Copyright © 2007 Ruth Edgett
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Cover and Interior Design: John van der Woude
Author photo: Eeva Miller
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Edgett, Ruth, 1958-
A watch in the night : the story of Pomquet Island’s last
lightkeeping family / Ruth Edgett. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 13: 978-1-55109-611-7
ISBN 10: 1-55109-611-0
1. Millar, George. 2. Millar family. 3. Lighthouses—Nova Scotia— Pomquet Island—History. 4. Pomquet Island (N.S.)—History. 5. Pomquet Island (N.S.)—Biography. 6. Lighthouse tenders—Nova Scotia—Pomquet
Island—Biography. I. Title.
VK1140.M54E34 2007 971.6’14 C2007-900986-7
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP) and the Canada Council, and of the Province of Nova Scotia through the Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage for our publishing activities.
A Safe and
“The first lighthouse—which is the present one with a few alterations during the years—was built in 1868. In those days it was much more of an undertaking, minus all the tools, machinery, and equipment of the present day.“
Finally, the beast could touch bottom. He’d been swimming for a good half hour, panicking, not knowing where he was going or whether he would survive the next wave breaking over his up-stretched nose. His eyes were wild. As he gained ground and emerged streaming from the choppy sea, Jack the ox bellowed with all he had left in his lungs. Then he shook his great, horned head and trotted for shore.
An arc of water splashed into the rowboat that had just pulled alongside.
“Get out there and head him off ! Quick!” The foreman was waving his arms where he sat in a small vessel that was not much longer than the beast himself. The craft had barely nosed the shoal before the young oarsman was over the bow, into the water, and gaining on the ox, holding his paddle high.
“Get back here you big bugger!”
Jack was heading for a spruce thicket that fringed the rocky beach. Ian Randall, soaked to the hips, leather boots gushing water with every step, put on a burst of speed and managed to get between the beast and the only thing that looked like a trail. It was a gap of sorts between the trees and a crop of scrubby shrubs hugging the edge of a low, red bank. The ox planted his front feet and rolled his eyes at Randall, sides heaving. Man and beast stood reckoning each other, heads lowered, water dripping. Neither had much left in him. It had been a long thirty minutes, with young Randall paddling hard in a crooked line to keep up with the ox while his boss used a long pole to prod the beast in the general direction of Pomquet Island.
“Aw, ta hell with it!” Randall knew oxen after all. He dropped the oar and reached for a short rope that still hung around the ox’s horns. “C’mon ya dumb animal, we’re not gonna kill ya.” Randall gave the rope a tug and took a step in the direction they had just come. “Over here.” Recognizing familiar instruction, the ox became suddenly doc-ile and began to walk with his young captor. “You’ve got some haulin’ ta do.”
Much more slowly, the pair made their way to the beach where they could welcome a scow piled high with planks and boards that was just now reaching the stone-studded shoal.
“Okay boys!” Locky McEachen, the foreman, was already on dry land and shouting to the men not yet docked. “Let’s git this lot unloaded and go back fer the next one. We want everything over here by dark so we can start buildin’ ta-marra first light.”
The boss was watching his four other hired men manoeuvre the scow through the rocky shallows. As soon as they were close enough, the men heaved into the foreman’s arms the first pieces of equipment
that would be required: a single yoke and head pad for Jack the ox. There would be just enough time for the beast to catch his breath and bearings before he would be hitched up to the first load of construction materials and commanded to haul them a half mile through the trees to the northeastern tip of the island.
“We got us a lighthouse ta build, boys!” McEachen tossed the tangle of leather and wood to Randall, then pitched in with the unloading.
So that was it. Ian Randall had just been designated ox-man. He could see that coming from the other shore, being from a farm himself where his own father preferred oxen to horses for doing the heavy work. Randall was a bit miffed at first, because the assignment meant he wasn’t being allowed to work shoulder to shoulder with the older men and learn a new trade of his own. But it might not be so bad, he realized, barking up the business end of a jumped-up Jersey all day. This would at least partly exempt him from hauling and heaving the hundreds of planks and boards that would have to be unloaded from the scow, reloaded onto a skid behind the ox, and unloaded and restacked again a half-mile away. He might as well get on with it, then. Randall began to organize the simple harness while Jack, grateful for something familiar, ardently offered his head to the yoke.
Many loads were hauled and many miles were walked that day. Jack worked hard enough that the hauling took less time than expected. At a good 1,200 pounds in weight, this ox was here because he could handle his share of a burden, either in a pair or by himself, and because he was willing to take orders from any ox-man who knew what he was doing. Jack was one of Armand Fougere’s favourites, and Fougere was loathe to let him go—especially swimming to Pomquet Island with a bunch of strangers. It wasn’t the beast’s ability he was worried about; it was the strangers’. Still, they say every man has his price, and so does every steer. Five dollars sealed the deal.
