The keepers and their life

The late Don Graham, assistant light keeper, and lighthouse historian, described the life of a light keeper this way:
"He observed every shift in the weather, each patch of haze or smothering mantle of fog as it came and went. He logged the hour, to the minute, when he fired up the horns and shut them down, and dutifully recorded the performance of his plant and equipment, documenting the hours he spend wiping down soot after flare-ups in the tower, topping up the mercury, polishing up the new lens. The schizoid personality of his engines-willing slaves or cranky malingerers-emerges as if they still droned away the background. Every item, from postage stamps and pushbrooms [sic] to cotter pins, is duly entered and accounted for…. If there was any time left after tending the tower and fog alarm building, keepers had to 'keep their lanterns, lighthouses, dwelling houses and outbuildings clean and tidy and in good repair,' and 'also keep the surroundings of their stations in a state to reflect credit on the Government and be a model to the neighbourhood.'"
- From Don Graham, Keepers of the Light, 1985.


The life of a light keeper
The life of a light keeper was not always easy and it suited some more than others. Lighthouses were often isolated and social opportunities were limited. Light keepers had to be proficient and attentive in a long and varied list of tasks. Often light keeping became a whole family affair. Some keepers stayed at Point Atkinson for a short time, while others worked there for decades.


Grafton family men and boys, c. 1920s.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Courtesy of Brian Grafton.


Lighthouse boat used by keepers. Built in 1886.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Until quite recently, the life of a light keeper remained one of isolation. The light keeper and his family would be away from large settled communities for months at a time, occasionally supplied by a ship, weather-permitting. Even Point Atkinson, now nestled in the municipality of West Vancouver, required a boat trip to Vancouver for supplies in the first half of the century. To supplement purchased provisions, keepers often fished, kept gardens and chopped wood. A visit to the neighbours' required a replacement to keep watch while the regular keeper was away, making such visits rare.


This is a list of every stamp used between January and July.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


While technological and social changes meant that light keepers did not have the same experience over the course of the twentieth century, many of the skills and work requirements remained the same. An important quality of a good light keeper was great attentiveness to detail. He (all the principal keepers at Point Atkinson were men) also needed versatile skills to perform a wide range of duties that included everything from repairing engines, painting, cleaning, recording the weather, and watching for vessels in distress.


Engine room diary recording use of the fog horn engine.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Work table used by light keepers.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Marianne Cummings and Bob Sears.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Light keeping was not a job that could be done alone. Keepers were responsible for hiring their own assistants and were required to pay them out of their small annual salary. Keepers often could not afford to adequately pay an assistant, which contributed to high turn over among assistants and long periods of time with no additional help. Often the light keeper's family helped keep watch and maintain the station. Wives would assist their husbands, perhaps winding the clockworks every 2˝ hours from sunset to sunrise. Children would pack wood from the beach, help clean up, and be part of the annual painting team. Everyone pitched in.


Lightkeepers were required to keep the lighthouse in good condition.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Principal Light Keepers at Point Atkinson Lighthouse
Edwin Woodward 1875-1877
R.G. Wellwood 1879-1880
Walter Erwin 1880-1910
Thomas Grafton 1910-1934
Lawrence Grafton 1934-1935 (interim post due to his father's accidental death)
Ernie Dawe 1935-1961
Gordon Odlum 1961-1974
Jim Barr 1974-1978
Oscar Edwards 1978-1980
Gerry Watson 1980-1996


Postcard showing original wood Point Atkinson lighthouse tower, with boat in foreground.
Point Atkinson, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada