Greenspond is one of the oldest continuously inhabited outports in Newfoundland, having been settled in the 1690s by fishermen from Bonavista attracted by the excellent cod fishing. Though the main harbour on Greenspond had a hazardous entrance and could only accommodate a few vessels, the community thrived and became a major trading centre because of its fertile fishing grounds and its proximity to the main sea lanes.
During the nineteenth century, fishermen not only exploited the local fishing grounds but also went farther afield, and Greenspond became a prominent supply centre for the Labrador fishery and seal hunt. The first regular mail and passenger service to Greenspond by sea was begun in 1863 with the S.S. Ariel.
A petition from J.T. Oakley and others of Greenspond was presented to the Newfoundland government in 1859 praying for a grant to erect a lighthouse on Puffin Island. In 1866, after the House of Assembly asked that Governor Anthony Musgrave request an enquiry into the propriety of constructing a lighthouse on Puffin Island, Robert Oke, Inspector of Lighthouses, took the matter into consideration.
Inspector Oke reported, “The Island in question lays something less than ¾ of a mile South of the entrance to Greenspond Harbor; in extent 360 yards N. and S., and 400 yards E. and W., with an altitude of 55 feet; it is easy of access except in bad weather; distance from Cape Bonavista 28 miles, N. by W.” The three northern harbors of refuge at that time were Catalina, Greenspond, and Seldom-Come-By, and of these only Catalina was marked by a lighthouse. Inspector Oke estimated that the lighthouse could be built for £750, but stressed that it would function as a harbour light, not a coastal light, due to outlying islands in the area.
For some reason, work on Puffin Island Lighthouse did not commence until 1872, two years after John T. Nevill had succeeded Robert Oke as Inspector of Lighthouses. Smith and Haw were awarded a contract for the project, and during 1872 they constructed a combined lighthouse/dwelling using granite blocks quarried on the island. This structure consisted of a tower that rose above the pitched, slate-covered roof of the attached one-and-a-half-storey keeper’s dwelling. A fourth-order Chance Brothers Fresnel lens and a lantern room were provided by noted lighthouse engineers David and Thomas Stevenson of Edinburgh, Scotland. The cost for the lighthouse totaled more than $10,000.
In his report for 1872, Inspector Nevill wrote,
During the past year the Light House at Puffin Island has been built of granite, the lantern, lenses and apparatus fixed and everything made ready for putting the light in operation on 1st March next, as notified by public advertisements. It may not be amiss to state that this is the first public building that has been constructed chiefly of Newfoundland materials - the granite was quarried on the spot, and the lumber and roofing slates supplied from Trinity and Green Bays.
The first mention of a need for a summer kitchen on Puffin Island was in 1876, when Inspector Nevill noted that it “would be a great addition to the comfort of the keeper, and be more healthful than the enforced use of a cooking stove in the kitchen, that being usually the family sitting room.” The kitchen still had not been built over a decade later, as in 1889 Inspector Nevill reported, “The erection of an outside kitchen would give the additional bed-room required and be beneficial to the light - the steam from the existing kitchen rising into the light-room and condensing on the glass of the lantern.” Fred Oakley, son of the first keeper, was in charge at the time, and he had complained that the granite lighthouse was too small for his family.
Severe gales and heavy seas during the fall of 1887 contaminated the station’s water supply, making it “unusably salty.” This was the first time this had happened since the light was established, and a supply of fresh water had to be brought to the station by boat.
Pointing of the granite blocks to prevent leaks in the lighthouse was the most frequent maintenance required at the station. This masonry work, according to the inspector’s annual reports, had to be performed in 1880, 1884, 1887, 1890, 1896, and 1913.
In 1912, the light was changed from fixed red to occulting white, with alternating two-and-a-half-second periods of light and darkness. A diaphone fog alarm, housed in a white, flat-roofed building with one horizontal red band about its centre, was added to the station in 1914. Powered by air compressed by an oil engine, the fog alarm sounded two blasts every ninety seconds in the following manner: two-second blast, ten seconds silence, two-second blast, seventy-six seconds silence. An extension was made to the keeper’s dwelling in 1915, likely because additional help was needed to operate the fog alarm.
Edward Wheeler was a keeper on Puffin Island in 1927, when at about nine o'clock on a dark and stormy June evening he ventured down to the landing slip to ensure his boat was secure. Though a gale was blowing, he was startled to hear two loud gun shots. Looking up to find their source, he was shocked to see a schooner of about thirty tons a mere thirty metres from him. Wheeler jumped in his boat and rowed out to the schooner, where he learned that the vessel, which hailed from Bareneed in Conception Bay, had lost its way in heavy fog and had already bumped rocks four times. Keeper Wheeler guided the vessel to safe anchorage inside Greenspond harbour, and then hurried back to tend his light without even learning the name of the schooner or the names of any of the twenty-eight aboard whose lives he had saved.
Puffin Island Lighthouse is one of twenty-three stations in Newfoundland and Labrador that is still staffed. In 2001, Keeper Larry Keeping, who had eleven years of service with the Canadian Coast Guard, drowned shortly after leaving Puffin Island in a kayak with some slates.
In 2009, the Canadian Coast Guard announced plans to de-staff the fifty remaining staffed lighthouses in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Many people rallied to fight the proposal and submitted testimony to the senate committee charged with investigating the matter. Donald Barbour, captain of a fifty-five-foot fishing vessel operating out of Valleyfield, NL, wrote, “The light keepers of Puffin Island light station have assisted my crew and I with current sea and weather conditions for many years. … Over the past 24 years, on navigation around Puffin Island light station, I have seen the sea and weather conditions deteriorate in a matter of minutes, making the most experienced mariners uneasy. Now I question each of you: If you were in my place or that of my crew, wouldn’t the voice and eyes of a light keeper standing close by for safety and reassurance be irreplaceable?”
After visiting lighthouses in Newfoundland and British Columbia and holding public hearings, the committee issued a report entitled “Seeing the Light: Report on Staffed Lighthouses in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia” in which it recommend that the Coast Guard halt its de-staffing plan and that staffing be considered on a case-by-case basis.
On the morning of April 3, 2012, Keeper Joe Goodyear felt like he was being closely watched. “It was like a cold shiver that went over me. I thought, 'There better not be no polar bear behind me.'” Goodyear's suspicions proved correct as around 2 p.m. his co-worker spotted the big animal. “Me buddy roared out, saying, ‘Polar bear! Polar bear!,” says Goodyear, and the pair quickly headed for shelter. When the bear tried to gain entrance, the keepers opened a window and made a lot of noise to scare it off. Unfortunately, the predator headed for Greenspond where school was about to be adjourned. RCMP Cpl. Dale Lewis was alerted to the matter, and after learning that a team that could tranquilize the bear couldn't arrive for an hour, he decided to down the bear for the public's safety.
Keepers: Robert Kelland Oakley (1872 – 1874), Fred William Oakley (1875 – 1897), Nathan Saunders (1898 – 1900), Frederick William Oakley (1901 – 1904), Walter Jennings (1905 – 1908), Joseph Butler (1909 – at least 1912), Edward Wheeler (at least 1927 - at least 1938), Alex Herron (1941 – 1963), Albert Wakeley, Tom Bragg (1968 - at least 1987).