As I mentioned in my last post, part of my overhaul of this site includes updates on my work as a freelance historian. So if you’ll indulge me, let’s hop in my imaginary time machine and head on back to February 2014 and my first professional contract.
And where this site began to fall by the wayside.
As some of you may know (and others may not), last year Prince Edward Island celebrated the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the famous Charlottetown Conference, a week-long series of meetings held in the first week of September 1864. Although its intended purpose was simply for the Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Island to discuss the notion of a political union amongst themselves, high-rollers in Ontario and Quebec, led by Sir John A. Macdonald, caught wind, invited themselves as “observers”, and then basically hijacked the proceedings in order to sell the idea of a far grander scheme: the confederation of British North America. Ultimately, Sir John A.’s plan worked, and the conference helped to pave the way for additional meetings that resulted in the 1867 union of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, the beginning of present-day Canada. (The Charlottetown Conference has given the Island’s its claim as the “birthplace of Canada”). In order to commemorate the occasion, the provincial government doled out money to various arts, culture, and heritage projects around the Island in a year-long celebration of the milestone. One of the beneficiaries of this initiative was the Point Prim Lighthouse Society Inc.
After finalizing my business plan, creating a social media presence, and ordering the all-important business cards, it was time to take to the streets and network my way into a contract. One of my first stops was the office of Dr. Ed MacDonald of UPEI, a former professor of mine and one of the “deans” of Island history. He’s a go-to guy when it comes to the heritage scene here, and I figured that he might know of where I could look for work. As luck would have it, my instincts paid off. He told me that he’d recently been in touch with board members of the PPLS Inc., who’d come to him looking for someone who could spear-head a research project on their behalf. The timing couldn’t have been better, and he said he’d pass on my information.
To be honest, I never expected to hear anything about it again; so, imagine my surprise when, one wintry Friday morning, my phone rings. On the other end of the line is one of the board members of the Point Prim Lighthouse Society Inc., who tells me that the board would be interested in having a sit-down in order to discuss my involvement in the project. I was so shocked that I really didn’t know what to say, although I did eventually say yes to the meeting.
I met with three board representatives the following Monday, and they filled me in on the scope of the project, and their overall vision. My task was two-fold: to research content for the creation of exterior interpretation panels in order to enhance visitor experience at the site; and, more importantly, to connect Point Prim Lighthouse in some way to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference (one of the stipulations of receiving government funding). With that, I was largely left to my own devices to come up with what information I could.
Despite initial trepidation and self-doubt (I was working with a tight deadline), the research proved far more successful than I’d anticipated, and I quickly began to piece together a narrative. The story that revealed itself (presented here in very summarized form) is as follows.
In the early years of the 19th century, the Island’s government began to invest considerable amounts of money in the erection of lighthouses. But not here. In Nova Scotia. Between 1815 and 1839, funds were contributed to the construction and upkeep of lighthouses on Cranberry, St. Paul, and Scatarie Islands. The money was collected through a tax, known as the Light Duty (charged by the tonne on all registered ships departing from customs houses across the colony). It may seem a bit strange now, but lighthouses were seen as entirely communal. The logic ran that if you made use of one, then you should have to pony up the funds to maintain it. Fair’s fair and all that.
Eventually, Islanders began to question the lack of lighthouses here, and advocate for their construction. After all, if the government was willing to support them in Nova Scotia (at their expense), then surely we could have one or two here as well. Many Islanders made their living at sea, and the Island’s waters could be tricky by times.
Formal petitions started appearing before the government by the late 1830s. But there was a problem: the government just didn’t have the resources at its disposal. They were all tied up on the mainland. Even when it attempted to extract donations from neighbouring colonies (even the US) in the way that it had agreed to donate funds – zip, zilch, nada. In 1841, Islanders came close to victory when the government consented to, and even allocated monies for a lighthouse; however, the idea was struck down when some Royal Navy officers suggested that Point Prim would make for a better location than the chosen site at Governor’s Island. Except it would need to be taller there, and thus would cost more than had been budgeted.
