New Brunswick

Memories rekindled after 26 years for former Gannet Rock lighthouse keeper

The Gannet Rock lighthouse soars above a rocky islet off Grand Manan, an old beacon of light for fisherman. But the tower, which was built in 1831, is battered from years of neglect.

'For me, it just distilled everything that light keeping was into one tiny little package'

Chris Mills spent two years working as a lighthouse keeper at the Gannet Rock lighthouse. Here is a side by side photo taken in the same doorway over 20 years apart. (Submitted by Chris Mills)

The Gannet Rock lighthouse soars above a rocky islet off Grand Manan, an old beacon of light for fisherman.

But the tower, built in 1831, is battered from years of neglect. It was abandoned in the early 2000s and stopped being maintained by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2010. 

Heritage Canada has even named the lighthouse one of the "Top 10 endangered places" in the country.

But for Chris Mills, a former Gannet Rock lighthouse keeper, the tower is more than a relic. 

He lived there from 1991 to 1993. A little over a week ago, Mills returned to Gannet Rock for the first time in more than 20 years with some friends.

A bittersweet arrival

Photos taken by former lighthouse keeper Chris Mills shows the lighthouse in the early 1990s in the picture on the left and now in the picture on the right. (Submitted by Chris Mills)
Mills described the moment he returned as "bittersweet."

"It was such an eye-opener to see how that tower is still standing proud, although it doesn't look great," he said. 

"It has such good bones and it's something that could still be stabilized and saved and it's really painful to see it in the shape that it's in now."

The tower had no foghorn, light or keepers to greet him when he arrived. Lighthouse keeping is a job that's in danger of being made obsolete by automation.

"It was like a ruined fortress above us," Mills said. "It was amazing to wander through that abandoned tower full of ghosts."

The lighthouse is small with a concrete deck wrapping around its perimeter. 

"You can walk around it in about 40 seconds. You can spit from end-to-end or side-to-side pretty well if you're a good spitter."

Chris Mills lived and worked at the Gannet Rock lighthouse from 1991 to '93, and returned 26 years later after it was decommissioned and listed by Heritage Canada as one of the top 10 endangered places in Canada. 7:36

The lighthouse is 13 kilometres south of Grand Manan. Still, Mills said it was "wonderful" to live there.

"For me, it just distilled everything that light keeping was into one tiny little package: the sea, the smell of the diesel from the generators, the light, the horn."

But the most important part for Mills was the friendships he developed with local fisherman. He made frequent contact with them.

A hand painted sign from the Gannet Rock lighthouse. (Submitted by Chris Mills)
When Mills worked at the lighthouse, he woke up early to gather weather information and transmit it to Canadian Coast Guard radio. Then, he'd check the light and engines in the tower.

He said a lot of time and effort also went into maintaining the lighthouse's exterior.

"A site like that is exposed from all sides, 360 degrees, to all sorts of weather all the time, so there's always something to do."

Now working for the coastguard on a rescue boat, Mills said, given the opportunity, he would return to working at the lighthouse in a minute. He compared the importance of the tower near Grand Manan to Nova Scotia's Peggys Cove.

"To me, it's that important, and I think it's that important to Grand Mananers, too."

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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