Sable Island Summer Stories – The First Lighthouses


My name is Shania Taylor and I am working this summer as a Transcriber and Storyteller for the Friends of Sable Island. I am very excited to be here, and I hope you enjoy the stories I share.

Today’s story is focused on the subject of a lighthouse on Sable Island. The first two lighthouses on the island were built in 1872. With the sheer number of shipwrecks that took place off the shores of Sable Island, it is not at all surprising that it would be decided that lighthouses should be built. What is surprising is that it took until 1872 for the decision to be made, especially considering that the wrecks were enough of a concern to merit the creation of settlements on the island for the purpose of saving lives and property as early as 1801. Did it really take over 70 years for anyone to consider erecting a lighthouse in such treacherous territory? The answer is no, it did not. 

It was only one year after the establishment of the first life-saving station, in 1802, that the question of a lighthouse on the island was raised. James Morris, the first superintendent of Sable Island, writes in a letter to Charles Morris

“I confess the situation of the island the deluge of men and devastation of property I am astonished in the meditation that no Light house has been erected on this Isle for I am sure that if was light set on place which I have remarked they would not only prevent Vessels from running on shore and give aid to all that has an inclination to visit the Isle for refreshment, or to take a fresh departure which in all probability would be of infinite service.” 

That same year, a man named Benjamin Liscomb was asked to answer the questions of John Wentworth, the governor of Nova Scotia at the time, as to how a lighthouse might be built on the island. Mr. Liscomb had many strong opinions on the subject, none perhaps so fervent as his insistence that wood is a far superior material for building lighthouses as compared to stone. As he writes

“A Stone Pyramid is much more exposed to dampness than a wooden one, this arised from the particles of water being forced through the mason work, or from the stone walls being so great a condenser of such particles in the internal air. Whatever may be the cause of the damages it frequently happens to such a degree that the vapour ascends so greatly as to effect and decrease the light; this evil never takes place where the pyramid is of wood. Besides I have learned from many years experience that the expenses incurred by the repairs of a Stone Pyramid are equal at the least to those of a wooden one arising from the frequent necessary painting & white-washing of the stone; this I have found to be fact respecting the stone Pyramids which have fallen under my care; and I may add that the interest of the excess of expence of building with stone, rather than wood will, (once in fifty years) build a compleat light house with wood.

It may be said with justice that Stone is more durable and not so liable to fire from without. These are truths which ought to have their weight; but I think, they will vanish in a degree when the difference of expence is considered, & that the wooden one from its detached situation is not in much hazard from fire without though equally exposed from fire within. A wooden Pyramid built with good white pine timber, without sap, covered with seasoned feather edged boards, & these covered with shingles well painted with three coats of paint will last well for more than fifty years.” 

His interest is not purely academic either, as he states at the end of his letter

“Be persuaded Sir that if any other hints from me should be wished any suggestions thereof will be attended to with great cheerfulness; for the benevolent design of erecting light houses on the Isle of Sable is an object of so much importance as giving new and additional security to the lives of our fellow men and to their property that it must interest the feelings and engage the attention and support of all.”

Despite these concerns however, in 1803 the Commission for the Affairs of Sable Island were still undecided on the subject. As was noted in a letter to James Morris,

“Nothing has yet been determined upon in regard to Light Houses; but if you have any Cause to alter your opinion either as to the de[[?]] or Construction of them you will of course state it in your report.’’

– Michael Wallace & Charles Morris


As we know, that decision would not be made for several decades. It is interesting though to see how the conversation surrounding lighthouses on Sable Island had been occurring since the very beginning of the Establishment, helping people of the present to understand just how long the people of Sable Island had to wait until they finally got their lighthouse.

I hope you enjoyed this story – I certainly enjoyed writing it.  I’ll see you with another story soon!