Manitoba

Daughter of last 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. 

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)

Grimolfson's father, Oli, was the last keeper of the Gull Harbour lighthouse, between 1950 and 1960. Every night, perched at the top of the 23-metre structure, he guided the kerosene lamp, whose beam was used to lead boats through the darkness of Lake Winnipeg.

Charlynne lived in a small 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 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 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.

In 1961, an electric lamp was installed and the system was fully automated, making Oli Grimolfson's job obsolete. 

"It was terrible for us, because we wanted to live there the rest of our lives," she said.

"We were just told 'you have to leave,' and we didn't have any choice."

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

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

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

With files from Pierre Verriere