Legend among sailors told of a ghost-ship, manned by a ghastly crew and piloted by a shadowy steersman, which would depart after midnight from the island to ply the rocky shores of Labrador looking for shipwrecks. The ship would convey the souls of the deceased mariners to Dead Man’s Island, always returning before dawn.
In September 1804, Irish poet Thomas Moore, while passing the island heard the legend, and penned a poem which concludes with:
To Deadman's Isle, in the eye of the blast,
To Deadman's Isle, she speeds her fast;
By skeleton shapes her sails are furled,
And the hand that steers is not of this world!
Oh! hurry thee on-oh! hurry thee on,
Thou terrible bark, ere the night be gone,
Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
As would blanch forever her rosy light!
The eerie ship didn’t need to travel as far as Labrador to find souls lost to the sea. Over 700 shipwrecks have been recorded near the Îles de la Madeleine, with several on frequently fog-enshrouded Dead Man’s Island itself.
Étang du Nord Lighthouse was established on Point Hérissée in 1874, to warn mariners of Dead Man’s Island and mark the western shore of the Magdalen Islands. The original lighthouse was a square wooden building, twenty-eight feet high, with an attached keeper’s dwelling. First exhibited on April 20, 1874 under the care of Timothy O’Brien, the lighting apparatus was equipped with three twenty-inch reflectors and circular burner lamps in each of its two faces and revolved every three minutes, producing white flashes at a focal plane of 200 feet that could be seen for twenty miles. The total cost of the lighthouse was $5,641.57.
The fog alarm was dismantled in 1890 after it was determined that hills on both sides of it completely shut out the sound from seaward. By the time vessels could hear it, they were dangerously close to the outlying reefs. William P. Anderson, an engineer in the Marine Department, and William H. Smith, Chairman of the Board of Examiners of Masters and Mates, also concluded that the location of the light was not optimal, but it remained in place.
In 1898, one of the circular lamps in the lantern room overheated, starting a fire that slightly damaged the lighthouse. A new dwelling was built during 1912 – 1913 and topped by a new lantern room outfitted with a double-flashing catoptric light.
A metal tower replaced the wooden lighthouse in 1967. In the 1970s, when the light was automated and the permanent presence of a keeper was no longer needed, the wooden lighthouse and associated outbuildings were razed.
The current lighthouse was put in place in 1987. Made of fiberglass, the tapered circular tower with an octagonal metal lantern employs a dioptric light to send forth a light that can be seen for eighteen miles (24 km). Its current signature is a white flash every six seconds.
On November 22, 1988, two massive sections of the Duke of Connaught dry dock, which were being towed from Montréal to Sydney, Nova Scotia, broke loose during a winter gale and washed ashore at Étang-du-Nord. The forward section, now rusted into the same red as the nearby cliffs, is evidence that the otherworldly ship from Dead Man’s Island is not yet finished with its work.
Keepers: Timothy O’Brien (1874 – 1891), Nectaire Arseneau (1891 – at least 1899), Edward Chiasson (1900 – 1902), Nectaire Arseneau (1903 – 1911), N. Arseneau (1911 – 1921), Legere Arsenault (1921), Philip F. Turnbull (1921 – 1950), Jason Alfred Turnbull (1950 – 1954), Frank Turnbull (1954 – 1955), Alfred A. Arseneau (1955 – 1957), Norman H. McKay (1957 – 1965).