Fire in the Lighthouse

Published August 22nd, 2012

On a cool August day with thick fog drifting around us we headed out to the lighthouse perched on cliffs worn by the sea. The fog horn blew deep and loudly every few minutes. Tacked to the outside of the tower was the history. The Swallowtail Lighthouse was first lit in 1860 in response to a terrible shipwreck just a few years before. But what caught my attention was the story of fire.

In August of 1936 Elodie Foster was tending the Swallowtail lighthouse while her husband was at the other end of Grand Manan at the Southwest Head Lighthouse. She overfilled the alcohol burner in the lantern room. When she attempted to ignite the burner her clothes burst into flames. She managed to make it down the tower stairs and outside where her son and two daughters helped her. He son raced up the tower and put out the flames before the fire spread. Sadly, Elodie died the following day from her burns.

It might have been the fog, the moan of the horn, or the solitude of the place. Maybe it was my experiences at staring into the throat of fire as a firefighter back home. There are some stories that just seem to stick with you. come to life. This was one of those. Standing outside the lighthouse, I imagined the scene in great detail. Days later with fog still engulfing the island I continued to ponder it, perhaps even mourning just a lithe bit for someone I never knew. Someone that lived well before my birth.

Later, I learned that this wasn't the only fire to threaten the tower. In April 2007 Grand Manan Fire Chief, Colin Bagley, arrived at the lighthouse well before any equipment. Flames up to 30 feet high fanned by winds were coming quickly toward the tower. Bagley realized the only way to save the lighthouse was backfire. He lit small fires around the tower letting them burn just a few meters before putting them out. When the fire arrive at the blackened ground around the lighthouse, it simply died. A brilliant strategy by a volunteer firefighter.

Standing for over 152 years, served by brave keepers for many of those, and perhaps saving countless lives, Swallowtail Lighthouse is a treasure. It is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in Canada. You can see thousands of impressive photographs with just a click of the mouse. With all those spectacular shots, how do you photograph such a landmark?

With thick fog and poor lighting, I took a few photographs just for memory. Sometimes a photograph has a way of finding you rather than you finding it. On my hands and knees admiring a wildflower, I looked up and there it was in the fog behind a small rise. Not from afar with the sun blazing the horizon or with waves crashing against the rocks below, but a simple shot of a Canadian treasure peeking through another foggy day on Grand Manan.

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