REMINISCENCES OF A LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER
July 2, 1980 edition of the Saint Croix Courier (with permission)
Editors Note: Prescott Dines, 83, of St. Andrews is a retired keeper of the Green's Point light which guided vessels through L'Etete passage through long years of service, prior to being de-commissioned in 1963. Mr. Dines has recorded his reminiscences and the newspaper is pleased to print these in instalments. Helene Nielsen of Ottawa, grand niece of Mr. Dines, helped in compiling the material, gleaned from Mr. Dine's recollections of 27 years as keeper of the light.
My father, Sidney S. Dines, was born at L'Etete on March 11, 1866. At the age of three, his mother died and he was honourably, if not legally, adopted by a retired sea captain and his wife.
Captain George Helms and his wife Elizabeth settled the youngster into their life and thus brought about a destiny they could never have forseen at the time.
When father was sixteen (in 1882), George Helms was appointed 'keeper of the fog alarm' at L'Etete. One of the first old steam alarms, it was located at Masacabin Point on chart, but then and now, locally known at Green's Point. Logically, I have assumed that the derivation came from the surname of longtime residents in the area.
From the town of St. George, the family Helms moved their belongings to the new two story, nine room house that was a marvel in itself.
Two years earlier, one Angus Fisher of St. Andrews, committed himself, by contract, to build the house for the handsome sum of nine hundred dollars. The doors, windows, cupboards, and such fittings were carefully fashioned by hand. Then came the arduous part; every piece of the house was loaded onto a scow to be transported from Digdeguash across the Passamaquoddy Bay and landed as near to the few fog alarm as possible.
Here on the rocky peninsula stood the cement foundation and cistern, which would hold several thousand gallons of water to be used in the boilers of the fog alarm.
These same boilers would introduce my father to endless hours of shovelling soft coal to feed them (eighty to one hundred tons per year plus the resulting ashes).
I never fail to think how amused he would be today to see our 'Keep fit' programs (jogging, exercycles, Athletic clubs) or how mystified he would have been at the age of 18, if he could have projected a picture of the future; to see the struggle by healthy young men to maintain and build their bodies. At eighteen he would have been as fit as an athlete, thanks to an insatiable boiler and a lifestyle that demanded of the physical.
Taking a run to the general store would have been just that; no car outside the door, no bus, just two feet, fuelled by home cooking and shod with sturdy boots.
It was an era of water transport. Goods of all kinds were moved to and from Saint John, St. Stephen, St. Andrews and Eastern American ports. At the time of the introduction of the fog alarms, there were no regular steamship routes. The ships came and went at random and were lost in the same manner.
Three years before Captain Helms and the fog alarm came to Green's Point, the preparatory steps would be discovered with sad irony by a crew of men from the schooner Maggie Jane.
The year was 1879 and James McLean, who owned a fine general store at L'Etete, also owned a two-masted schooner named the Maggie Jane.
The Maggie Jane was used extensively for the freight run between Saint John and L'Etete-Back Bay. Her cargo would ensure that the families could always have molasses in the jug, flour and sugar in the barrel and oatmeal in the larder for the cold winter mornings.
The winter run of 1879 saw the Maggie Jane on one of her usual return trips laden with freight and under reduced sail. Suddenly the early winter snow blizzard became too much for the Maggie Jane as she headed for the L'Etete Passage. Land was sighted 'hard aboard' but without the mainsail, the Captain could not bring her about in time. The Maggie Jane went ashore on the rocky coast and was a complete loss.
The captain, the mate and three freight handlers managed to crawl up the rocky incline and there they discovered the empty cistern- the beginnings of a life and vessel saving system that came three years too late for the Maggie Jane.
Not knowing their exact location and fearful lest the blinding blizzard bring them to more harm were they to walk, they stayed put for the night.
Later the next day, after the storm abated, they made their way across the one-quarter mile to the mainland. They came first to the house of David Kelly who welcomed them with food, warm drinks and a more hospitable shelter than they had known the previous night.
As a boy, I recall the vessel's boom and gaff, salvaged and laying on the south side of the roadway leading from the fog alarm to the dwelling house. They served to help keep the road from washing away and probably protected and unsuspecting boy or girl from sliding over the bank on winter ice.
