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The Lightkeepers of Cape Forchu

During a visit to Cape Forchu you will see many historic exhibits and be able to access additional information about the Lightkeepers of Cape Forchu in our museum.

Lt. James Charles Fox

14 Jan 1840 to 27 March 1840

Lt. James Charles Fox was the first keeper of the new lighthouse at Cape Forchu in 1840. The son of early Nova Scotian settlers, he was born in Cornwallis NS in 1788. As a young man he made his way to England where he joined the Royal Navy and became a lieutenant. While he was in England he married his wife Elizabeth (Bessie) and in 1819 he returned to Cornwallis where he taught school for several years. In 1839 he moved his family to Yarmouth to take over at the new Cape Forchu lighthouse.

Shortly after taking over the new station lightkeeper Fox received some scathing criticism from the captain of a local square-rigger who had arrived at the sound one night in early 1840. He said that the light had not been lit and suggested that lightkeeper Fox had better attend to his responsibilities or there would be trouble for him. Lightkeeper Fox was annoyed by this allegation and responded with a reply to the editor of the Yarmouth newspaper. A well educated man, the former Royal Navy lieutenant lightkeeper Fox‘s response was sent in the form of a poem.

Tragically Lt. James Charles Fox died just a few months after starting the lightkeepers job at Cape Forchu on the 27th of March 1840 at age 52.

A month has elapsed, good printer,

Since Cape Forchu was first illum’d this winter;
And during every minute of the night,
Throughout the month, from sun to sun, the light
Has never failed to shine, and shine most brightly,
Revolving as it should, and working rightly.
And yet I hear with real indignation,
A beardless skipper of the Yarmouth station,
Has dared to say that the light was out
When he arrived at night, the stupid lout.

Perhaps the Indian sun had hurt his vision,
Or wintery gales had shattered his decision;
Or still more likely the experienced blade
Had shut the light house in or viewed the shade
Which, when he looked, in pity while he gazed,
Just then revolved to screen him from the blaze
Of light which followed after every half a minute,
Not see the light why sure the devils in for it.
I don’t suppose the youth designed to lie,
But pray advise the lad henceforth to try

To do his duty, keep a sharp look out,
And take this caution – mind what he’s about.
A second false report may cost him trouble,
as this one passes like an empty bubble.

Cornelius John Thomas Fox

27 March 1840 to 1873

Cornelius John Thomas Fox took over the position and faithfully maintained the light for 33 years from 1840 until 1873.

Since it had first been constructed the lighthouse had become and would always be a popular sightseeing destination for local and visitors from afar. CJT Fox submitted a notice to the Yarmouth newspaper in June 1843 stating that he was annoyed by visitors arriving at the lighthouse on Sundays and they would no longer be welcome on the Sabbath. He advised that everyone, even tidewaiters and warehouse keepers on the pretence that they were there doing their duty, would not be allowed to enter the lighthouse on Sundays.

A report by the Superintendent of Lighthouses, William Condon, in 1857 recorded that lightkeeper Fox was receiving an annual salary of 100 lbs and a fuel allowance of 20 lbs. Mr Condon commented that at the request of several lightkeepers he was passing on some complaints about their salaries. He noted that except for one or two instances he saw no sign of want of attention on the part of the lightkeepers and as a whole they were a correct, respectable class of men, attentive to their duties.

In 1859 Lightkeeper Fox observed a small boat with three young men aboard capsize and sink at the entrance to the sound. He roused the neighbors who got a boat out to the area but nothing could be found of the men but one of their caps. Eventually the bodies of two of the men were recovered and the boat was raised. CJT Fox was placed on the Departments superannuation list with a yearly retirement allowance of 213 dollars and 48 cents. John Fox’s son Robert Braddon (James) Fox took over as the Cape Forchu lightkeeper for one year in 1873 at a yearly allowance of 800 dollars out of which he was expected to hire an assistant.

Capt. John Hiram Doane

1874 to 1873

In 1874 Capt. John Hiram Doane took over the care of the Cape Forchu light station. At eighteen, he was already the master of a coasting vessel, the Reliance, followed by several other coasting schooners. He later became the captain of the tow-boat GW Johnson and was the pilot on the SS Dominion until he accepted the position at Cape Forchu. An interesting occurrence took place on the 21 of December 1876 during an attempt by Mr Doane to get back to Cape Forchu in a sailboat after dark. Part way out the harbour he encountered a winter squall that nearly upset his boat and in the process of bailing her out got the boat so firmly stuck in the harbour ice that he could not free her. His old command the GW Johnson, with Captain Samuel Stanwood in charge came to his rescue and towed him back to Yarmouth.

