Manitoba

Daughter of last resident Hecla lighthouse keeper reflects on its history

It's been decades since Charlynne Grimolfson lived by the Gull Harbour lighthouse her father operated, but she says her heart and soul are still there. 

The job of operating the lighthouse turned to automation in the 1960s

The original lighthouse at Gull Harbour on Hecla Island. (Pierre Verriere/CBC)

It's been decades since Charlynne Grimolfson lived by the Gull Harbour lighthouse her father operated, but she says her heart and soul are still there. 

"It's the memories of my mom and dad when they were happy, when we were all content, the type of life we lived — it was so peaceful," she said. "We wanted to live there the rest of our lives."

Though the Prairies are not usually associated with lighthouses, the Gull Harbour lighthouse on Hecla Island has stood for more than a century, and is part of the Icelandic heritage of the island.

Its origin dates back to 1898, when the first lighthouse was built, equipped with a foghorn and kerosene lamp operated manually by a lighthouse keeper who lived next door. A second, taller lighthouse was added 30 years later.

The Hecla Island lighthouses. The smaller, wooden tower was built in 1898, while the taller lighthouse was built 30 years later. (Pierre Verriere/CBC)

Helgi Jones — who owned the close-by Gull Harbour Lodge — was the last keeper of the Gull Harbour light.

The light was automated in 1961, but maintenance was still required on the site.

Grimolfson's father, Oli, was the last of the resident keepers of the Gull Harbour lighthouse, serving between 1950 and close to the end of the decade. 

Every night, he lit the kerosene lamp, perched at the top of the 23-metre structure, whose beam was used to lead boats through the darkness of Lake Winnipeg.

Charlynne lived in the small keeper's house without electricity, built on the shore of the lake with her four siblings. 

There were many nights where she says her father would ride on his boat into difficult conditions, and her family never knew if he was coming back alive. 

Charlynne Grimolfson's father, Oli, was the last resident lighthouse keeper on Hecla Island. (Radio-Canada)

On one occasion, Oli nearly drowned when his boat sank. He only survived by holding onto a piece of his boat until he was picked up, Charlynne recalled. 

Once, the family's home was even threatened when a boat came barrelling toward it, before making a sharp turn and narrowly avoiding slamming into the shore. 

Still, Charlynne says her father took pride in the job.

The Grimolfson family lived in a small keeper’s house close to the lighthouse. (Submitted by Charlynne Grimolfson)

"He was proud of his work, proud of so many friends from the boats, proud that he did save lives … by being there and making sure the lights were on, by doing the foghorn for hours," she said.

The lighthouses are now designated heritage sites, after being at risk of being torn down for years. 

A view of the Gull Harbour lighthouse and Grimolfson home from the air. (Submitted by Charlynne Grimolfson)

The older lighthouse came under the responsibility of the province of Manitoba, which classified it as a historic building and began work to restore the structure.

The newer lighthouse is still operated and maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard, and continues to guide fishermen and boaters on Lake Winnipeg.

When these lighthouses were built, the island was mainly inhabited by settlers of Icelandic origin.

Maxine Ingalls was raised on the island of Hecla. Her family, originally from Iceland, settled in the area in 1885. (Pierre Verriere/CBC)

Maxine Ingalls, who was raised on Hecla Island, was part of the campaign to save the lighthouses. She says she thinks it is critical to preserve them because they bore witness to the history of the island. 

"To me, I'm fighting for something that really has some significance, and I would hate to think that this would be gone," she said. 

"It's just part of my heritage, my own personal heritage. I would just think that there's many families here who feel that same way."

It's been decades since Charlynne Grimolfson lived by the Gull Harbour lighthouse her father operated, but she says her heart and soul are still there. 3:37

Clarifications

  • Additional information has been included to indicate that although Oli Grimolfson was the last to live in the keeper's house, Helgi Jones was the last keeper of the Hecla Island light before it was automated.
    Jun 26, 2020 12:29 PM CT

With files from Pierre Verriere

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