A history of Grand Manan's most iconic lighthouse
By Harley Carey, Grand Manan Student
The Swallowtail Lighthouse was built in 1859 following a ship wreck off the peninsula, Ashburton Head, near where the lighthouse is located. After this shipwreck and the many dangers before, the island knew that a lighthouse was needed to warn ships about the deadly rocks beneath the sea. Original Grand Manan pine was chopped and chucked into the ocean for a year so it could absorb the sea salt that would protect the wood and allow it to support the lighthouse for many years to come. These 8 mighty beams are still in excellent condition 150 years later. Grand Manan pine no longer exists.
The lighthouse was built in 1859. However, the lighthouse was not functional until until 1860 when the huge lantern casing final arrived in Grand Manan from England. During this time, there were a few problems. When the men who built the lighthouse travelled back to the peninsula after the lantern arrived, the lighthouse had tilted to one side from the huge gusts of wind that occur during Grand Manan storms. The solution was to attach cables from the top of each side of the lighthouse down to the rocks underneath the ground surrounding the wavering beacon. During storms you can see that half of the cables will be completely taught due to the wind and the other half will have plenty of slack. It’s incredible how strong these winds can be. The second problem they ran into was that the lantern casing was too big for the top of the lighthouse, but they came up with a solution. The solution was to simply add on a section at the top. Lighthouses tend to be eight sided; the Swallowtail Lighthouse is eight sided until you get to the top where there is a large section that sticks out of the side and the lighthouse becomes seven sided. Another interesting fact is that there are no nails, screws or bolts holding the lighthouse together, just a wood peg located at the bottom of each beam. The wood supporting the lighthouse was cut perfectly to fit into one another. 150 years later it is still standing tall and proud!
From 1860 till 1986 the lighthouse was tended by several lighthouse keepers and their families. Lighthouse keepers: Jonathan Kent (1860 – 1873), John W. Kent (1873 – 1893), George T. Dalzell (1893 – 1912), George A. Lahey (1912 – 1936), Wallace Lahey (1916), R.S. Lahey (1917), L.E. Foster (1936), Thomas P. Foster (1936 – at least 1937), Walter Griffin, Addison Naves, Grimmer A. Ingersoll (1960 – 1986). After 1986 it was taken over by Coastal.
The lighthouse is still fully functioning. Inside the precisely ribbed lantern casing there is a small 250-watt lightbulb that runs 24/7 with a unique strobe pattern visible from 50 miles away. And during the foggy hours the automatic fog horn rumbles the ground and the sea below. Although the light and fog horn are not needed by todays fishermen, with all the technology used on boats, the whole peninsula is a sign of home to all the islanders. Hearing the beautiful fog horn tone and seeing that light blink off in the distance is something very special that you cannot see every day in very many places.
At the time of construction 150 years ago, there was neither a lightbulb, nor an automatic fog horn. The lighthouse keeper would run up to the top of the lighthouse and start the flame with kerosene. During foggy nights or a during a storm the lighthouse keepers would also have to stand out on the edge of the peninsula and ding the big, loud bell that was located there. Eventually they upgraded to a wind up bell; but they would have to run out and rewind it every 1-2 hours. The original bell is now located beside the Keepers House on a separate deck to be viewed by the visitors.
Around the world, the keepers of lighthouses usually live inside wit their families. Swallowtail built a completely different building for the keepers to reside in—a beautiful two-story house with several bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen. In the early 2000’s the Keeper’s House became a Bed and Breakfast. At this time the lighthouse was the locked up with no one to take care of the up-keep and the Bed and Breakfast lost business. In 2012 the lighthouse was purchased by two well-known islanders, Ken Ingersoll and Laurie Murison, who had a passion and great future plans for the beautiful buildings. Many islanders supported them and the other volunteers and workers in their journey to help bring the lighthouse back to life and share its history. The Swallowtail Lighthouse is now a non-profit museum that offers daily tours and an adorable little gift shop. Many visitors who come to the island are interested in experiencing spending a night at the Keepers House.
During the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of working at the Swallowtail Lighthouse while it was under renovation. I was lucky enough to meet hundreds of lovely people from around the world who all were amazed by our island and the history of this lighthouse. On nice sunny days tourists would come by and have wonderful conversations. I heard plenty of interesting stories; some told by elders who played in the lighthouse when they were younger with their friends. There was never a dull or boring moment when the sun was shining. On foggy, rainy days I would sit in the lighthouse scraping paint or sanding wood. Every hour during the summer one of the two Grand Manan ferries would sail by the lighthouse and when the ferry docked at the wharf myself and the other workers could steal the Wi-Fi from there for a half hour and watch Netflix while it was slow.
It is so wonderful to see how much the Swallowtail Lighthouse has improved these past couple of years and the improvements to come, to see all the tourists who visit as well as fellow islanders. The lighthouse will always be an important and memorable destination on the Island of Grand Manan and I encourage everyone to visit. Pack a picnic and bring your family, look at the beautiful ocean view and relax.