As told by Gloria MacQuarrie, Lightkeeper
John & Gloria MacQuarrie manned the White Head Island Lighthouse until June 1988
White Head Island, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, is the closest piece of land to Sable Island. White Head Lighthouse was first established and manned in 1854. She was closed as a manned light station in June 1988. This I know for sure because we were the last keepers to leave the light, one of the saddest days in our lives.
There are so many stories one could tell about being a on a lighthouse but the question is where to begin. White Head was a beautiful place to live and raise a child. My husband was losing his job at Mount Saint Bernard College. They were closing down the boiler plant. He was a stationary engineer. One of the nuns told him they were looking for light keepers. Us, Lightkeepers? I was terrified of boats and water. Guess who got the job? I cried for days but I wanted to go. I was just scared to death! Becoming a light keeper was an experience of a life time. Being a light keeper, you learn to respect the sea.
We weren’t out there too long when my husband hooked up our old CB radio. We used it to try and find someone to talk to but no one ever answered. We did not know anyone inshore. One foggy day, and boy was she foggy, we were working around the house and we heard someone talking. They were calling for help. They were trying to get a hold of one of the other fisherman but no one answered. Then, in desperation they said, "Can anyone hear me, I’m broke down?" John, my husband ran for the set and went back to him. I heard him say, "This is the light keeper on White Head. Can I help you?...Sure I will go get you. I am new here and I don’t know the area that well, so I will tell you what I will do. When I get aboard the boat, you keep talking to me and I will find you that way." I said to myself, how is he going to find him but John just followed the radio signal, he went where it was the strongest. He went right to him. The transmission had gone in his boat and he was so happy to see someone. My husband towed him ashore. Our first rescue and it sure made us feel good.
After a few months, we adopted our son. We took him to the lighthouse when he was five days old. Bringing up a child on a lighthouse is quite different than in shore. We thought that if we make sure he listens to us and we always told one another the truth and trusted one another we would make things much easier living in isolation. If we run into trouble, we would have one another to rely on. That proved itself time and time again. When he was older, he would run down the walk, get up on this big rock and yell "Daddy catch me!", and before his father would get there he would jump, trusting his father to be there to catch him.
The Head keeper had to go ashore. There was a storm coming and we had to take the boat up. Our son, John-Curtis was just crawling around. It was in the winter, the slipway was icy and the north wind was blowing right sideways on it. John took him ashore. I knew he wouldn’t be long so I got the baby dressed and watched for the boat to come out around Three Top island. That would give me time to get to the boat house and pull the cable down to hook the boat on. It was about a half mile across the island so I put my son on the sled and away we went. I got there just in time. John was sailing around waiting for me. I had to find some place to put the baby. I just couldn’t leave him up there in the boathouse so I tied him in his sled. I grabbed the cable and went down to wait for the boat to come up the slipway when I slipped and down I went in between the planks. John had taken the locks off the motors and took a run for the slipway. I thought to myself, If he gives it that gas he will go right over me and kill me. I knew he couldn’t see me so I started to pray, still trying to get out. In the meantime John had a feeling something was wrong. He let up a bit, something he never did. He couldn’t find me and then he saw my head. I wasn’t easy getting out. The water was cold and I kept losing my footing. I tried to get my foot on something to push myself up and out but it wasn’t working. Well, I had to get hold of something to pull myself out, and at last I got hold of a plank. After a few tries, I got back on my feet. I thought to myself, now Gloria, stay on your feet, at least until you get that boat hooked on. John had took the boat for another turn around and tried again. This time the boat came up far enough for me to hook her on. I got to the side of the slip where we had a walkway and I ran for the boathouse. John was not far behind. Just as we reached the top, we were met by out son, crawling toward the door. He had a big smile on his face as much as to say, me coming mommy. We went back to the lighthouse, thanking the Lord for yet another miracle.
