Several shipwrecks off the coast of Cape Race, the extreme southeastern corner of Newfoundland, were the catalyst for the construction of the lighthouse at the Cape in 1856. Built with thirty-two cast-iron plates, joined together with bolts, the tower originally housed a light composed of eight lamps with polished reflectors, which at fifty-five metres (188 feet) above sea could be seen for seventeen nautical miles. The plates were cast in Britain, transported to Cape Race, and bolted together there.
The cast-iron plate construction was easy to erect and required low maintenance, but was subject to constant condensation and hoar frost in the winter.
Even after the establishment of the light, shipwrecks continued to occur off the shoreline, including the Welsord, which hit the rocks just below the lighthouse and took down with it the entire crew except for four men who were rescued by the lightkeepers. There are at least 360 known shipwrecks along the coastline near Cape Race.
A rotating mechanism, which gave a flashing signature, was installed in the tower in 1866, and, to further aid mariners, a steam whistle was added to the station in 1873.
By the 1900s, it was apparent that a stronger light was needed at Cape Race, and when the current Cape Race Lighthouse Tower, a cylindrical concrete tower, was built in 1907, the cast iron structure was moved to Cape North, at the tip of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The lighthouse began service there in 1908, standing vigil over Cabot Strait until 1978.
Dr. David Baird, the Director of the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, was offered the tower when an automated light on a wooden tower was set to replace the cast iron tower at Cape North. Dr. Baird relates, “At Cape North, a few weeks later, a convoy of tractor trailers, loaded with the dismantled lighthouse, with bulldozers pushing from behind, struggled to climb the steep trail from the shoreline to the main road, 310 m (1000 ft) above. Luckily they succeeded, for the very next day the rudimentary roadway was snowed in for the winter.”
Once in Ottawa, in the spring of 1979, the tower’s two-ton plates were reassembled atop a new concrete platform, and the third-order Fresnel lens was mounted in the lantern room.
On June 23, 2010, an earthquake, which measured 5.0 on the Richter scale, shook central Ontario and caused a portion of the pool of mercury used to float the lens in the lighthouse to spill out of its bowl. Before the toxicity of mercury was known, it was commonly used in lighthouses to allow the massive Fresnel lenses to rotate with virtually no friction.
Museum staff promptly cleaned up the spill, but subsequent air quality readings were considered too high, and Magellan Engineering was contracted at a cost of $7,000 to perform a complete decontamination of the tower. Even after the professional cleanup, the air quality was still deemed too dangerous for long-term exposure. As the mercury evaporates in warm weather, the levels will return to normal and allow resumption of guided tours.
A catchment system will be installed below the mercury trough to prevent another spill in the event of future earthquakes. The trough contains about three litres of mercury, and of that, approximately one litre was spilled. Museum staff recovered nearly three-quarters of a litre.