North Highlands Community Museum
Dingwall, Nova Scotia

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Cape Breton's North Highlands: An Enduring Community

 

 

St. Paul's Island

St. Paul's Island lies in the Cabot Strait at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Actually two islands; the largest is about three miles long and from one quarter to three quarter miles at widest. It is separated from the smaller three acre rock by the narrow tide ripped channel called the Tittle. Early 16th century maps show only one island. This could be a geographer's error or the sea could have eroded the one clay seam in the otherwise granite island.

Since the earliest times this rocky desolate island has been a hazard to seamen entering or leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The strong fast running tide in Cabot Strait, the almost perpetual spring fog, summer hurricanes, winter blizzards and drift ice have all contributed to the island's reputation as the "Graveyard of the Gulf".

There is not record of the first ship wreck, probably it was a Basgue fishing vessel bound for cod along the Cape Breton Shore. By 1810 north-eastern Cape Breton began to be settled, so news of wrecks trickled back to the mainland. In the early 1820's settlers along the shores of Aspy Bay would watch helplessly as the fires kindles by the survivors slowly died out, as one by one they died from exposure and starvation. Each spring when the ice had gone, the men would go to the island to burry the dead.

The earliest reported wrecks were the Viceroy of India and the Royal Sovereign. Both were troop ships during the war of 1812. Of the more than 800 aboard the Sovereign, only a handful survived to tell the tragic tale. However it was much publicized wreck of the "Jessie" in December, 1824 that the government of the day decided to take some action. The Jessie commerated by Jessie Cove, was wrecked on the south-west end of the island on December 25th, 1824. Her owner- Captin Donald McKay and his wife and his crew of 22 men manafed to get ashore but all perished during the winter. McKay kept a record of their ordeal. The last entry was March 17th, two and a half months after the ship wreck. A vessel from Cheticamp found the bodies in the spring- one salvager took McKay's richly made clock which was later recognized by his widow, and so the tragedy came to light.

In 1826, both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia set up separate life saving stations on the island . One on the western side at Petrie's Cove, the other on the Atlantic Cove or eastern side. Two men were supplies to each station.

These men and stations were sorely needed. In one night in 1835, four vessels life-saving crew more than 200 passengers had perished. However, over the years many otherwise doomed, seamen and passengers had cause to bless these men

In 1837 the British Government erected two lighthouses on the island, one at the south-west tip of the big island and the other on the smaller north-west rock. A life station was set up half way between the two stations. For the next three decades the life-saving crew criss-crossed the island twenty-four house a day.

The first keeper at the south-west light was John Campbell, a native of the Baddeck area. He continued as keeper and then superintendent for twenty-one years. He was followed by his son, Samuel C. Campbell, who served from 1858-1904, and by his grandson John Malcolm Campbell, from 1904-1919. In that year the latter was promoted to Governor of Sable Island. In all one family gave a total of 72 years continuous service.

A man named Donald Boone or Moon was the first keeper at the north-east light. He and his family moved to the small island in 1837. Nine years later, his two assistants saw a seal on the ice and deciding seal flippers would make a tasty dish, went out after it. The men got into difficulties, so Donald and a servant girl launched a boat to rescue them. None of the four were seen again. For four lonely nights his widow kept the light burning. Her plight was discovered when John Campbell came across from the big island.

If these light keepers were a special breed, so were their wives. For more than a century they left the comforts and companionship of the mainland to accompany their husbands into years of isolation. Their only contact with the outside world was the infrequent visits of the mail and supply boats or a fishing schooner stopping for water. They bore children, lost them and buried them there. We know of at least seven small graves; light keepers children at rest.

There were a few times when the population of the big island increases to 50 or more people. The life saving crews, light keeping families, and for a time a lobster factory crew. It was during this period (1895) that a school was established on the island.

The first clergyman to visit the island was Rev. John Murray, minister of the Falmouth Street, Presbyterian Church in Sydney and he began to pay yearly visits around 1880. At that time the four families connected themselves to the Falmouth Street church but by 1920 they were raised to the status of a congregation and the minister of Cape North was expected to spend at least one Sunday during the summer there.

Down through the years island life changed slowly. During World War two, the radio station and radar base was built on Cozan's Mountain; the highest peakon the island. Following the war, they were abandoned; as was the life saving station in earlier days. Finally only one light keeper and his assistant worked the south-west light. In the mid 60's this light because automatic, serviced by D.O.T. helicopter.

The north-east station continued as a manned station. Until the 70's three families lived there. When the fog horn was replaced by the beacon, the families dwindled to two. Finally all families were removed and the station became rotational. Men worked a 28 days on and 28 days off system.

 

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