Life like anywhere, you have your good and bad days. I remember once we had to go ashore to get supplies. It was April, the best time of the year because the fishermen were back fishing. We caught a ride in shore with one of them. We then we went to Canso, got our supplies and headed back for White Head. John never liked to be off the island long. When we got there, it started to rain, and boy did it rain. John called the Island on the CB radio, but the head keeper said he wasn’t coming in, in this weather. We decided to go out in the morning with one of our friends. Howie woke us up in time go out with him but he said you should wait till Morlie goes out, it might be better. Five o’clock came and we were ready. We had double bagged everything. The rain never let up and we wanted to get back to the light. A northeast wind started to blow and the tide was low. The closer we got to the island, the harder it rained. It was like hail, and danced off the water. Morlie said he never seen such weather in years. It was the worst luck he had ever seen, a real Jonas he was always teasing me. All this for a few groceries?
Getting groceries, when you are a lightkeeper is quite an ordeal. You go to the store, put them in a cart, put them on the checkout, put them in the boat, go to the island, and put them on the dock, them you put them on the tractor and trailer or in the wheelbarrow, then go to the house, carry them up to the house and finally put them away. We ate a lot of scrambled eggs. The first time we got groceries, we put them in the boat, went up to the road to talk to someone and the seagulls got into them. Thank goodness we were close, in just a few minutes they made an awful mess.
Now back to my story. Morlie took the boat into the dock and John got out. He couldn’t stay at the dock, it was too rough. John tried to get the water out of the little boat to come out for us. As fast as he poured water out of her the faster it would fill up. He had to turn the boat up side down. Finally he got the boat in the water and come for me and the groceries. We got back onto the dock, it was so rough. John had a great time trying to pass me the bags and keep the boat from turning upside down. The bags were literally sitting in three or four inches of water. When we finished, John went out for the baby. When he came back in, I couldn’t reach John-Curtis, so I had to climb down the dock and climb up with him in my arms. If you could see how small I am, you would wonder how I ever dragged him around. Then we had to get the boat up, but because it was so full of water and it was so heavy it was no easy task.
Morlie was watching all this, laughing and blaming me for all the terrible weather. "We were not supposed to get this type of weather", my famous last words. It lasted for three days. When we got to the house, thanking the good Lord, we poured the water out of our boots and took our oil clothes off. We were soaked to the hide but a little water never killed anyone. My poor groceries. I poured them out on the floor; the water went right through all the plastic bags. Oh well. We saved most of them. Then we sat down and had a good laugh, just another day on a lighthouse. These are the things that memories are made of. People wouldn’t believe the things you get yourself into while being a lightkeeper or what people think about lighthouse life. The head keeper used to tell everyone in shore that you know the shows you watch on TV, the last one hour, well we watch them in forty five minutes because we have diesel power and it runs a little faster then Nova Scotia Power does. My cousin thought we had to go to bed at dark because we didn’t have any lights. My husband just said to him "what do we live on a lighthouse for, but to run the light!"
I love the month of April (1984). When living on a lighthouse, life got pretty lonely sometimes. We have always welcomed the month of April and lobster fishing time when all the boats were back out in the water again. In the long winter months, we did not see very many people.
I have always made a point of watching the fishermen, knowing which direction they came around the island and in which area they were heading to. We have always been early risers. On this particular morning, the wind was blowing out of the southwest. As the morning grew, so did the wind. We had the table beside the window in the kitchen. This was so we could watch the boats as we ate our breakfast. I said to my husband "I wish those guys would hurry up" the wind was picking up and some of the boys hadn’t even come out front yet. The fishermen usually did the side of the island the wind was coming from, or the front, first. The front of the island was bad because it was all open sea and the closest land was Sable Island.
We watched one, two, three, four boats working their way around the little islands then finally out front. Jim, a friend of ours, had been one of the first. Finishing breakfast, I realized Tom had not come around yet. I always worried about Tom because he reminded me of my brother. Tom would be out fishing when no one else would dare to go, a real daredevil.
