Tag Archives: Lighthouse

The Light at Blockhouse Point

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Blockhouse Light with Charlottetown in distance 2016. Photo by Stephen Desroches. Used with the permission of the photographer

There seem to be no images of the first light structure marking the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour but in recent years the present building has become one of the most photographed buildings in the province.  The building on Blockhouse Point has a striking appearance with the light tower and its large attached dwelling and is most often pictured as seen from Alchorn’s Point immediately to the north.  The autumn view above, photographed by Island photographer Stephen Desroches,  is one not often seen but it shows how the building stands at the gateway to the harbour.

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Blockhouse Light from the south ca. 1890. Library and Archives Canada photo. The square window for the sector is on the second floor of the tower. The flagstaff is clearly visible to the right.

Although there was a light structure on the point in the middle of the 19th century the one standing in 1873 when Canada took over responsibility for aids to navigation was considered to be inferior and in 1876 the Dominion parliament appropriated $4,000 for a new building. James Butcher was the contractor for the building which cost $$2,750 and the remainder of the funds were presumably directed to the light itself.  At 42 feet the tower is far from being the tallest on the Island but sitting as it does atop the headland it stands 60 feet above the water and can be seen from a considerable distance. Sailors can pick out the white building from Point Prim.

In addition to the light at the top of the tower the building housed a red sector light on the second floor which can be seen in the 1890 photo. A sector light is a fixed lamp which can be seen from only a certain angle and is used to show the correct line into the port. In this case keeping the red light and the white light tower light in line when coming in from the Strait brought a ship to the Fitzroy Rock bell buoy. One then steered a N.N.E 1/2 E. course to reach Spithead buoy and then turned to head into the harbour.   With the building of the range lights on the Haszard farm in Bellevue Cove in 1890 the sector light was no longer needed and was removed.  It was probably not long after this time that the light opening was converted to a conventional window.

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Blockhouse Light about 1914. Minor architectural detail changes can be seen but the present building is almost exactly as pictured here.

Although the configuration of the building has not changed since its construction in 1876 there were some slight modifications sometime before 1914.  The wooden railing around the dwelling roof and the light tower was removed and on the tower at least the railing was replaced by one of iron or steel. The windows in the tower were changed to include a pediment, the verandah which originally was attached to the west and south faces was removed from the south side the height of the chimney was increased and the cornices, which were originally bracketed, were changed to a flared design.

The flag staff with its arms for signal flags remained in the site until about 1920 but it was likely unused for most of that time.

When it was built the lighthouse stood in a clearing well away from any vegetation and a field extended to the west of the structure. Over the years this has grown in and a grove of trees developed at the end of the point which has been left, possibly to reduce erosion.  Unlike many island lighthouses this structure has not yet had to be moved although there has been considerable loss at the point which can be seen by comparing early photos with more recent ones.

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Blockhouse Light and lobster hatchery about 1912. No trace of the hatchery or wharf structure remains on the site.

Detail from Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing light and hatchery wharf

Detail from Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing light and hatchery wharf

The building stood alone on the point until the erection of the short-lived lobster hatchery and its attached wharf.  Neither lasted long into the twentieth century and not a trace of the building or wharf remain at the site. A trackway from the point down to the beach provided access to the shoreline of the protected cove. It shows in a number of early photos and can still be made out in the undergrowth under the trees growing on the cliff.    

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Blockhouse Point and Lighthouse from Alchorn’s Point about 1920. The trackway to the beach can be seen. The point has eroded to a point well inside of the three tall trees since this photo was taken.

Contemporary view of Blockhouse Light from Alchorn's Point

Contemporary view of Blockhouse Light from Alchorn’s Point. Photo from Wikimapia.

The Blockhouse Light is one of the most accessible lighthouses on Prince Edward Island. It is close to the National Historic Site at Fort Amherst – Port La Joie.  Although the building itself is closed to the public the site has many visitors brought by both the structure and its commanding view of  Hillsborough Bay on one side and the Harbour entrance on the other. It overlooks the narrow channel through which cruise ships and yachts pass all summer long.

Although Blockhouse Light is much-photographed and is the subject of sketches, paintings and prints by man artists, one of my favourite souvenirs of the light is not a picture but a small plaster-cast model which retains many of the architectural features of this iconic building.

Plaster souvenir model of Blockhouse Light ca. 2000. Maker unknown.

