Before anyone lived on Seal Island, shipwrecked mariners lucky enough to have reached its shores alive often died of starvation and exposure during the harsh winter months. By the early years of the nineteenth century a grim spring tradition had evolved, as preachers and residents from Yarmouth and Barrington came to the island to find and bury the dead. There was much concern about the loss of life (on one occasion 21 people were buried in shallow graves in a single day) and in 1823, two families, the Hichens and the Crowells settled on the island in the hopes of assisting the unfortunate souls cast ashore during the winter storms. Richard Hichens himself had been shipwrecked on Cape Sable in 1817 and later married Mary Crowell, who had heard firsthand many stories of the deaths on Seal Island from her father, a Barrington preacher.
|© Courtesy Mary Nickerson|
|Seal Island Lighthouse c. 1930|
|Note Second Order lantern and lens, now at the Seal Island Light Museum, Barrington. The building behind the trees on the left houses the steam fog whistle.|
After settling on the island, Richard Hichens and Edmund Crowell soon began to petition the provincial government for money to construct a wharf and "for funds for two good boats so that they might better serve shipwrecked sea men." In 1827 a wharf was completed, making it easier for lifeboats to attend to rescues in the area. Later the same year, at the urging of Hichens and Crowell, Nova Scotia governor Sir James Kempt surveyed a location for the erection of a lighthouse 500 metres from the shore near the southern tip of the island. Construction began in 1830; the large wood structure was built of massive squared timbers, 47 feet long, framed and set in a rock and mortar foundation. The lantern floor was reinforced with heavy wood knees, and stout cross members braced the rest of the tower. On the night of November 28, 1831 the fixed light was lit for the first time. A daughter was born to Richard and Mary that same evening, and so began a family lightkeeping tradition that would last more than a century on Seal Island.
It is said that no mariner perished for want of assistance after the Hichens and Crowells settled on Seal Island. With the establishment of lifesaving services and the building of the lighthouse, there was a significant reduction in the loss of vessels around the island although wrecks continued to occur well into the 20th century. Winifred Hamilton, Edmund Crowell's great granddaughter, lived on the island until her death in 1982 at the age of 93. She remembered well clambering aboard a number of vessels run aground on the island, and her house at the east side village was full of dishes, oil lamps and bottles from ships wrecked over the years. In time ownership of the island was passed to Winifred and then to her daughter Mary Nickerson, who still owns a portion of the southern end.
|� Kathy Brown|
|The Second Order Fresnel Lens from Seal Island Lighthouse|
|This lens is now installed at the Seal Island Light Museum, Barrington.|
In 1870 a steam fog whistle was established near the lighthouse for use during periods of thick weather. In 1900 a new building was built on the shore and the whistle installed there. A few years later a diaphone was introduced, remaining in service until it was replaced by electronic horns in 1973. In 1975 the fog alarm building was declared surplus and torn down; Mary Nickerson used some of the wood to build a house in the east side village.
In 1902 the original fixed light was replaced with a second order revolving lens, manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne in Paris.1 The original lens had used seal oil as a light source, and notes by Winnie Hamilton indicate that the light was changed to a kerosene wick lamp in 1892 and to kerosene vapour in 1902. The light was electrified in 1959. By 1978, the Coast Guard had voiced concerns about the deteriorating state of the iron lantern and it was removed that year.2 A DCB 36 rotating aeronautical beacon was installed in a new aluminum lantern- this apparatus continues in use today.
Over the years, the number of shipwrecks and related loss of life had declined and by the beginning of the first World War the last lifeboat was hauled ashore for good. The lighthouse remained an important installation for shipping transiting the Bay of Fundy to the eastern seaboard of the US, and for fishermen working the surrounding waters. As late as the 1960s boats travelling to Seal from Clark's Harbour would shut down once in a while to listen for the powerful blast of the diaphone, and then resume course for the island.