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.

black and white image of a man cleaning a light mechanism
Frank Cantwell was the Light Keeper at Cape Spear from 1944-1968. He was the 5th generation of Cantwells to do the job.

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 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.

black and white image of the historic lighthouse
The lighthouse as it looked in the 1970s.

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.