In the year 1903, the Lighthouse was built by a contractor by the name of McKeen, with a foreman named Tennant, of St. Andrews. Octagon in shape, the lighthouse was built in eight sections and transported by scow to Green's Point. Here it was assembled, finished and readied for the government buoy tender to place. At the top, the steel lantern awaited the Light.
The magnifying glass or lens was made in Paris, France and consisted of several layers of glass prisms that centered and focused the rays of light that shone twenty miles to seaward to guide all shipping on the darkest nights to or from L'Etete Passage, where many a vessel, large and small, had come to grief on the rocks.
Our nearest neighbour, David Kelly, who lived a quarter mile away on the mainland, was a source of knowledge and enjoyment for us. He lived well into his nineties and before his death had filled us with the adventures and folklore of a day gone by but forever fascinating.
Mr. Kelly referred often to the Great Gale of 1869...a storm so devastating it changed the physical landscape completely. Before the gale, Green's Point had been a peninsula that easily handled all vehicle traffic. After the gale, Green's Point was an island during high tides. At the height of the gale, the tides were as high as forty feet and they ripped and washed the turf and soil until the peninsula was no more.
The whole southern Bay of Fundy coastline was ravaged and stripped in a storm that showed no mercy and that knew no equal.
Known as the 'Saxby Gale', it was predicted by a man named Saxby and was by far the worst gale with the known highest tides. It blew and tore at the coastline of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and New England, leaving untold destruction in its path.
The Statistics were ugly...losses of life, loss of land, loss of vessels.
The steamship, State of Maine, were lost- no survivors- bound from Saint John, New Brunswick to Portland, Maine.
The Saxby Gale also claimed the Barque, Genii. Built in St. Andrews by Glenn & Company, of 500 tons register, it sailed in ballast for New River, New Brunswick to load lumber. Fully loaded with all aboard, except a pilot who was expected aboard the following day, she went down and all hands were lost to the angry sea. The eleven men who perished were from Westport, Nova Scotia, Fredericton, St. Andrews and Mascarene, New Brunswick.
By 1907 so much of the roadway and peninsula had been washed away by the storms and tides that the government decided to build a breakwater at the fog alarm and lighthouse, which came under the Marine and Fisheries Department and later the Department of Transport.
Much of the hewn lumber (12 X 12) and logs, that had to be sided on site, were towed from the St. Croix River to Green's Point by the Fishing Patrol boat, Curlew.
During the latter part of the 19th century the Magaguadavic River and that part of the bay was a thriving lumber area with vessels loading and awaiting loads. Gradually it became a lost trade. The last vessels out of the river from St. George were pulp carriers that would be towed by tug boat out into the Bay of Fundy through the L'Etete passage.
Just prior to World War 1, 1913, two large German ships came up through the passage as far as the mouth of the Magaguadavic River to load pit props used extensively around the mines.
During the winter of 1907, Captain Helms died and my father, Sydney Dines, who had faithfully served under him as Assistant Keeper and 2nd Keeper, was duly appointed Keeper at the Green's Point Light and Alarm. He held this position until his retirement in March, 1936, at age seventy.
For his long and faithful service he received a medal from His Majesty King George VI. Presented by the Charlotte County member of parliament and assisted by J. C. Chesley of Saint John (District Marine Agent, Department of Transport). It was with pride and appreciation that my father accepted it on November 7, 1936. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. I now became the keeper of the light.
In the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919, the Department of Marine and Fisheries built a new fog alarm building and installed a new type of Diaphone (Compressed Air Horn) with a much higher pitched sound than the old horn.
Many boatman and fishermen, then and over the years, have said that the new type were never as efficient as the old ones.
This new outfit consisted of two semi-diesel engines which would start on gasoline then switch to kerosene and keep going, sometimes.
My father, being brought up in the steam era, had little faith in the gas motors and might well have given up as keeper had I not agreed to do my best to keep them operating. My experience with the steam was not as deep-rooted as my father and I managed to learn and understand the 'quirks' of these putt-putts and succeed with them until 1952 when hydro rescued us and introduced the fine new electric motor.
End of Part 1
©Charlene Beney 2006