New Brunswick Lighthouses and Colonial Spaces, 1784-1867

Zachary A. Tingley

Lighthouses, once a lifesaving beacon of hope for mariners facing the elements, are themselves now in need of rescue. In communities up and down the Atlantic coast, local communities have organized to preserve lighthouses that, while being in need of a great deal of repair because of federal neglect, remain iconic in tourism advertising and regional memory. Yet in focusing on each lighthouse individually, historians, both amateur and professional, have missed the fact that particular lighthouses were pieces of a large system of navigational aids. Indeed, as my research on the construction of a lighthouse system in colonial New Brunswick demonstrates, lighthouses illuminate the intersections between land and sea, and allow the complex relationships between colonial and imperial authorities to enter the historians’ purview.

Swallow Tail Lighthouse, Grand Manan, New Brunswick, 1844. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, P33-181.

Professional historians have neglected New Brunswick lighthouses so much of the research and literature on the subject has been produced by amateur historians or public collaboration. My recent Masters thesis, “Lighting the Littoral: The Moral and Political Economy of New Brunswick Lighthouses, 1784-1867,” provides the reader with the first scholarly examination of the New Brunswick lighthouses that were built and operated by the colonial government in order to save the lives of mariners. As research on the thesis progressed, I discovered that lighthouses were an important part of the region’s social infrastructure, sites for the study of public administration, inter-provincial relationships, imperial relationships, and economic development in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Ontario. It was clear early on in the research that New Brunswick treated each lighthouse as a part of a system of lights, and this did not exclude lights that were built outside of New Brunswick’s territorial boundaries. The colony’s House of Assembly journals were a key documentary source for examining the working of the lighthouse system, in addition to letters and petitions.

In order to understand the significance of New Brunswick’s colonial lighthouses one must revisit the political events that played out in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The importance of lighthouses was recognized as early as 1785, at the New Brunswick’s House of Assembly’s inaugural meeting.[1] This early commitment to coastal humanitarianism guided successive Assemblies to expand New Brunswick’s lighthouses beyond the provincial borders, and eventually influence the trade patterns in the eastern half of British North America.

New Brunswick was a leader in establishing safe navigation within its own territorial waters, around the Bay of Fundy, along the Northumberland Strait, and beyond. Officials there worked with counterparts in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, as well as British imperial administration, to establish safe and equitable navigation throughout the region. The charge to create a system of lighthouses was led by the House of Assembly in order to save lives and create economic opportunity in an area that had not seen extensive European development. With three coastlines to make safe, it was evident to the Assemblymen that working with others on projects considered to be mutually beneficial was the best course of action.

When the House of Assembly first met, in 1786, they faced the momentous task of planning for the future of the newly established New Brunswick. When the British began settling the province, water was the primary method of transportation so it was imperative that the coastlines of the province be secured for navigation. The Bay of Fundy’s dramatic tides, as well as currents and shoals, were significant navigational hazards for mariners headed for the port of Saint John—where Atlantic commercial sailing networks met the Saint John River, the only secure year-round route into the continent. In order to protect mariners from naturally-forming navigational hazards such as fog, and to drive economic growth, the House of Assembly perceived the necessity of constructing a regional system of lighthouses, rather than merely addressing individual navigational dangers.[2]

Harding and Kortright, The Harbour of St. John (Saint John, NB: Hydrographic Office, 1844). Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, H2-203.60-1848.


The realization that a system of lighthouses was needed prompted the Assembly to propose to other provinces that lighthouses be constructed and operated inter-provincially, five of which were eventually built. The construction of these inter-provincial lighthouses required a great deal of attention be paid to the needs of an increasingly mobile colonial population. With the burgeoning shipping industry came a steady increase in the number of vessels that were owned and sailed by New Brunswickers, and greater provincial representation in international trade. Between 1785 and 1867, the New Brunswick House of Assembly regularly went beyond the limits of provincial jurisdiction to foster a system of lighthouses that was reflective of the increased need for safety to facilitate regional trade and the movement of people.

