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Historic Pictou Bar lighthouse destroyed by fire

Pictou Bar Light was destroyed by fire July 5, 2004.
Pictou Bar Light was destroyed by fire July 5, 2004. - Jennifer Vardy Little

PICTOU, N.S. - An historic building on the Pictou County landscape is no more.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Tuesday, July 6, 2004 Evening News in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia under the headline "Historic lighthouse destroyed by fire." 

PICTOU, N.S. - An historic building on the Pictou County landscape is no more.

The Pictou lighthouse burned to the ground Monday evening. Built in 1903, at a cost of $3,471.99, the still-functioning structure was 101 years old.

People gathered on the banks of Pictou harbour as they watched the flames flicker from the top of the lighthouse, but the light it created wasn't the welcome warmth of the light guiding boats to safe harbour.

Instead, within an hour the building was levelled by the flames.

County Warden Allister MacDonald was shocked when he heard of the loss, calling the lighthouse a hallmark of Pictou County.

"It's a sad day to see something like the Pictou lighthouse burn," MacDonald said. "It's been a lifesaver for boats looking for safe harbour for many years and now it's no more. There are very few lighthouses left in Atlantic Canada, and now we have one less."

Going to the sea in boats has been a Maritime tradition for centuries - but returning home again was just as perilous as being on the sea. Finding the harbours, clearing the reefs and shoals and avoiding the sand bars and rocks was risky business for sailors, and it was only properly-placed markers that alleviated the danger.

Bible Hill resident Rip Irwin studied the lighthouse extensively several years ago as he prepared his book, the Lighthouses and Lights of Nova Scotia.

"It was critical to have a lighthouse in that harbour because the sand bar extends over 1.2 hectares," Irwin explained. "

The history of the Pictou lighthouse is marked by fire. The predecessor of the current light was destroyed by fire in early 1903. By the end of that year, a new light was built on the site of the former lighthouse, which stood as a beacon for 101 years.

But it didn't shine without incident, however. In July of 1931, a serious fire occurred in the lantern room of the lighthouse, causing considerable damage.

If not for the quick actions of the lightkeeper, William MacFarlane, the tower would "most certainly have been destroyed," Irwin said. As a result, MacFarlane spent several months in hospital recuperating from burns he suffered in the fire, while his wife kept the light shining.

The lighthouse became fully automated in 1960.

Irwin was saddened to hear Monday evening that there are now only 162 coastal beacons that remain in the province.

"I'm in shock and I'm mad as all hell, because I have a feeling it was vandalized," Irwin said. "It's a significant loss because it's a big part of our heritage and we're losing them one by one."

Pictou Landing First Nations Fire Chief Martin Sapier couldn't confirm whether the fire was set, however, adding that there is no indications so far what caused the blaze.

There was little the fire department - along with the Pictou Landing Fire Department and the Little Harbour Fire Department, who responded to a mutual aid call - could do by the time they trekked out the 1.5 kilometres over the sand bar to the lighthouse, he added. 

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