“You bring ’im home the way I see ’im before me right now,” instructed Fougere. “Ee’s a damn fine ox—ee’s one ’a my best—an’ I want ’im back ’ere in good trim!”
By suppertime Ian Randall and the ox were on good terms, the morning swim and chase all but forgotten. If he had it to do again, though, the young man would not have chosen an ox with the same name as the snarky old builder, Jack Chisholm. The senior man couldn’t find the humour in hearing his name commanded over and over by a youngster whose father wasn’t even in his good books. But the others got a kick out of the tension between elder and youngster, and it added some good, clean amusement to a long, hard day.
At day’s end, Jack was released from his burdens and McEachen ordered construction to begin.
“We’ve got time to stake it out and start diggin’ before dark.” He was already handing out sharpened sticks and shovels. “Let’s get to it.”
By eight o’clock, there was a good-sized pile of dirt and the makings of a hole that would eventually become a cellar. Two canvas tents that might have been retired sails shone white in the lowering sun. The men had all stopped work to get some supper before the light faded completely. Tonight, it was warmed-over bannock and baked beans made only yesterday and packed in a tight-lidded crock by the foreman’s wife herself.
“I’ve always had a taste for Claudette’s beans,” spoke up Jack Chisholm through a mouthful of bannock and black tea. “But I’m gonna need more than that fer all the heftin’ I’m gonna be doin’ here.”
Snarky or not, Chisholm was senior and a friend of McEachen’s, so the others let him speak for them. They nodded in agreement.
“Yep. We’re gonna need good meat,” came Stu MacDonald’s voice from the other side of the circle.
“Don’t worry, boys.” The foreman was still shovelling in his own supper. “It’s taken care of.”
McEachen put down his fork. With the hand that wasn’t holding his tin plate, he picked up a smooth stone that had been resting by his boot. He ran his thumb over its rounded edges. When he had sopped up the last of his beans, drained his tea, and had a leak over the bank, the boss singled out his errand boy while the other four amused themselves around the fire with their pipes and their tales.
Dusk was thickening now, and Jack the ox was enjoying the peace of a warm August evening. For the first time all day, he was chewing at his leisure on a patch of sweet summer clover when young Randall came along.
“You bin a good lad, Jack. No doubt about that.” He drew an appreciative eye over the animal’s robust flesh. Then he sidled along the steer’s rump and ran a sure hand along a caramel flank. The ox had come to an uneasy trust in Randall over the course of his labours. Today, Randall was the one who had told Jack what to do, so he looked to the man for directions. It was Jack’s shock at being introduced to his first job of the day that had set them at odds. The ox had never seen that much water before in his life, never mind having to swim in it.
They’d tried leading and coaxing and prodding and pulling, but it turned out the only way to get Jack into the water and keep him there was to fan the men out on both sides and whack him so hard with a stick and an oar from the rowboat that he saw no alternative but the water. If they succeeded in hooking a line onto him as originally planned, he would only drag the boat over hell’s half acre, so they settled on poking and beating him from behind. It was anyone’s guess how Jack would react when faced with the same swim in the opposite direction.
The young man lowered his voice as he approached Jack’s long- horned head, hand still lightly on the ox’s hide. Dried sweat along the beast’s neck was sticky to Randall’s touch, and there was a soft gleam from the worn brass knobs at the tips of Jack’s horns. The ox-man stooped closer to Jack’s broad face. He could just feel a breeze on his cheeks from the animal’s drooping ears as they moved involuntarily to baffle early dusk bugs. Down at the other end, his tail was keeping the same rhythm.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this, Jack, but there’s nothin’ else for it.” Randall was almost touching the beast’s forehead with his own as he spoke. Bent double now to address his charge, the young man could make out the brown depth of the animal’s large almond eyes. The ox’s lashes lowered in a long, lazy blink and he pressed his nose to
the ground unconcerned. There was enough clover for both of them if Randall wanted some.
Jack didn’t even see the knife.
“All right, boys! It’ll be steak fer breakfast ta-marra!”
The foreman tossed his whet stone into the cooking fire, and a shower of sparks punctuated his announcement. He was the only one in the rest of the crew whose eyes had followed Randall and a just-sharpened knife into the gathering mist of a late summer evening. He was the only other in the group to see Jack the ox sink to his knees.
The year was 1867, and Jack had just dragged the lumber that was going to be hewn and pegged to fashion a light station for Pomquet Island in St. George’s Bay, Nova Scotia. Now he was going to feed the construction crew.
No one among the workers thought to record his labours and those of his mates on paper. These men were not likely conscious they were a part of history that others, more than 135 years later, would be curious to look back upon. What they knew was that they were earning decent wages—for a time at least. Perhaps some had built lighthouses before, like the one at Cape George, for instance, about twenty-five miles north along the coast at the western lip of St. George’s Bay. Perhaps one or two of these men were among those who had petitioned the Nova Scotia legislature to have this lighthouse established. After all, it didn’t hurt to grease more than one wheel at a time.
