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The History of the Cape Forchu Lightstation

Cape Forchu Lightstation is the Beacon to Canada. The Cape has been welcoming visitors since 1604, when Samuel de Champlain landed and named the area "Cap Forchu," meaning forked tongue of land. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Town of Yarmouth was a booming seaport with vessels coming in and out of the harbour and therefore the Cape was the ideal position for a lighthouse and foghorn. By 1878, Yarmouth was at its peak and was the second largest port of registry in Canada.

Here the lighthouse could protect vessels both approaching and entering the harbour. The Cape Forchu light, also commonly known as the Yarmouth Light, was constructed in 1839. The light itself stood 38.4 metres (126 feet) above sea level and 27.7 metres (91 feet) above ground. In 1869, a steam-powered fog whistle was installed in 1873.

Cape Forchu Lightstation

Original Light

First Light

The light in the original tower was lit on January 15th, 1840. The first lighting apparatus was a circular arrangement of ten oil lamps and had to be watched carefully. It was later changed to a kerosene-fueled vapor system. A tank of kerosene was lugged up the circular steps every evening, heated until it became a vapor and fed into a mantle. One lightkeeper, Herbert Cunningham, said that in his 30 year tenure, he climbed the tower stairs at least 47,000 times. Life as a lightkeeper became a lot easier when, in 1940, electricity finally came to the Cape.

New Innovations

The lantern system was replaced in 1908 by a globe made up of a series of prismatic rings of glass, each ring cut at such mathematically precise angles that, as the globe rotated, the light from within refracted and reflected to send rays out over the ocean. The fundamental theory was simple: a bright light inside a revolving globe. The white beam of light was visible up to 32 kilometers (20 miles). The 1908 Cape Forchu lens was built in France by a French physicist named Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who improved the way lighthouses radiated light by replacing mirrors with compound lenses. These flashes not only warned sailors of impending danger, but actually identified the particular light. The lens weighed approximately 1500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) and was surrounded by a ring of 360 prisms. The cost was $38,000.00.

The Beacon to Canada

Canada's Beacon to the world,
that's me , and proud to be;
for I have saved many a ship,
with my calling and my beam.
Stationed at Cape Forchu,
three sixty-five and twenty-four;
a lamp in nature's window,
offering shelter from the storms.
Yes, at times it was ever so lonely,
and at times the weather hard;
but now as a sentinel retired,
I can sleep with dreams unmarred.
And with a new life as a tourist guide,
at this treasure on the rocks;
I invite you all to visit,
have some lunch, we'll have a talk.
And bring your camera for pictures,
to catch the panoramic scene;
I'll tell you what I remember,
and you can tell me where you've been.
For you I'll pose tall,
straight, and slender,
though with some wrinkles
around the eyes;
Canada's beacon to the world,
red and white against the sky.

– Gary Kent: Jan.21/08

The Light Under Threat

In the mid 1990s, it became apparent that lighthouses were being de-commissioned and were in great danger of being demolished. Petitions were distributed in support of the light and the first meeting of the Friends of the Yarmouth Light Society committee and the public was held on January 17, 1996. The founding members of the society were Nancy Knowles, Joan Jenkins, Joan Thibault, Dawn-Marie Skjelmose, Mauritta Fevens, and Linda Campbell (see the Friends of the Light section for more history).

An assessment was required prior to the advance transfer of the lightstation from the Coast Guard to the Municipality of Yarmouth. For nearly two centuries, the Light had endured nature’s power, but a modern day problem threatned its existence. In March 2000, the Canadian Coast Guard found lead paint after an environmental assessment, and put a lock on the gate to the site. The assessment was required prior to the advance transfer of the lightstation from the Coast Guard to the Municipality of Yarmouth. Public access to some parts of the site would be restricted and might jeopardize the May 22nd, 2000 season opening. But in December of that same year, the provincial standards governing disposal of contaminated soil were taken off the hazardous waste list regulations and the soil was allowed to be disposed of in municipal landfills. The approximate cost of the cleanup: $168,000.00.


A Registered Heritage Property

On June 1, 2000, it became the first operating lightstation in Canadian history to be transferred to a municipality by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under the Alternative Use Program. The proposed agreement concluded that the lightstation be transferred to the municipality for one dollar in exchange for the delivery of services. The agreement also set out the municipality’s responsibility to undertake a cleanup of environmental contaminants on the site. The municipality of the District of Yarmouth, through a property lease, entrusted the care of the site to the Friends of the Yarmouth Light Society. This transfer was the first of its kind and was being watched by lighthouse preservation societies across the country.

In 2003, the Cape Forchu Lightstation was designated by the Province of Nova Scotia as a registered Heritage property.

The Lightstation Today

Today, the Cape Forchu Lightstation is a significant tourism draw. The light itself, its 19 acres of well-groomed grounds, the view of Yarmouth's working harbour and the drive to the Cape through the very heart of an active fishing community, are all emblematic of Nova Scotia's coastal heritage. The tower stands as a proud symbol of dedication and service and maintains a 175-year-old tradition of guiding vessels in and out of Yarmouth Harbour. It is truly a historic landmark. As the light shines way across the water, we are reminded of our historic and economic ties to the sea.