Work on the lighthouse soon began, and over the next few months an octagonal, stone tower was built on Sambro Island, which Captain Rous had deeded to the government. At its base, the tower has a diameter of twenty feet, and its walls are five-and-half-feet thick. Joseph Rous, the brother of Captain Rous, was hired as the light’s first keeper on April 25, 1759.
In 1758, the year work began on Sambro Island Lighthouse, the British launched a siege on Louisbourg during which Louisbourg Lighthouse was damaged beyond repair. With the destruction of Louisbourg Lighthouse and the destruction of Boston Harbor Lighthouse by the British in 1776, Sambro Island Lighthouse became the oldest lighthouse in North America.
After Joseph Rous died in May 1769, Joseph Woodmass was appointed keeper of the lighthouse. On April 8, 1771, the sloop Granby struck ledges near Sambro Island during a storm and was dashed to pieces. The ship was carrying 3,000£ for payment of the naval staff at Halifax, and all aboard perished. Captain James Gambier, Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s ships in North America, complained that the wreck was due “to the want of a light being kept in the lighthouse,” and noted that captains of His Majesty’s ships were “frequently obliged to fire at the lighthouse to make them shew a light.” Masters of merchant ships bristled at having to pay light duties to support a light from which they received no benefit.
Matthew Pennell was appointed keeper of Sambro Island Lighthouse in 1772 and cared for the light for nearly thirty years. In 1799, Keeper Pennell, who was then eighty-five, petitioned the government for a pension as he had been unable to save any money as keeper while raising four children and three orphaned grandchildren. The government granted 100£ for his relief. Keeper Pennell continued to serve as keeper until his death in early 1801, following which his son, Matthew Pennel, Jr., was appointed keeper.
In 1834, the Commissioners of Lighthouses of Nova Scotia noted that mariners complained of Sambro Island Lighthouse more than any other light in the province. While they believed this was because it was located at the busiest harbor and thus passed by more vessels, the commissioners conceded that the lighthouse did have some defects. Most notable was its wooden lantern room whose eight corner posts, which were nearly a foot square, and large wooden sashes blocked a good portion of the light. The commissioners also considered lowering the tower by twenty or thirty feet, as the light was sometimes shrouded by fog while the island was visible to mariners. By 1834, the tower had been encased in wood to protect the stone. An artillery guard was also stationed on the island by this time in order to fire cannons in response to the signal of vessels during periods of limited visibility.
In 1862, Alfred P. Ryder, Captain of the H.M.S. Hero inspected the lighthouse on Sambro Island at the request of Vice Admiral Alexander Milne. By this time, France, England, and the United States had improved many of their lighthouses by substituting Fresnel lenses for the arrays of lamps and reflectors formerly used. Captain Ryder recommended that a Fresnel lens and new lantern room be installed atop Sambro Island Lighthouse as it would produce a superior light while requiring less oil. Captain Ryder gave the following description of the lightning apparatus then in use on Sambro Island:
There are 13 lamps, of which 9 have reflectors arranged round the edge of a flat and nearly circular table. The lamps appear to be old and battered. The lantern is octagonal, and if the number of panes of glass was a merit in a Light House, Sambro would probably stand at the head of the list of known Light Houses. It contains 128 small panes of glass. The frame work is thick and clumsy, and obstructs a large portion of the light. The reflectors are so slenderly supported that they cannot remain in a vertical position. But even if they could do so, the keeper takes very good care that they shall not, for he invariably and intentionally places them out of adjustment every night, the whole lamp, including its reflector, being thrown back at an angle to the vertical varying 0° to 3°. This is done to prevent the oil running over, when, as the keeper describes it, “it swells with the heat.” Each lamp had a different angle of heel. They were wedged back by small pieces of wood of unequal size and variable thickness. The keeper was evidently not a little proud of the ingenuity displayed in this contrivance. It had never occurred to him that reflectors so treated would throw a large portion of their rays to the sky, where they would be wasted, but indeed when one looked at the state of the reflectors, an excuse was easily found for the keeper, for there was so little silver left on them (they were 47 years old), that it could make but little difference whether they were placed at one angle or the other, or indeed, if removed altogether.
A Daboll trumpet, operated by a caloric engine, was placed in operation on Sambro Island on September 20, 1865. This fog alarm worked reasonably well for a few years but then became unreliable to mariners, as it was often out of repair. On June 16, 1870, the machinery was in such bad order that the keeper had to turn the fly wheel by hand, and on July 25, 1870, the equipment had completely broken down. Plans were made to transfer the Daboll trumpet from Cranberry Island to Sambro Island where it could serve as a back-up, but when the cost of repairing the equipment removed from Cranberry Island proved too expensive, this plan was cancelled. Mariners were notified that signals from ships would be answered by the discharge of two twenty four-pounders in quick succession until further notice.
