North Highlands Community Museum
Dingwall, Nova Scotia

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Cape Breton's North Highlands: An Enduring Community

 

 

Life on St. Paul's Island

In September of 1955 we left to go to St. Paul's Island. We boarded the government supply ship the Lady Laurier at Neil's Harbor. Early the next morning the ship stopped at the island and we went ashore by life-boat.

On the island there were three families, each about a mile apart. On the south-west end there was just a lighthouse which my father was to take over. The opposite end was called the north-east where there was a radio beacon, fog alarm and a lighthouse, so the light keeper needed two assistants. In the center there was a radio station that was closed down a year later, leaving only two families.

We visited a spot where a British troop-ship, the Viceroy of India, taking British soldiers home from the war of 1812, ran ashore with a loss of 500 soldiers. Only two were saved, and one of those died on the island. Next we visited the place where a Norwegian immigration ship ran ashore with a loss of 250 lives. Most of the bodies recovered were buried in a common grave.

Then, very near our own dwelling, there was the cove where a small ship from Pictou ran ashore on Christmas Eve. After reacting shore safely, all 10 of the crew died of starvation on the island. All crew members were from Charlottetown and Pictou. Each of these coves bears the name of the ship wrecked there.

Shortly after our arrival, my sister and I started our correspondence lessons. Our school hours were from 1:00p.m. until 4:30p.m. In the evening we studied from 6p.m. until 8p.m. our mornings were left to our selves to be spent as we wished. Some mornings we went a mile and a half to launch a boat to go fishing. Almost anywhere off the island there is an abundant supply of fish. Other times we took guns and went hunting for wild duck. The last year we were there (from 1959-60) I shot 34 ducks. In summer we went swimming on either one of the two lakes on the top of the island.

About every three or four months a supply ship calls at the island with mail and supplies. Imagine the excitement of receiving all the mail at one time. Of coarse we couldn't wait to see what marks we made on out papers. With about 12 papers to look over, it took some time.

Some days we would watch herds of seals going by on the drift ice and see the ships and men on the ice after the seals.

The worst feature of life on the island is sickness. One winter mother took sick and they took her to hospital by ice breaker. Five weeks later she came back by helicopter. Then I became ill and a helicopter quickly took me to the hospital in North Sydney.

On fine days we would sometimes visit the lighthouse keeper at the other end of the island. They lived on a small rock off the main island, normally reached by going across on a boats wain's chair. Once during the first winter we spent on the island, the chair broke as it went across the channel and a man was drowned. Everyone felt very sad that say.

Winter with its gales and snow was spent by making things out of wood, and to so this I had a special room and tool with which to work. Days we could get outdoors we coasted, built frots and igloos and made other things out of snow.

In December, 1959 we received notice of transfer. We were to go to the light at Port Bickerton, but first my father had to spend two months in Halifax on a radio beacon course.

In April word came to be ready to leave in five days. Then came a busy time of packing and crating all our possessions and taking them to the landing.

At last the day came to leave, and we went aboard the ship. As we sailed through the drift ice, my eyes looked back at our island disappearing in the distance; a lump came in my throat and maybe a tear or two in my eyes. After all I spent some of the happiest day ever on that lonely island.

 

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