Canada's tallest lighthouse reopens to visitors, but its future remains uncertain

Government officials ordered the Cap-des-Rosiers lighthouse on the Gaspé Peninsula closed not once, but twice, this month. It's open now but, in dire need of repairs, no one knows for how long.

Cap-des-Rosiers lighthouse decaying despite status as both National Historic Site, Federal Heritage Building

Two consecutive emergency shutdowns have heightened concerns over the future of Canada's tallest lighthouse at Cap-des-Rosiers. (Radio-Canada)

The Cap-des-Rosiers lighthouse on the Gaspé Peninsula is open to visitors once again, after government officials ordered it closed not once, but twice, this month. However, it's not clear how long the tallest lighthouse in Canada will remain open.

The  34-metre-high beacon on the edge of Forillon National Park is classified as both a National Historic Site and a Federal Heritage Building — one of only seven lighthouses in the country that holds that double classification.

The stone structure, built between 1853 and 1858, draws 30,000 visitors a year.

It's had restoration work done over the years, most notably when it was rebuilt in white marble in 1984, but it has deteriorated so badly it now needs  $6.5 million in repairs.

The president of the non-profit committee that runs the historic site, Jean-Paul Salaün, said closing the lighthouse at the start of the tourist season was a catastrophe. (Radio-Canada)

"The lighthouse is in a bad state,"  said  Jean-Paul Salaün, the president of the Cap-des-Rosiers Lighthouse Historic Site Committee, the non-profit agency that operates it.

Shutdown — twice

Although well aware that the lighthouse is in need of restoration, Salaün's group was taken aback two weeks ago when it was told to close the tower for emergency repairs just as the summer tourist season was starting.

I do not think that we can manage to lose the tallest lighthouse in Canada and let it collapse into the bottom of the cape.- Gaspé Mayor Daniel Côté

A report from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which owns the now-automated lighthouse, concluded that the building urgently needed $10,000 in repairs.

For Salaün's committee, the shutdown was a catastrophe.

"The report just dropped on us a few days after we opened the site," he said.

"We lost a lot of money."

The 159-year-old Cap-des-Rosiers Lighthouse welcomes 30,000 visitors a year, but it needs an estimated $6.5 million in repairs. (Radio-Canada)

The committee got the work done and was poised to reopen the lighthouse to the public last Friday. Then it was told for a second time to shutter the building, because mould had been found.

Air quality tests have since been conducted, and Salaün said so far, reports have been good.

The lighthouse reopened once again on Thursday.

Worries it will 'collapse into the bottom of the cape'

Salaün still fears for the future of the building.

The government recognizes the cultural significance of the structure, but the lighthouse has been deemed "surplus to navigation operational requirements," said federal Fisheries and Oceans Department spokesperson Carole Saindon in a statement emailed to CBC News.

"Nevertheless, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has carried out urgent work, in order to ensure the health and safety of the site users and to allow access to the Cap-des-Rosiers Lighthouse," Saindon wrote.

Last Tuesday, the municipality of Gaspé passed a resolution calling for the Fisheries Department to transfer its ownership to Parks Canada, which is mandated to preserve National Historic sites.

There is no plan to do that, Saindon said.

Gaspé Mayor Daniel Côté worries that one day no one will be able to climb to its peak and gaze across the sea.

"I do not think that we can manage to lose the tallest lighthouse in Canada and let it collapse into the bottom of the cape," he said.

with files from Quebec AM's Glenn Wannamaker and Radio-Canada's Joanne Bérubé

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