At the behest of mariners, an iron lightship equipped with a fog alarm was anchored not too far from Sambro Island, but it proved to be unsuitable for such an exposed location. Messrs. Fleming & Son of Saint John, New Brunswick provided a steam fog whistle for Sambro Island for $7,250, and Jacob Bowser constructed the necessary buildings for the fog alarm for $4,854. An evaporating house was built on the south side of the small inlet that serves as a harbour for the island. This building measured forty-eight feet, ten inches by fifteen feet, six inches and served to condense fresh water from salt water. The fresh water was then pumped up and over the island through copper pipes to the whistle house, which was twenty-seven feet, six inches square and stood next to the old trumpet house. A wharf was also built in the inlet, and a tramway was constructed to deliver coal from the wharf to the whistle house. James Skinner was appointed engineer at the station, and he placed the steam fog whistle in operation on October 16, 1876. When needed, the whistle gave a ten-second blast each minute.
Alfred Gilkie was serving as keeper of the light at the time the fog whistle commenced operation. Alfred replaced his brother Joseph as keeper, after Joseph drowned on March 1, 1876 while trying to reach the island from the mainland. Joseph Gilkie had been in charge of the fog trumpet when it was in operation and replaced his father William as keeper of the light when he died in July 1875. Alfred Gilkie, the longest-serving keeper on Sambro Island, retired in 1915, after nearly thirty years as head keeper. Arthur J. Gilkie took over form his father Alfred and served until 1929.
In 1877, Sambro Island Lighthouse finally received its long-awaited Fresnel lens. After the top of the tower was strengthened and a night room for the keeper was fitted up, a second-order Fresnel lens, provided by Chance Brothers of Birmingham England at a cost of $4,942, was installed atop the lighthouse.
Due to the increase in size of ocean steamers and the value of shipping calling at Halifax, William P. Anderson, Engineer for the Department of Marine, was asked to review and prioritize the suggested improvements for navigational aids at the approaches to the harbour. One of the improvements identified was to move the steam whistle from Sambro Island to Chebucto Head and place an explosive signal on Sambro Island. The whistle on Sambro Island was accordingly discontinued on June 15, 1891, and a bomb rocket, fired every twenty minutes, was established instead. The water tank in the old fog-whistle house was converted into a magazine for storing the gun cotton cartridges, and a derrick was erected for firing the cartridges. In 1899, the frequency of the firing of the cartridges was increased to every ten minutes.
Sambro Island Lighthouse was raised in height in 1906 by building a twenty-foot-tall, octagonal, concrete wall on top of the old stone tower. A circular, red lantern room was then placed atop the lighthouse to house a first-order Fresnel lens provided by Barbier, Benard & Turenne of Paris. This new lens had four flash-panels and changed the characteristic of the light from fixed white to a white flash every five seconds. The heavy lens floated in a trough of mercury. The lighthouse, which was painted white, now measured eighty-two feet from its base to the vane on the lantern room. In 1908, the tower was given three horizontal red bands to make it more conspicuous when snow was on the ground.
In January 1950, Keeper William Smith noticed that the tower was swaying. Measurements taken subsequently showed the tower to be over fifty inches out of plumb. In the spring, excavations at the base of the tower revealed that the mortar was cracked and some stones were loose. That fall, grout was pressure-pumped into the tower, and a concrete collar was installed to reinforce the base of the lighthouse.
A revolving airport-style beacon (a DCB-36) replaced the first-order Fresnel lens atop Sambro Island Lighthouse in 1966. The lens was permanently loaned to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and can be seen at the museum today. In May 1968, an aluminum lantern room replaced the first-order, circular lantern room that had been installed along with the lens in 1906. John G. Fairservice, the last keeper, left the island in 1988.
A strong storm surge in April 2007, tore out the submarine cable that supplied electricity to Sambro Island. Rather than replace the cable, the Coast Guard received permission to solarize the lighthouse, which had been declared a classified heritage building in 1996. Diesel generators were used to power the light until an array of solar panels was installed on the island in March 2008. A Tideland TRB400 lens system replaced the DCB-36 at this time, while electronic horns replaced the diaphone fog signal, which had been in use since 1963. The DCB-36 is now also on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
During the summer of 2008, Sambro Island Lighthouse was painted so it would look its best for its 250th anniversary. The color pictures at the top of this page were taken in late August 2008. Roughly two weeks later, the head keeper’s dwelling, which dated from the 1960s, was lost to fire. Campers on the island reported that a group of young and noisy partyers had left the island very early in the morning the day the fire broke out.
In 2016, the federal government awarded a $1.3 million dollar contract to Quinan Construction Company of Orillia, Ontario to restore the tower’s stone structure and its concrete foundation. The outer fifteen centimetres of the collar were removed, and then concrete was fed into formwork comprised of stacked planks to recreate the collar’s original finish. Interior walls and steps were also restored, and the aluminum components in the lantern room were stripped and re-coated. Finally, the exterior shingles were cleaned and repaired, and then painted with the lighthouse’s cherished daymark of red-and-white bands.