Nova Scotia

Sambro Island lighthouse, Canada's Statue of Liberty, gets much-needed repairs

Work is well underway on the restoration of the Sambro Island lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in Canada.

Locals hope restoration work will help make the historic lighthouse a tourist attraction

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      Sue Paul walked up the spiralling steps inside the Sambro Island Lighthouse at the entrance of Halifax Harbour. Round and round she made her way up the 18-metre portion built in 1758 before getting to the "new" part of the light, the seven-metre addition from 1906.

      Paul, a member of the Sambro Island Lighthouse Heritage Society, has family ties to the site dating back to its opening. She has been making the boat trip here for years but hasn't been inside the lighthouse since she was 10 years old.

      "It's pretty inspiring," she said near the top on Wednesday.

      Sambro's harbour master, Paddy Gray, steers his boat toward Sambro Island. He's been making lots of trips back and forth during the restoration work. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

      As the oldest working lighthouse in the Americas, Sambro Island has seen its share of history: guiding fishermen to safe passage; serving as one of the last bits of Canada sailors see as they ship out; alerting immigrants travelling to Pier 21 that they were approaching their new home.

      But time has not been kind to the lighthouse, and its level of disrepair was beginning to worry Paul and the rest of her society and community. And so she and many others were filled with relief and optimism when they learned last year money was coming from Ottawa for repairs.

      The $1.3-million project, due to be complete in November, includes stonework being repaired, the interior walls and steps are being cleaned and repaired where necessary, and the exterior shingles are being cleaned, repaired and then painted again with the classic red-and-white paint scheme.

      The view from Sambro harbour master Paddy Gray's boat as he approaches Sambro Island. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

      Repairs are happening to the windows and foundation, and the aluminum components in the lantern at the top are being stripped and re-coated. The lantern is being re-glazed.

      Standing inside the lighthouse, Ian Cameron, a conservation technologist for Public Services and Procurement Canada, said he thinks about the history of the site, what the the people who built it all those years ago would have gone through and how it evolved.

      "[Being] a lightkeeper is a solitary life, but it was their main job to maintain the lighthouse and that's what they did," he said. "This building stands as a testament to all the lightkeepers that were employed here and what a good job they did because it's still standing and it's in fairly good condition for being 250 years old."

      Ian Cameron, a conservation technologist for the federal government, says this project is important because of the lighthouse's historical significance. (CBC)

      Anything original in the lighthouse that can be preserved will be preserved, said Cameron.

      "We take the minimal approach, so minimal intervention on any of the materials that you see. If it's something that we can save reasonably well and keeps the integrity of the building or the structure and keeps it safe, then we will. If we have to replace it then we try to replace it in kind."

      It's an important project, said Cameron.

      "This is a part of our heritage that really needs to be conserved for future generations of Canadians to enjoy and to experience."

      Sue Paul, a member of the Sambro Island Lighthouse Heritage Society, looks toward the lighthouse. Her family's connection to the island dates back hundreds of years. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

      Given that point, it's striking how few people get the chance to actually visit the island.

      Paul hopes when the restoration is complete that might change. The generator house next to the lighthouse would be ideal for conversion to a tourism use, she said. She envisions charters coming and going on a daily basis and scores of people getting to enjoy "Canada's Statue of Liberty."

      Looking up at the lighthouse encrusted in a layer of scaffolding, Paul said it looks like the site is getting a much-needed bear hug.

      "It's one of those rare places on Earth that you don't just see, but you feel the history and it really is a soul-connecting place."


      • A previous version of the story said the Sambro Lighthouse was the first one built in Canada. In fact, it is the oldest working lighthouse.
        Aug 25, 2016 8:39 AM AT