Point Atkinson was named by Captain Vancouver, for a “particular friend” on July 4, 1792, when Vancouver sailed past the rocky peninsula aboard the Discovery’s yawl. Today, Lighthouse Park encompasses the point at the entrance of Burrard Inlet and sixty-five hectare (185 acres) of virgin forest, which were set aside in 1881 to serve as a dark backdrop to the lighthouse.
The isolation was too much for Ann Woodward, and five years later, after having given birth to her third child and West Vancouver’s first white child, the family moved to a farm in Ontario. The second keeper, R.G. Wellwood stayed less than a year.
The third keeper, Walter Erwin came to the station in 1880 and stayed a bit longer, three decades. Erwin, one of the original homesteaders of West Vancouver, owned a large tract of land near the lighthouse, now an affluent neighbourhood known as Cypress Park.
When fog shrouded Point Atkinson, ship captains would sound three rapid blasts of their ship’s horn, prompting the lightkeeper to pump away at a hand horn until the ship signaled it was okay to stop. This changed in 1889, when Canadian Pacific Steamships requested that a fog alarm be added to the station at Point Atkinson. This greatly increased the keeper’s workload, as the foghorn, located in a structure west of the lighthouse, now had to operate any time there was fog or smoke within four miles of the station. In 1896, Erwin logged 1450 hours manning the signal. The first horn, a “Scotch Horn,” was a steam pressure affair which spun a rotating drum, similar in design to a kazoo. In 1902, this horn was replaced by a diaphone fog alarm.
Erwin was given a raise of $300 to hire an assistant to help run the fog signal, but the cheapest help he could find cost $600 a year, so Erwin’s salary of just $700 was nearly cut in half.
In 1905, Erwin, who suffered from arthritis, a common malady of lighthouse keepers, fell down the tower ladder, injuring his leg. His doctor recommended a soak in Harrison Hot Springs, but when this didn’t provide relief, specialists removed a portion of “diseased bone” from his leg. Forced to hire a second assistant to run the station during his fourteen-month recovery, Erwin found himself greatly in debt. He appealed to his superiors for financial assistance, feeling it was merited due to his twenty-six years of service and the fact that the injury occurred on the job. His plea was rejected as the Department of Marine and Fisheries feared setting precedence, and Erwin finally resigned in 1909, after hobbling about his duties for a few more years. In 1911, the mayor of Vancouver awarded Erwin the Imperial Service Medal on behalf of King George V in a ceremony help on the steps of City Hall.
Grafton loved to fish the area, and one of his secret weapons for collecting bait fish was dynamite. After setting off an explosion, he would row over and scoop up the startled herring. The log for October 6, 1933, written by his son Lawrence reads:
started calm with light haze in bay. Pt Grey showing all morning dimly. Lightkeeper was killed instantly sometime before 6:00 a.m. from a dynamite blast which exploded accidently in his hand. The body was recovered at 7:15 a.m. by his younger son, drifting in the submerged boat about 200 yards off the point. Light W. wind during the day. Then calm with light fog drifting out of bay from 9:30 p.m. till midnight. S. shore lights in sight till midnight. Partly cloudy.
Lawrence applied to replace his father, having assisted at the station for many years, but instead the position was awarded to Ernie Dawe, a keeper at Ballenas Island.
1935 brought new technology to the station, when on September 28th a radio beacon was installed. Vessels with receivers could now pick up the signal from Point Atkinson beyond the range of its lights and horns.
The only time during the war that Point Atkinson came under fire was when an instructor at Narrows North accidentally fired a twelve pound shell past the lighthouse.
Keeper Dawe left the station in 1961 and was succeeded by Gordon Odlum (1961 – 1974), James Barr (1975), and Oscar Edwards (1977 – 1980). The keepers duplex was replaced in 1966 by two separate dwellings, an upper one and a lower one.
In 1980, Gerald Watson was made principal keeper and Donald Graham assistant keeper. Graham, a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan with a master’s degree in history, had moved his family to Victoria, British Columbia on the first leg of a journey to join an agricultural co-operative in Belize. While in Victoria, he answered an ad for a lightkeeper job and remained in British Columbia. His assignments included assisting at Point Atkinson, then Lucy Island and Bonilla Island. He was transferred back to Point Atkinson in 1980 and remained as keeper until 1996, when the station was automated. He and his wife stayed on at Lighthouse Park as groundskeepers.
During his time at Point Atkinson, he wrote two books, Keepers of the Light (1985) and Lights of the Inside Passage (1986) chronicling the British Columbia lighthouses and the lives of their keepers. The lighthouse community is deeply indebted to him for his substantial work. Mr. Graham passed away on October 8, 2003 of pancreatic cancer. His wife, Elaine, is currently head of the West Vancouver Historical Society’s Point Atkinson Light Station subcommittee and is working diligently to restore the structures at the station. Click here to see the society’s website on the lighthouse.
Point Atkinson was designated a National Historic Site in 1994. This virtual museum contains a lot of interesting Point Atkinson photographs and stories.
Keepers: Edward Woodward (1874 – 1877), Robert G. Wellwood (1877 – 1880), Walter Erwin (1880 – 1910), Thomas David Grafton (1910 – 1933), Lawrence Walter Grafton (1933 – 1935), Ernest Charles Dawe (1935 – 1961), Gordon Odlum (1961 – 1976), James Barr (1976 – 1978), Oscar Edwards (1978 – 1980), Gerald D. Watson (1980 – 1996), Donald Graham (1980 – 1996).