As iconic as lighthouses have remained in popular Maritime consciousness and tourism advertising, the handful of academic studies that address the lighthouses mostly ignore the social impact of lighthouses.[3] Even a journal as Atlantic-focused as Acadiensis has been terrestrial in scholarly orientation; little attention has been given to the littoral legacy of Atlantic Canada, or to New Brunswick in particular. As a result of professional disinterest, the fight for a historical record of a shared littoral heritage has instead fallen upon the shoulders of amateur historians and politically active citizens.

For those who have spent their lives in the littoral zone, and for others with personal connections to the maritime past of the province, an immense sense of loss is felt when lighthouses are removed from the coastline. As a symbol synonymous with maritime identity, lighthouses evoke an emotional response from those who see the turbulent, but beautiful, vistas that surround these structures. Emotional responses occur because of the shared understanding that these structures once served to save lives, be they mariner or passenger, the lighthouse could not discriminate. Within one generation, since the mid-1980s, Canada decommissioned all but one of its lighthouses. When a lighthouse crumbles or is torn down after years of decay, the historical memory of New Brunswick’s first project of public good, a part of an inter-provincial legacy, is lost with it.

Gannet Rock Lighthouse. Gannet Rock, New Brunswick, [pre-1905]. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, P40-6.

Arguably, the most important of these projects were the lighthouses at Saint Paul Island (located off of the northern tip of Cape Breton Island) and Scatarie Island (a short distance from Sydney). These lighthouses were placed to guide mariners in and out of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. These two beacons are reflective of the New Brunswick House of Assemblies priorities during the early 1800s. In 1832, the House of Assembly voted to establish a rescue station approximately 500 kilometers from New Brunswick shoreline, on Saint Paul Island because of a concern with the increased number of lives that were being lost to shipwrecks.[4] In establishing a rescue station on the island, New Brunswick provided its neighbouring, as well as British colonial officials, with an example of the necessity of a lifesaving station. In 1839, with help from the British government, the lighthouses at both Saint Paul Island and Scatarie Island were rendered operational.

The addition of these two lighthouses altered the navigational routes that mariners used and opened up the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Great Lakes to oceanic trade. Without the persistence of the New Brunswick House of Assembly, safety and security of trade in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region would not have evolved in fashion that it did and at the speed that it did. In less than 100 years, New Brunswick paved the way for the creation a system of lighthouses that transformed the way that humans interacted with their maritime environment and one another.

Zachary A. Tingley completed his M.A. in History at the University of New Brunswick in 2017, and is at work on a book manuscript on New Brunswick lighthouses.

[1] Government of New Brunswick, Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick (Saint John, NB: John Ryan, 1787), 28.

[2] Zachary Tingley, “Lighting the Littoral: The Moral and Political Economy of New Brunswick Lighthouses, 1784-1867,” M.A. Thesis, University of New Brunswick, 2017), 81–84.

[3] Elodie Bertrand, “The Coasean Analysis of Lighthouse Financing: Myths and Realities,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 30, no. 3 (2006): 389; Laurent Carnis, “The Provision of Lighthouses Services: A Political Economy Perspective,” Public Choice 157, no. 1–2 (May 31, 2012): 51–56,; R. H. Coase, “Lighthouse in Economics, The,” Journal of Law & Economics 17 (1974): 357; Lawrence W. C. Lai, Stephen N. G. Davies, and Frank T. Lorne, “The Political Economy of Coase’s Lighthouse in History (Part I): A Review of the Theories and Models of the Provision of a Public Good,” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 4 (2008): 395–425; James Taylor, “Private Property, Public Interest, and the Role of the State in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Case of the Lighthouses,” The Historical Journal 44, no. 3 (2001): 749–71; M. B. Komesaroff, “The Industrial Archaeology of Lighthouses,” The Journal of Navigation 33, no. 01 (January 1980): 131–137,; Allen S Miller, “‘The Lighthouse Top I See’: Lighthouses as Instruments and Manifestations of State Building in the Early Republic.,” Buildings & Landscapes 17, no. 1 (2010): 13–34.

[4] Tingley, “Lighting the Littoral,” 58.


Featured Image: Quaco Lighthouse. Quaco, New Brunswick. 1900. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, P33-182.


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