The position of lightkeeper was an important one and much sought after. Throughout the years most keepers and fog alarm attendants were men who came from the small surrounding community of Panmure Island, a community dependent on farming and fishing. At times when cash was tight, including the depression years, the lightkeeper, who was paid by the government, was known to help out those in the community that were in need.
It was common for lightkeepers to grow their own vegetables and raise farm animals as well. The pigs became such a nuisance that, in 1861, a fence had to be built around the lighthouse to keep them from digging at the foundation.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a fog alarm building and a 1-1/2 story cottage for the keepers’ family were built. The original cabin on the property that once housed the keepers was converted to a garage and storage. This cottage was replaced by a 2 storey, larger cottage in 1957. The circa 1908 cottage was moved to another location on Panmure Island and is still in use as a seasonal residence. In 1985 when the light was automated, and the keeper’s position no longer required, the 1957 cottage was declared surplus and sold. It is currently a private residence.
William MacDonald was appointed the first keeper of the Panmure Head Lighthouse at an annual salary of 50 pounds. William was the son of Archibald MacDonald, the original landowner of Panmure Island, who sold the land for the lighthouse to the government. In total, 5 of the Panmure Head Light Keepers were MacDonald decendents, including William J. MacDonald, the last lightkeeper.
George Creed was the longest serving lightkeeper. He took over the position in 1946 when he returned from WWII after being held as a Prisoner of War. He was lightkeeper for the next 34 years, retiring in 1981.
The Light Keeper was provided with an assistant. The light, in the years before automation, needed to be monitored 24 hours a day. In the years before electricity the fuel used was originally seal or whale oil and later kerosene, all highly flammable. Many wooden lighthouses, (including for example, the original lighthouse at Peggy’s Cover, NS), burned to the ground. Assistant Lightkeepers received their training from the Lightkeeper, and very often eventually became the Lightkeeper themselves. There was no real job description for the position but certainly physical fitness was critical given the endless trips up and down four flights of stairs while hauling heavy loads.
In recent years the Canadian Coast Guard, on their website, included: “Experience in operating and performing front line maintenance on mechanical and electrical equipment such as motors, generators, power tools, and boats; Experience in maintaining grounds and buildings. Experience working in isolated or semi-isolated locations and experience working in a marine environment, ” as lightkeeper qualifications.
The keeper was responsible for the strict accounting of all supplies, as well as the noting of weather and sea conditions. Many other day-to-day functions were meticulously noted in their journal on a daily basis, so record keeping was an essential job skill. The lightkeeper, with help from his assistant, was also responsible for the painting and repairs to the lighthouse, although he could hire assistance for major projects. During the winter months (January, February and March) the lighthouse was not open as the Northumberland Strait was frozen over; this meant that the keeper had some time to visit friends and neighbours in the evenings, which he couldn’t do during navigation season.
Lightkeepers of Panmure Head Lighthouse:
William MacDonald; 1853 to 1859
David O’Brien; 1859 to 1865
John Duff; 1865 to 1866
James MacDonald; 1866 to 1867
William MacDonald; 1867 to 1901
Colin Steele; 1901 to 1910
Wallace E. Graham; 1910 to 1912
William Albert MacDonald; 1912 to 1936
Charles A. Steele; 1936 to 1939
George Creed; 1946 to 1981
William J. MacDonald; 1984 to 1985
Note: During the years of the Second World War, the lighthouse was dark, to ensure that German U-Boats that might be in the area, could not use it as a navigational aid.