It may be that someone in government kept files of the bids received for the Pomquet Island job, the specifications for the materials, and possibly even the design of the lighthouse, but those records have been lost. Construction occurred just as Nova Scotia was joining Canadian Confederation, and just as jurisdictions were changing hands. Even if files were transferred to Ottawa along with responsibility for Maritime lights, they were likely lost in the great fire of 1916 that destroyed the entire centre block of Parliament.
Those who built the lighthouse probably knew why there had to be a beacon on Pomquet Island. Resting along Nova Scotia’s north coast in the nook formed by Cape Breton to the east and the mainland to the west, St. George’s Bay was not always a friendly sea. On more than one occasion, ships had come to grief in bad weather off Cape George at the bay’s northwestern lip, or at the Cape Jack Shoal near the head of the bay. It was a busy navigation route—ships passed through St. George’s Bay on their way to and from the Strait of Canso, which linked Nova Scotia’s north and south shores. This was the heyday of marine trade around the east coast of a burgeoning nation. Lumber, coal, fish, and agricultural goods were flowing freely among these soon-to-be provinces; the whole region was prospering. But safe navigation relied on good reference points on land, ones that could be seen in good weather and in bad. Thus, it was also a boom-time for lighthouse building, particularly along the coasts of Nova Scotia.
It was against this backdrop that a group of merchants, seafaring men, and others with interests in St. George’s Bay petitioned for a remedy to the hazards, both financial and physical, that they faced. The harbour at Bayfield on the southern shore of the bay provided good shelter during storms. The trouble was, it was hard to find after dark because the shoreline was so low. If a captain wasn’t careful, he’d keep going until he hit the Cape Jack Shoal and run aground, or if he were headed in the opposite direction during an easterly blow, he might try to clear the bay altogether and run into trouble off Cape George. But there was a small island at the entrance to Bayfield Harbour, probably named for the community of Pomquet just a few miles to the west. If a light were stationed on the island, it could guide mariners to safety in bad weather and serve as a marker in good.
There were 130 petitioners in all. They described themselves as “ship owners, master mariners and other inhabitants of the County of Antigonish.” On March 16, 1867, they officially requested Nova Scotia’s Legislative Assembly to establish a light to mark Bayfield Harbour. This is how they made their case:
“That a large amount of Shipping consisting of vessels engaged in the coal trade and fisheries vessels bound to and from ports in Canada, New Brunswick and the Northern Coast of this Province passes through the Bay of St. George.
That owing to the prevalence of Northerly and Easterly winds in the fall and spring months, the navigation of said Bay is attended with dangers at such times.
That ships encountering a Northerly or Easterly gale in said Bay in the nighttime often sustain injury, and are sometimes lost in endeavouring to weather Cape George at the North Western extremity or a dangerous reef, the Cape Jack Ledge, at the South Eastern extremity thereof.
That the Harbour of Bayfield on the western side of said Bay nearly midway between Cape George and Cape Jack and under the lee of Pomquet Island is safe and commodious and easy of access in daylight.
That owing to the lowness of the land about said Harbour the want of a Lighthouse and consequent difficulty of finding said Harbour after dark, vessels in distress in said Bay are prevented from taking refuge in Bayfield as they otherwise would.
That if said port was properly lighted it would be resorted by a large number of vessels to avoid the difficulty and danger of weathering Cape George or the Cape Jack Ledge during the night.
That the establishment of a Lighthouse on Pomquet Island at the entrance of said Harbour would be of great benefit to Mariners and would render the navigation of said Bay comparatively safe at all seasons.”
By June of the same year, the Nova Scotia Board of Works was calling in Halifax’s Morning Chronicle for tenders to erect a lighthouse on “Pomket Island, County of Antigonish.” A light at Cape George had already been established in 1861.
Construction on the Pomquet Island light may have begun by late summer, 1867, although an entry in Belcher’s Farmers Almanac stated the light was still under construction in 1868. What is known is that 1868 was the year the station was put into service and a lightkeeper hired. His name was John A. Atwater, and he would be paid roughly $345 a year until his death in early 1877. Colin A. Chisholm took over that spring and served for thirteen years. He was followed in 1890 by Michael Murphy, who retired in 1923. The fourth and last keeper of the Pomquet Island light was George Edwin Millar, at a starting salary of $75 a month. He took the job in the spring of 1924 and watched the light for the next thirty-five years. When he extinguished the oil lamp for the last time in November 1959, he and the flame he tended were replaced by the automated light that still marks the island today. This book is about George Millar, his family, and their life with the light on Pomquet Island.