In 1875 a schooner J.K. Howard was trying to beat out of the sound about 6 PM on the evening of December 21st when she ran into trouble. There was a heavy sea on and a strong wing out of the west southwest. The crew let the anchors go but the ship was dragged and went ashore on Sunday Point where it was beaten to pieces by the rocks. Lightkeeper Doane, saw the signals from the stricken vessel and rushed to town where he organized a rescue boat. Reaching the scene the boat managed to pick up most of the crew, several of them in a near exhausted condition. Only the mate was lost. In another account from 1898 a house caught fire at Kelly’s Cove across the harbour from the Cape around midnight on the 10th of July. The alarm was raised by Capt. Doane, the lightkeeper at Cape Forchu by using the fog whistle. John Doane retired in 1904 after thirty years of service at Cape Forchu turning over the position to his brother Thomas. He died on Sunday the 5th of September 1909 just five years after giving up his position at the light.

Thomas S Doane

1904 to 1922

In 1904 Thomas S Doane took over as chief lightkeeper from his brother Captain John Doane. He was appointed to the position on the 31st of December 1904 for an annual salary of 800.00 dollars. Life could be rough for the lightkeepers at Cape Forchu and Thomas Doane suffered a personal loss in December 1916 when he lost his motor boat during a bad gale. This boat, just equipped with a new engine, was to be used for the fall lobster season and necessary additional income for the family. The storm strained the boat at her mooring at the Cape until the cable was parted and the boat went adrift. When she was last seen the boat was drifting up the harbour passing the bug light. Even though a through search of the shores was conducted the boat was never located. In October of 1921, five years later a schooner anchored in an area of the harbour known as the crotch brought up a piece of a boat when they weighed anchor. Lightkeeper Doane was notified and he and his son succeeded in bringing up enough of the boat to positively identify the boat as the one that he had lost in 1916. It may have provided Thomas with an end of the mystery but naturally the boat far too deteriorated to recover.

Just six months later, after his retirement, Mr Thomas S. Doane passed away at the age of seventy six. In total Thomas Doane had spent 49 years of his life looking after the light and fog alarm at Cape Forchu. For thirty one of these years he was the assistant to his brother John Hiram and then he spent eighteen years as chief lightkeeper before he retired in 1922. Thomas was very well regarded and it was reported that during his long association with the Cape Forchu light station he never failed to perform his arduous duties in all weather conditions.

Herbert Lorraine Cunningham

1922 to 1952

In the spring of 1922 Herb Cunningham took over from Thomas Doane as the principle lightkeeper at the Cape Forchu Light station. The newspaper concluded that Herb who was 31 years old at the time and had considerable mechanical experience would no doubt prove to be a very efficient keeper. His first duties included a complete overhaul of the fog alarm plant, renewing much of the gear associated with the oil burning engines.

Mr. Herb Cunningham was the last old lamp lighter, a job he held for 30 years until his retirement in 1952. Mr. Cunningham, his wife, and their six children kept a small farm with pigs, chickens, and a cow, which provided them with most of their food. Lightkeepers often supplemented his income by fishing for herring and lobster.

Herbert Cunningham & Albert Smith

Albert Smith

1952 to 1963

The next keeper after Herb was Albert Smith who came from a family long associated with lightkeeping on Cape Sable and he started as Herb’s assistant at Cape Forchu before succeeding him. In the picture Herb is making some notes for Albert Smith who would soon replace him as chief lightkeeper. The picture, composed by Mr Brooks with some of Herb’s lobster traps and buoys in the foreground appeared in the local newspaper when he retired in 1952. Mr Smith served from 1952 until 1963.

Raymond Baker

March 1963 to June 1964

One of Mr. Smith’s assistants was Raymond Baker, Herb Cunningham’s son-in-law. He was Mr Smith assistant from 1961 until he took over temporally as chief keeper from March 1963 until June 1964 when he became the assistant for JE Chetwynd from 1964 until 1967.

J. E. Chetwynd, J.E

1964 to 1972

D. Earl Flemming

1972 to 1977

Wayne O'Connell

1977 to 1977

Lawrence Wentzell

1977 to 1988

Walter Goodwin

1964 to 1972

The last three lightkeepers did not carry out traditional keeper's duties, but mainly stayed on duty to monitor the Coast Guard equipment. Cape Forchu was the main monitoring point for about 20 stations. With the advent of electricity, incandescent electric bulbs replaced oil lamps and revolving prisms, while electronic technology replaced nearly all resident keepers. Modern computerized equipment was able to activate lights and fog horns, analyze the weather, and transmit meteorological data to ships from a central control station. A dedicated keeper for each station was no longer required.

The last keeper was decommissioned on September 25, 1994.