Nfld. & Labrador

The special Cape Race lighthouse lens is one of only a dozen left in the world

For more than 110 years, the lighthouse at Cape Race on Newfoundland's Southern Shore has been the first, or last, beacon ships see as they cross the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s been doing its job beautifully since 1907, says modern-day lightkeeper Clifford Doran

Clifford Doran is the lighthouse keeper at Cape Race and a photographer. The lighthouse is one of his main subjects. (Submitted/Clifford Doran)

For more than 110 years, the lighthouse at Cape Race on Newfoundland's Southern Shore has been the first, or last, beacon ships see as they cross the Atlantic Ocean.

In all those years, the same intricate system has served as the guiding light, much the same as when it was first built in 1907.

The gigantic caged light at the top of the 95-foot tower is the only one of its kind still used in Canada, says Tim Nguyen, who specializes in restoring and preserving lighthouses.

The lens works "just like a huge magnifying glass," said Nguyen, who runs the Australian-based company Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers.

According to Nguyen, only 33 hyper-radial Fresnel lenses — like the one at Cape Race — were ever built. Just a dozen are still in operation worldwide, and Newfoundland has the only one in Canada.

Tim Nguyen specializes in repairing and restoring lighthouse optic systems. Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers has developed a bearing system that can replace mercury and allow hyper-radial lenses to keep working, without the risk to human safety. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"It's quite significant to preserve it at all cost," Nguyen said, estimating a replica would run tens of millions of dollars and wouldn't be feasible to build today.

"Today we look at it like it's a piece of artwork and you can't replace it because once it's gone, it's gone."

Other than at Cape Race, the massive lenses can be found in Portugal, Brazil, Hawaii, Pakistan, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe Islands.

The others were destroyed, or had parts put in museums or storage.

Huge waves crash at the Cape Race lighthouse on Newfoundland's Southern Shore. (Submitted by Clifford Doran)

The engineering that went into hyper-radial Fresnel lenses was some of the most advanced of its time, Nguyen said.

"They were made to last," he said. "To have one still running today is just very precious and they will last for centuries, if they're preserved properly."

Beautiful, but dangerous 

The scale of the Cape Race optic system can be seen in an undated photo supplied by Nguyen. The photo shows the glass lens towering over a man standing shorter than the system's brass base.

An undated photo of the lighting system at Cape Race shows the sheer size of what's at the top of the tower. (Submitted by Tim Nguyen)

"It's 17 feet in diameter alone," said Clifford Doran, one of the present-day lightkeepers at Cape Race. 

"I mean, you're just a speck. It's almost like walking into a building to walk inside the lens."

Due to the potential for mercury poisoning, Doran is one of the few people still allowed near the top of the lighthouse.

The glass lens is floated on about seven gallons of mercury — now known to be a highly toxic heavy metal — according to Doran.

The entire system weighs 20 tons, but because the lens sits on a mercury bath, it takes just a quarter-horsepower motor to revolve the lens around the single stationary bulb inside, Doran said.

This archival CBC photo from 1999 shows the single lightbulb at the center of the Cape Race optic system. The glass lens encasing it rotates and magnifies the light out to sea. (CBC)

As the four-sided lens rotates, pieces of it catch and magnify the light, flashing it out to sea every 7½ seconds. 

The spacing of that signal is what lets crews know they're nearing Cape Race; different lighthouses flash at different rates.

"It says on it, it can be seen up to 24 nautical miles, but a lot of good captains are after spotting it, on a clear winter's night, up as far as 50 miles out at sea," said Doran. 

"I would say that's responsible for saving a lot of lives."

Cape Race juts out into the Atlantic and is generally blanketed in fog.

Doran says the view from the top is magnificent. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Mistaken Point Cape Race Heritage Inc. says between 1866 and 1904 — when a previous model of lighthouse was used at the site — 94 ships carrying 2,000 people were lost at, or near, Cape Race.

Doran said the system requires little maintenance, but he's taken training courses and wears specialized gear to oil parts.

"When you're up there during the day with the sun reflecting through the glass there, you can see the prisms in the light," he said. "Almost like a rainbow effect to it, but the view up there is just wonderful."

Hyper-radial lenses were first built in 1885 and the one at Cape Race was installed in 1907 and constructed by English company Chance Brothers. Newer technology made the intricate lens design obsolete soon after.

The lighthouse is located down a long, winding and sometimes dirt road. It's perched on Newfoundland's Southern Shore. (Submitted by Darren Dodge)

The original light source in the existing lighthouse was a petroleum vapour light, which was replaced with a single bulb when the station was electrified in 1928.

But the lens hasn't changed, Doran said, and it continues to help the light beam bright and steer ships to safety, as intended all those decades ago.

"I hope they don't ever change it. I mean, that's real," Doran said. "That's part of history."

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About the Author

Katie Breen


Katie Breen works for CBC in St. John's.


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