lighthouse in Newfoundland, was put into service. Located on the easternmost tip of the continent, Cape Spear is the first place in Canada to greet the sunrise.

The old Cape Spear lighthouse
© Canada Science and Technology Museum

Two local builders, Nicholas Croke and William Parker, started construction on the lighthouse in 1834. It was the first large-scale public works project undertaken by the Newfoundland colonial government after it was granted representative government from Great Britain in 1832. Strategically located to assist the fishery, the lighthouse guided mariners into St. John's Harbour, 11 km to the south.

The lighthouse consists of a square, two-storey wooden residence surrounding a 9.15‑metre-high stone tower, equipped with a lamp and a dome. Its architectural beauty has been preserved, evoking the appearance of eastern Canada’s lighthouses. The first catoptric system (i.e. based on reflection) with its seven Argand burners came originally from the lighthouse of Inchkeith in Scotland. The lamp was first lit by whale oil, which was replaced by seal oil in 1840. It was converted to kerosene use in 1874. In the early 1910s, the lamp was replaced by a dioptric light (i.e. a lens) until the arrival of electricity in 1929.

The new Cape Spear lighthouse
© Parks Canada

Emmanuel Warre was the first lightkeeper, a position he held until his death in 1846. He was succeeded by James Cantwell, who was recommended by the Crown, and his descendants would continue to take care of the site until 1952. The lighthouse underwent many changes over its lifetime, particularly after being damaged by a great many storms or to accommodate the lightkeeper’s growing family.

The site played a significant role in the defence of North America during the Second World War. From 1941 to 1945, Canadian and American garrisons set up military fortifications at the site. Its strategic position made it possible to protect the entrance to St. John's Harbour and to defend the cargo convoys. Today, we can still find remnants of that era, including two gun emplacements and underground passages leading to a cement bunker.

This old lighthouse was replaced by a modern tower in 1955. Today it houses old artifacts that document the family life of a 19th-century lightkeeper. Because of its age and architecture, the old Cape Spear lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site in 1962.

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