PICTOU, N.S. - Fergie MacKay was taking his granddaughter on a tour of Pictou County beaches. While she played on the shore near the Harbour Light Campground, MacKay snapped a photo of her with the Pictou Bar Lighthouse in the background. That was on June 30, 2004.
“Five days later, we had the fire,” says MacKay who will at the Natural History Museum in Halifax on Nov. 15 to give a talk about the Pictou icon.
The cause of the fire is unknown, but the result was the complete destruction of the 101-year-old lighthouse at the tip of Pictou Harbour.
“It was just a crumbled piece of molten glass,” says MacKay. “It was a real shock, and then you know that it’s not going to be replaced.”
Before GPS and ocean mapping technology replaced them, lighthouses played an essential role in maritime safety. Light was generated by oil lamps and reflectors projected it through the dark to highlight hazards hidden near the shore.
The sandbar at the mouth of the harbor was dangerous for ships passing through to Pictou County and so the first lighthouse built in 1834 was vital to shipping here. The original Pictou Bar Lighthouse was also destroyed by fire in 1903, and was rebuilt immediately and served its community right up until July 5, just five days after lobster fishing season had ended.
MacKay, a retired history teacher, grew up in Pictou Landing where the old lighthouse was as much a part of the scenery as the 1.5 kilometre sandbar that it was built on.
“We used to call it Mile Beach. You’d just park with friends and go for a walk up the beach,” he says. “It was a landmark for almost anybody in Pictou Landing. It was unique.”
MacKay’s research has taken him to the archives in Halifax and to the government archives in Ottawa where he’d go during visits to his son who lives there. Over time each receipt, document, photograph and story has added to his collection of material which he has spent more than ten years gathering.
“There’s a good amount of collected material here,” says MacKay while he rifles through about 100 pages worth of collected documents which he says he’d like to eventually turn into a book.
Outside of the archives MacKay’s research has also put him in touch with the people whose livelihoods revolved around keeping the light going on the sandbar. MacKay says that these interviews have helped to put human faces on the facts and figures.
“So, if you get into an era of this particular lighthouse keeper, then you could ask things like, how they’d spend the day? what was Christmas like? What did you do to keep the light going at night?”
Besides the lighthouse, which was painted in red and white striped running vertically down the 50-foot structure, there was also a house built there for the lighthouse keeper and his family.
“They lived there, gathered wood on the beach, and were friendly with the boats coming and going, you know, waving and things like that.”
MacKay says that he would eventually like to take everything that he has pieced together and turn it into something fit for people’s book shelves. But for now he’s excitedto go back to teaching on the 15th.
“I’m fascinated with it, and it should be shared,” he says. “I’m pleased and honored to do that.”
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- Key piece of lighthouse history makes it back home (2013)
- Museum receives donation of 1930s MacAskill photo of Pictou Bar lighthouse (2011)
- Historic Pictou Bar lighthouse destroyed by fire