The Blockhouse at Blockhouse Point

Today the lighthouse on the point marking the western side of the channel leading to Charlottetown is an iconic symbol of the Island’s past. This year the building itself is 150 years old.  But what was there before?

blockhouse

The Block House from George’s Battery, 1839 watercolour by Col. A.C. Mercer. National Archives of Canada (C13788). George’s Battery was situated in the Ordnance Grounds at the west end of Water Street, near where the Armories now stands.

During the French period on the Island the point at least had a name. Early maps identified the spot as Pointe à la Flamme (meaning pennant)  and it stood across the narrows from Pointe à la Framboise but there is nothing to suggest that there was anything but trees on either point. When Samuel Holland, who seems to have named everything else on the Island, drew his map and sent it off to England in 1764 he hadn’t bothered to name the harbour entrance features although Observation Cove just around the corner to the west was where he chose to live during the winter of the survey.

blockhouse2

Detail from Mercer watercolour. The signal mast can be seen to the west of the blockhouse.

As the point commands the harbour entrance it was not long before it was incorporated into the defence plans for the Island’s capital. By 1798 it appears HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, (after whom the Island was soon to be re-named)  had taken a personal interest in the defences of the colony while he was commander-in-chief at Halifax. Among the batteries and fortifications were new works at Fanningbank, a four gun battery at what is now Battery Point and a blockhouse mounting two guns with a protective four-gun battery located in front of it on what was called in documents “Beacon Point.”  The name suggests that there was already some sort of structure there but its form and purpose is not clear. The blockhouse is recorded as continuing as a part of the Island’s defences in 1821 but the battery at Battery Point seems to have disappeared by this time.

There was still a blockhouse at the point in 1839 when sketched by Colonel Alexander C. Mercer on a visit to the colony but by then its role was more communication than defence. A signal mast was used to provide notice of approaching vessels, probably linking with another signal station at Kent Battery, now called Fort Edward (although it was never a fort).

Detail from George Wright's Chart of Hillsborough Bay and the Harbour of Charlottetown 1839

Detail from George Wright’s Chart of Hillsborough Bay and the Harbour of Charlottetown 1839

However the name Blockhouse Point was still not in use, as the words “Block house” on George Wright’s and George Peacock’s 1839 Chart of Hillsborough Bay and the Harbour of Charlotte Town refer to the structures not to the place. Symbols for both the blockhouse and the flag or signal staff can be clearly seen on the chart.

When Wright’s chart was used as the basis for a more detailed chart by Captain Bayfield in 1846 it was accompanied by an inset with a ships-eye view of the harbour approaches which clearly shows the shape of the blockhouse with cleared land all round it. The sketch remained unchanged as a part of the chart editions well into the twentieth century even though the blockhouse was long gone. Bayfield finally provided a name for the point itself rather than for the building found on it which may have disappeared by this time. An 1848 chart notation says “Block House and Battery in Ruins.”

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Detail from Chart of Hillsborough Bay surveyed by Capt. H.W. Bayfield R.N. 1842. This image continued to be used on charts up to and including the 1934 edition.

What ever was there had, by this time, become purely an aid to navigation. In 1846 Thomas Owen had been provided with funds by the Legislature to build a lanthorn as “A harbour Light for Charlottetown” and for keeping it in operation. There was a building on the point in 1856 built by John Smallwood who received £46 for erecting a structure on the upper part of the Blockhouse for a light. It is not clear if the reference to “upper part ” is to a specific area of the point of to an already existing structure which would be added to.  What ever the case, the building had some substance as it took 11,000 feet of hemlock boards and 3,000 feet of pine plank. The light itself was housed in a fire-proof lantern made with zinc, sheet iron and copper.

When the Dominion government took over responsibilities for lighthouses after confederation in 1873 the Blockhouse Light was “so much decayed by age as to scarcely merit repair.” The inspector recommended only that slight and temporary repairs be made until a new light-house and dwelling could be constructed.  That step was taken in 1876 and the present structure has served ever since.

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10 thoughts on “The Blockhouse at Blockhouse Point

  1. Pingback: The Blockhouse at Blockhouse Point — Sailstrait | Larry Muffin At Home

  2. larrymuffin

    I really enjoy reading your postings on the history of Charlottetown. I will from time to time re-post them on my blog, I feel more people should be reading what you write. Best Wishes to you.

    Reply
  3. Terrill Welch

    I did a plein air painting sketch with Blockhouse Point in the distance from Charlottetown when I visited for seven weeks in the spring. Then I painted a larger studio oil painting showing the lighthouse mor prominently when I returned to the west coast of Canada. I really appreciate knowing more about the history of the lighthouse. I had definitely been wondering what it’s course had been through time. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      I hope to do a posting on the more recent history (recent = since 1876) in the next month or so bringing the story up to the present.

      Reply
    2. sailstrait Post author

      I would be very interested in seeing your interpretation of the scene. I am planning a sequel to this posting to bring the history from 1876 to the present and hope to incorporate historical and contemporary views of the locale.

      Reply
  4. Shannon burt

    Not directly related to the blockhouse but related to what I sometimes see, when walking along the shore at Victoria Park. Some times I see tower lights off in the distance from what i presume is ns shore line. Do you know where the towers are and what are they? Best I could figure is that they are windmills but only
    Place in ns where there are that many is outside of Truro. Why are they visible only some times? Aospheric irregularities?

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      The lights sometimes visible from the Charlottetown Harbour gap are from the line of wind turbines east of the Wentworth Valley,atop the ridge. I’m not sure why they seem to be visible some nights but not on others but suspect it may have to do with the height of tide and the curvature of the earth. At high tide even the slight difference in the water level may cut off the view of the turbines. While we on P.E.I. take an unreasonable pride in the number of windmills we have, it is a mere shadow of the effort N.S. has taken. Sailing up the Strait from Pictou one can see an almost continuous line of red flashers along the high land from Mount Thom to Wentworth.

      Reply
      1. Shannon

        I believe that would be Nuttby Moubtain. I think it’s the largest windmill site at least in the region. Thanks for the info!

  5. Pingback: The Lighthouse at Blockhouse Point | Sailstrait

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