PEI

Friends of Seacow Head Lighthouse celebrate as Shipwreck Point group still waits

While one community group celebrates finally receiving the keys to its lighthouse, another group is frustrated by their lack of progress. The Friends of Shipwreck Point Lighthouse are hoping to also have a happy ending someday.

'It's like pulling teeth to get any information from them, which is really disappointing'

This is one of the older lighthouses on P.E.I., built in 1864, and named Seacow Head, for the walruses, or seacows, that were once plentiful in the nearby waters. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

The Friends of Seacow Head Lighthouse are finally the proud owners of the structure they say is a beacon for their community. 

They officially received the keys from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Sept. 15, after more than 10 years of volunteer efforts.

"We were quite ecstatic because it was a 10-year wait," said Jim MacFarlane, treasurer of the Friends of the Seacow Head Lighthouse Inc. 

"We started 10 years ago dealing with the DFO, and it was back and forth and back and forth, and there were some issues that had to be dealt with, lead and mercury issues, and the repairs to the lighthouse, which DFO did all that."

Seacow Head lighthouse appeared in the opening scenes of many of the episodes of the TV series Road to Avonlea, adapted from books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

MacFarlane's great-great-grandfather was one of the builders of the lighthouse, and his great-grandfather was the first lighthouse keeper.

"We have a lot of work to do with cleaning up," MacFarlane said. 

"But we're very, very happy to have it, and proud to maintain it and protect it for the rest of the generations to come behind us." 

Claim to fame

MacFarlane said Seacow Head Lighthouse is well known because it is one of the oldest lighthouses, built in 1864, and named Seacow Head for the walruses — or seacows — that were once plentiful in the nearby waters.

The lighthouse became famous worldwide when it was featured in the opening to the television series Road to Avonlea, based on the books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. 

MacFarlane's great-great-grandfather was one of the builders of the lighthouse, and his great-grandfather was the first keeper. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

There was even a replica of Seacow Head Lighthouse built on the set in Ontario, to film scenes inside the lighthouse, with the exteriors filmed on Prince Edward Island.

"You wouldn't believe the number of people that have come down just because of that," MacFarlane said.

Thomas Sherry has a cottage next to Seacow Head Lighthouse, and has also spent the last 10 years working toward community ownership.

He's also a board member of the P.E.I. Lighthouse Association, which includes about 20 lighthouses across the province, including the eight that are currently open to the public. 

The Friends of Seacow Head Lighthouse were thrilled to get the keys to the lighthouse this fall, and have plans to open it to the public next summer. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

"To the P.E.I. Lighthouse Association, it means that there's still a lot of interest out there in lighthouses across P.E.I., and it is still growing," Sherry said.

"They're very important. One example, there's a lot of people that are on the cruise ships that go to visit the lighthouses that are open, so it's a big economic activity, just through employing people through the communities."

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The view from the top of Seacow Head Lighthouse. The group that now owns it hopes to have it open to the public next summer, including displays on all four levels of the lighthouse. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

The chairperson for the lighthouse group, Elizabeth Whyte, also has a personal connection to the lighthouse.

"My uncle, his father and grandfather were part of this lighthouse. They were lighthouse keepers. And I played around this lighthouse when I was little, and it just came to mean a lot to me," Whyte said.

"When we found out that if no one stepped up, then it was going to be torn down, we said no and we contacted people in the community."

It was a labour of love is what it was, but it was tough.​—Elizabeth Whyte, Friends of the Seacow Head Lighthouse

Whyte said taking over the ownership has been a long time coming, and a lot of work.

"It was a labour of love is what it was, but it was tough," Whyte said.

"But we had the community support behind us, and we had events that proved that the community was behind us and we raised money as we went along."

Whyte also has advice for other groups that are still waiting to take over lighthouses in their communities. 

"Don't give up. It's well worth it," Whyte said. 

Still waiting 

The Friends of Shipwreck Point Lighthouse committee has also been waiting almost 10 years, waiting for news from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on their application for the lighthouse in Naufrage, P.E.I.

After forming in 2013, the group submitted its plan to DFO. 

Nathan Paton of the Friends of Shipwreck Point Lighthouse group says while he's happy for the group at Seacow Head Lighthouse, he's disappointed that his committee that is still waiting for word from DFO. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

"I'm pleased to hear it, but still surprised, and kind of disappointed that we haven't had that sort of progress for our committee," said Nathan Paton, chair of the Shipwreck Point group. 

"We've resubmitted our application, we've updated it, and just no matter what, it's like pulling teeth to get any information from them, which is really disappointing."

While Paton is happy for the group at Seacow Head, he said it's still unacceptable for the process to take 10 years or longer.

The Friends of Shipwreck Point Lighthouse have also submitted an application to Parks Canada to have the building designated under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. A spokesperson for Parks Canada says it is currently reviewing the nomination. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

"First, it tells me that they don't really value what we as a community value in our local history. It tells us that we kind of don't matter to them, because I think 10 years is really just extreme," Paton said. 

"A volunteer non-profit community group, it's not easy to go through all this paperwork. And it's just stymied by the fact that there's changeover in their department, and it seems that you just can't get any traction with anything."

CBC received a statement from DFO about the process for transferring a lighthouse.

"There are many steps to the divestiture process for designated lighthouses such as environmental assessments, Indigenous consultations and surveying, among others. This process can take many years to finalize and complete," the statement reads.

Paton says he worries, at almost 10 years and counting, about keeping his group going. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Paton said his group has received the exact same statement, multiple times.

"I'd be curious to know what are these many steps, what progress we've made, keep us up-to-date on these sorts of things? Who are they consulting? How can we help move that forward?" Paton said. 

"The fact that I've received that statement from them time and time again, it doesn't make me feel very optimistic, and it just doesn't really make us feel very respected either."

It doesn't make me feel very optimistic, and it just doesn't really make us feel very respected either.—Nathan Paton, Friends of Shipwreck Point Lighthouse

Paton said he also worries, at 10 years and counting, about keeping his group going. 

"Ten years is such a long time and I just wonder how do you keep a committee together? How do you keep people motivated when you see no result whatsoever?" Paton said. 

"I'm fortunate to have such a committee that is willing to stay committed to this because they see the value in it. But it's hard to hold on forever."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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