While driving in the fog in Port aux Basques the other day, I passed Channel Head and saw the lighthouse shining through and was struck by the simple beauty of it. A relatively small iron tower currently painted white, the site has been guiding mariners home to the mouth of the harbour for nearly 150 years – simple, functional, practical, and seemingly permanent now. So for this month’s column I thought I’d share a bit more about it.
Channel Head lighthouse certainly feels like it’s been there forever! The site has been operational since spring of 1875 when the first tower was quickly built from local materials. It was a 9-metre tall wooden structure with a red light.
Initially there was no lightkeepers home to go with it, meaning that the keeper had to live across the gut and row over, making it nearly impossible to tend to in bad weather. That issue was fixed relatively quickly (by government standards at least). The lighthouse report from the department of public works in 1877 noted that a keepers home had been built on the little island to make things easier.
With keeper and light in place, some changes happened over the next few years. A cistern was built in 1890, and when the Cape Ray lighthouse burned down in 1885, Inspector J. T. Nevill had a much-strengthened argument for an iron tower on Channel Head, something he had recommended for many sites over his career.
When it came to iron, he stated, “…iron is permanent. It may be said everlasting, and even requires less attention[.]” He knew that in the long term it would be a better bet, even though the up-front cost gave some members of the House sticker shock. As the original tower deteriorated, arguments went back and forth, mostly over expense and necessity. In 1895, Nevill finally got his way and the 17 meter cast iron tower people see still in place today was installed.
Other upgrades followed. In 1898 a fog signal was installed 20 meters south of the light. It was a gun cotton alarm, with a 4-ounce cartridge set off every 8 minutes – the shortest interval of all explosive and gun cotton alarms in Newfoundland. Around this time, covered passageways were installed between the keeper’s house, the signal, and the tower to make getting around easier in bad weather.
The gun cotton system was chosen due to the lack of water supply for a steam-powered alarm. Soon it was determined that an 8-minute interval was too long for Channel Head, and the inspector recommended changing to a compressed air diaphone in 1905. This way they did not have to rely on steam or gunpowder and could maintain a much shorter time between alarm blasts.
In 1906 a new diaphone was installed, including a protective concrete breastwork to prevent damage to it from the sea. The new interval was a short 114 seconds – 1 minute and 54 seconds, just under a quarter of the previous alarm interval!
It was over 50 years before electricity first came to the Channel Head lighthouse. It was installed in 1963, and the light was converted from kerosene in 1966 and is still electric today. A radio beacon was also installed in the 1960s, and a duplex was built to replace the 90-year old lightkeepers home in 1965.
As with many sites throughout Canada, eventually the lighthouse was automated. In 1990 the duplex was torn down, along with most of the buildings, and a helipad was installed. The tower’s longevity is notable, and in 1988 it was classified as a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.
The 146-year old site and 123-year old tower still remain on duty, guiding mariners around the Southwest coast back to the safety of the Port aux Basques harbour – simple, effective, and everlasting –just as intended.