Plaster souvenir model of Blockhouse Light ca. 2000. Maker unknown.

Sources:

This is one of a number of posting concerning Blockhouse Point. The early history of the point is found here, views of the area by a prominent postcard photographer are here and a contemporary view of the area can be seen here.

One of the best sources for information about this light, and indeed all of the Island’s lighthouses, is lighthousefriends.com. Additional information can be found at the site for the PEI Lighthouse Society

Stephen Desroches holds copyright to his photographs which may not be reproduced without permission. He is a professional photographer, artist and designer from Charlottetown. Examples of his work and contact information can be found at stephendesroches.com

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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?

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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.

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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.

The missing lighthouse at the harbour mouth

Today one of the most popular subjects of both private photos and images on postcards and tourism advertising is the lighthouse.  The iconic images portray the historic link between land and sea and are symbols of the Island’s maritime past.

It was not always so.

Before the Great War, during the golden age of postcards when as many as 500 postcard photos of the province were available for purchase, the image of the lighthouse is almost entirely absent. It is almost as if lighthouses did not exist. A good example of the wilful exclusion of the lighthouse from popular imagery can be found at the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour

"Entrance to Harbor, Charlottetown, P.E.I." Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #4559 ca. 1905

“Entrance to Harbor, Charlottetown, P.E.I.” Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #4559 before 1905

Blockhouse Light, which was built in 1876 is an outstanding example of the type of structure which we associate with Island coastal scenery. It is currently featured on postcards and tourism advertising but in 1905 the image chosen to illustrate the charms of the area was  picture, not of the light, but of the cove just inside the point.  The view looks across the channel towards Lobster Point with Trout Point lost in the soft focus to the left of the scene. The dramatic view of the light itself is outside the frame of the picture to the right. If you had not been to the spot you might not know that the lighthouse existed.

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Cove beneath Block House lighthouse looking east. June 2016

Today the scene of the postcard is still recognizable and not much has changed. There has been erosion of the point but it is less evident on the cove side than on the shore facing Hillsborough Bay. Perhaps the cove is shallower than it once was but on warm summer days boats still anchor there. Even the roadway sloping down the cliff-face in the postcard is still discoverable in the tall spruces that now dominate the point. Overlooking this quiet cove is Block House lighthouse but the postcard publishers did not feel it worthwhile to show it.

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“Block House Point” Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #1817. Photo by W.S. Louson

From the Bay side of the point the image chosen for the card series is not, as it would be today, the lighthouse standing on the cliff but rather the cliff itself. It is almost as if the postcard publisher goes out-of-the-way to avoid any man-made objects to detract from the natural scenery. And that may, in fact, be the case. Many of the P.E.I,. cards were published by the Toronto firm Warwick Bros. & Rutter and most of these feature photos taken by Island amateur photographer W. S. Louson.  Louson  seems to have specialized in scenic views: birch trees, fields of flowers, harvest scenes, rugged cliffs, forest glades and quiet brooks. Louson was a tourism booster but he seems to have his own ideas about the kind of Island he wished to show.

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“The Harbor” Tignish, P.E.I.” Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #6243.

Only rarely did the man-made intrude on the vision of the gentle Island of which Louson was so proud.  Aside from a few photos of public buildings like Prince of Wales College and the Summerside High School, when structures are show it is often only as a backdrop. Such is the case with the only one of the nearly 150 Warwick & Rutter postcards to actually show a light house.   The main focus here is the fishing activity  and the lighthouse is incidental.

The approach of this particular publisher is not an aberration. One is hard pressed to find lighthouse images on postcards of the period from any of the dozen printers (including several  from the Island) who were responsible for the hundreds of thousands of P.E.I. cards which were sent in the mails or carefully collected in postcard albums. It is not clear just when the attitude began to change and lighthouses became a fit subject to be shown on postcards but as the character of the structures changed from simple aids to navigation, an adjunct to the fishing industry, to become a symbol of a marine heritage which was itself disappearing the lighthouse changed from being a service to being a symbol.

The idyllic scene in the cove beneath the light was radically altered in 1905 with the construction of a lobster factory and in a postcard of that industrial facility the lighthouse presides over the hatchery buildings. However, today all trace of the wharf and buildings have disappeared and the site has reverted to the scene of the early postcard of the entrance to the harbour.  Standing on the beach looking east to Lobster Point the Block House light cannot be seen.