At the same time that people were pushing (in vain) for a lighthouse, another push was on to resolve, once and for all, the Island’s difficulty in achieving a reliable means of communication with the mainland. While Islanders enjoyed a somewhat isolated existence, it came with challenges and this was a biggie. No email, telephone, or instant messaging. Snail mail was the order of the day. In the winter months, mail delivery fell to perilous iceboat crossings; during ice-free seasons, mail contracts would be awarded to sailing vessels. Obviously, delivery in Winter was contingent upon a number of factors; but even during the rest of the year, it could still be unpredictable, as inclement weather, or an unfavourable wind might cause significant delays when under sail. Something more dependable was needed to ensure consistency. That something was steam.
Beginning in 1832, Sir Samuel Cunard, the Steam Lion himself, was the beneficiary of yearly contracts with the Island government. He made use of steam-powered vessels, and reliability subsequently increased; however, there was a feeling amongst those in positions of authority that the Island wasn’t quite getting full value for what it was paying Cunard. A change was needed. The cause was taken up by a group of prominent men of the time, based largely in Charlottetown, the creme de la creme of high society. In 1842, they formed themselves into the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company, and sold shares to raise funds for the purchase and operation of a steam vessel to steal away the mail contract from Cunard. Among the shareholders (and one of the largest at that), was the government itself.
And that’s when two issues became one. The Steam Navigation Co. managed to drum up enough funds to invest a considerable sum in the acquisition of a steam vessel, the St. George; so much money, in fact, that it now had a deeply vested interest in seeing the St. George pass safely across the Strait, especially through the dicey waters around Point Prim. The solution, it was believed, was a lighthouse. Although the government had previously danced around the subject, this time it found itself unable to refuse the request. Many of the Steam Navigation Co.’s members were sitting politicians, and the government itself was, after all, one of the largest shareholders in the company. No one could now afford to see the St. George wrecked. Constructing a lighthouse had become unavoidable.
Given the people involved, it didn’t take a terrible amount of convincing, and by 1844 the lighthouse ball was rolling. Involved in it all, to differing extents, were three men who, two decades later, would go on to be “Fathers of Confederation”: George Coles, Edward Palmer, and Thomas Heath Haviland, Jr. The man hired to design the lighthouse, and oversee its construction, was none other than Isaac Smith, arguably the Island’s most prominent architect and the genius behind Province House, and Fanningbank. (Note: To cut down on the length of this post, I’ve linked biographical information to each of the above names.) During the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, it was in Province House that the delegates met – and on the last night, partied hard – and it was on the steps of Fanningbank that they posed for one of the most iconic photos in Island, and Canadian history.
Although increasing maintenance costs and a string of tough luck subsequently sent the Steam Navigation Co. into a downward spiral not long after its formation, it managed to survive long enough to successfully petition for a lighthouse at Point Prim. By 1846, the company had gone defunct. But a lighthouse, the Island’s first, was now proudly standing and brightly shining, the first of many to come.
OK, so maybe that wasn’t exactly “very summarized”…
Anyway, following the research phase, I was tasked with writing everything up into a full-scale report amounting to forty (40) pages. The final part of my involvement in the project required me to then condense those forty pages into text that would fit onto five 2′ x 3′ bilingual interpretive panels, along with images that I’d tracked down during the course of my research. In this I had the privilege of liaising with TechnoMedia, a graphic design company based in Charlottetown who had been hired to produce the panels. It was absolutely amazing to see what they could do with seemingly very little. Here is how the panels looked when all was said and done.
All in all, the project was very rewarding. I had the opportunity to learn much that I may otherwise never have learned, and gained valuable experience in many different facets. Most importantly, it was a major confidence booster and gave me the self-assurance to continue my journey in this line of work.
So, the next time you find yourself near Point Prim, why not head on out to the tip and visit the Island’s oldest lighthouse? Climb the stairs to the top, take in a commanding view of the Northumberland Strait and, while you’re at it, check out the fruit of my first labour as a freelance historian!
PEI History Guy