Brought up on a lighthouse like his father and his father before him, Tom knew the waters. He had the smallest boat of all and no radio. Our son, just three years old, was on the floor. JC always looked forward to our friend Jim coming in for a quick cup of hot tea if the weather was bad or cold. Jim became a big part of our lives. Friends on a lighthouse were very important. More so than when you lived ashore.
I was doing the dishes as I was watching out front. We kept the binoculars hanging at the end of the cupboard. Jim hadn’t come in yet. It’s been a while since he went around the east end of the island. John my husband was shaving. He was on duty at 9:15am. He had to go get the call. You had to go up to the head keeper's house and wait for Eddy Point called to give us messages if any from the base in Dartmouth or just to check to see if all was well on the light station. This was done twice a day. This was our only contact to the outside world, except for our CB radio, on which we talked to the fishermen and our friends ashore. Sometimes the department radio didn’t work.
I looked out the window again and it seemed that things were getting much worse. Oh, but there was Tom, he was coming around from the west side towards the front. He was the last one, thank the good Lord! Watching the boat going up and down in the waves and thinking to myself how small it looks and what if anything should happen. Ever since I was small before something bad happened I got this bad feeling and today was one of those days. The dishes were just about done and taking a quick look out again, I saw that Tom was going back in the same direction he had just come from. Tom get out of there you are too close. I couldn’t take my eyes from the window. He had something in his hand. I yelled to my husband "there is something wrong with Tom" and in reply he said "get the binoculars and look." I felt if I took my eyes off him he’d be gone. I didn’t waste time in grabbing the binoculars. He was in trouble. He was trying to row but the sea was too strong and was driving him into the rocks.
John came running into the kitchen face covered in shaving cream. He grabbed his floater jacket and slipped into his boots and heading for the dock a quarter of a mile away. His words died in the wind "the little boat." I didn’t have to hear him. I could read his mind. The big boat was up at the boathouse on the other side of the island, three quarters of a mile away. If he went for the big boat he would not be able to get Tom in time to save him, so he’d have to take the little boat which was pulled up at the dock because of a wind warning. But it was so rough out, how would John make it? Going to the CB radio I called for help. "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY" but no one answered. I was hoping to catch one of the fishermen that might be closer to Tom. Picking up my son to go get the call, it was almost time. I got up to the other house and no call came so I punched up Eddie Point, no answer. What a great time for the radio to quit. Taking JC we headed up to where the old fuel tanks were. We should be able to see them from up there. Their was nothing, oh Lord what happened, where are they? We’ll go for the dock and wait and pray, a lot.
Just as John arrived at the dock, Jim was tying up to the big buoy. John yelled, "Jim!" He knew by the sound of his voice something was wrong. He pulled in the bow line and turned to the dock. As soon as Jim got close John jumped in. Tom was in trouble, he didn’t have to explain, just point and they were on their way. Out around the island at full speed. When they reached Tom, he was taking his oil clothes off. The boat was smashing up against the rocks. Tom heaved the bow line but the line was to short. Jim had to get closer; it was really bad in there. They would have to do this really fast or they both would be in trouble. Wasting no time, Jim got as close as he dared. John grabbed the gaffe and hooked the bow painter and tied it on the boat. The he was able to pull Tom's boat close enough to pull him in the boat with them. Jim already putting his boat full speed ahead, shot out of there. On the way in John said "Tom, why were you taking off your oil clothes?" He said, "I was going to jump overboard." John replied, "My dear man, you can’t swim."
Cold, wet and in shock, Tom survived his ordeal, but his boat wasn’t quite so fortunate. Tom came through his ordeal because of people like lighthouse keeper John MacQuarrie and Fisherman Jim. They, like Tom, have experienced the sea at some of her worst. These men make it because they never lose the great respect they have for the sea.