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Race Rocks, BC  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.   

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Race Rocks Lighthouse

Early in the morning of December 23, 1860, the 385-ton Nanette, laden with cargo valued at $165,000, was swept by the tide onto the ledges at Race Rocks. A few moments later, seven feet of water was in her hold, and by daybreak water had reached the main deck. The vessel was clearly a total loss, but the crew managed to reach the rocky island where “they received every attention from the workmen of the lighthouse.”

Just three days later, on December 26, 1860, the light was first exhibited from atop Race Rocks Lighthouse. Had Nanette’s 175-day journey lasted just a few more days, the loss of its valuable cargo would likely have been avoided. The wrecked vessel was sold at auction a few months later for $650, after locals had helped themselves to much of its cargo.

While conducting a survey near Race Rocks in 1846 Captain Henry Kellett noted, “This dangerous group is appropriately named for the tide makes a perfect race around it.” Officers of the Hudson Bay Company had named the rocks just four years earlier, and those aboard the Nanette experienced firsthand the dangerous six to eight-knot tides that regularly sweep around the rocks.

Race Rocks Lighthouse circa 1900
Photograph courtesy Vancouver Archives
In October of 1858, Captain George H. Richards of the HMS surveying ship Plumper, responding to a request by James Douglas, Governor of the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, recommended a lighthouse "on the Race Islands, a dangerous cluster of Rocks at the S.E. point of Vancouver Island" and a harbour light on Fisgard Island at Esquimalt, ten miles distant. Governor Douglas sent a letter to Sir E.B. Lytton, Secretary of State for the British Colonies, requesting assistance in building the lighthouses, while noting that the United States already had three lighthouses along the Strait and that Britain was "honour bound to reciprocate the benefit."

In January of 1859, Captain Richards provided a tracing of the "Race Islands," marking the spot where the lighthouse should stand and noting that "should it be desirable to construct the lighthouse of stone, there is abundance to be procured on the island, with little labour." Richards recommended that the light be of the second order and the lantern at least eighty feet above the sea. The construction of lighthouses on Great Race Rock and Fisgard Island was made possible by £7,000 provided by the Imperial Treasury, though British Columbia and Vancouver Island were each expected to repay £1,750. Joseph Pemberton, surveyor for the Colony of Vancouver Island, oversaw the construction of the lighthouse, though the actual contract was awarded to John Morris. In a progress report dated April 7, 1860, Pemberton wrote “…that sufficient stone has been dressed to build one third of the tower, and enough stone to build the Lightkeeper's House, and that large quantities of material & stores are safely landed at the Rock. At present there are 12 Stonecutters, 1 cook and one overseer, and on Monday the Contractor proposes to commence building the Keeper's house.”

The lantern and lighting apparatus, a second-order Fresnel lens, arrived from England aboard the Grecian in August and were installed that fall atop the completed tower. The original light had a signature of one white flash every ten seconds and was exhibited at a focal plane of 118 feet.

George Davies, who had also arrived aboard the Grecian, served as the first keeper of Fisgard Lighthouse when it was lit on November 16,1860 and then transferred to Race Rocks to assume responsibility for the first lighting of that beacon. One of Keeper Davies responsibilities was to give the tower its distinctive black and white bands to help mariners more easily spot the lighthouse during the day. Mariners were notified that the tower would bare these markings after the first day of October, 1864.

On Christmas Eve 1865, Keeper Davies and his wife, Rosina, were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Rosina’s brother, his wife, and three friends. The couple watched in anticipation as the boat bringing their company neared the island, but the anticipation turned to horror as the vessel overturned, spilling its occupants and their packages into turbulent waters. As the station was without a boat at the time, the Davies could only helplessly watch as their loved ones drifted away and disappeared beneath the waves.

The following December, Keeper Davies fell ill. Rosina had the station’s flag lowered to half-mast, but for nine days none of the passing vessels noticed the distress signal. After fighting the illness for two weeks, Keeper Davies passed away on December 14, 1866, and his funeral was held in Victoria three days later. Christmastime at Race Rocks, at least in the early years, was not associated with the holiday’s typical pleasant memories.

Thomas Argyle, the second principal keeper at Race Rocks, served from 1866 until illness forced him to retire in 1888. During Argyle’s time at the light, control of the station passed from British Columbia to Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries, when the colony joined the dominion in 1871. A committee of Elder Brethren of Trinity House traveled from London in 1872 to inspect the lighthouse systems of Canada and the United States. “The office of lightkeeper is looked upon as an unskilled occupation requiring no special knowledge or training,” they reported, “and the keeper has neither increase of pay, promotion, continuance of service, nor pension in the future to look forward to as an incentive to good behaviour …” Keeper Argyle could attest to the parsimonious nature of the Marine Department firsthand, as in 1880, they slashed his salary by eighty percent, to $125, and told him he would have to hire his own assistants and purchase his own provisions from this amount.

In 1873, after Race Rocks Lighthouse came under control of the Canadian Department of Marine, the seams in the tower were cleaned out to the depth of 1 ½ inch and repointed with cement to stop leaks. The lighthouse was also given a fresh coat of coloring: boiling coal tar was used for the black bands and a "good lime wash, with a small quantity of coal tar mixed with the lime, sufficient only to make the lime adhere" was applied to the white bands, though the coal tar made the white have a "slightly yellowish tinge." The two-story dwelling house, which was "built of rubble-stone, quarried from the rock," was plastered over on the outside and given new windows, doors, and a roof with a steeper pitch.

Race Rocks under restoration in 2009
Photograph courtesy Ryan J Murphy Photography
On September 17, 1877, Keeper Argyle’s assistant Henry Montrose fished two men out of the water near the lighthouse. The pair was attempting to cross the Strait on two logs, but after six hours on the water, the men were chilled, cramping, and had very little chance of reaching the American shore. As their uniforms made it quite obvious, the men soon confessed to being deserters from the HMS Shah. Keeper Argyle advised them that they had better go back to the ship, as they would be better off being treated like dogs on board than being freemen in America. The men were fed and warmed, and it was agreed they would return to shore the following day. The weather proved too rough the next morning, so Keeper Argyle returned the men to shore in a canoe two days after their arrival. Provisioned with a sack lunch, the men promised to walk to Esquimalt and turn themselves in but failed to do so. That evening the master-at-arms from the HMS Shah visited Race Rocks in search of the deserters, and not long thereafter Keeper Argyle was fined $100 for assisting two seamen to desert from the navy. Keeper Argyle appealed the fine, and after hearing the case, a jury found him not guilty.

In July of 1888, the year Keeper Argyle retired and his son Albert took charge of the lighthouse, Thomas Argyle Jr., recently returned from a sealing cruise, set off for Race Rocks in a rowboat with three other young men. A westerly gale was blowing on the strait, but Thomas, wanting to reach his family, ignored the warning of others to not venture out that night. His decision proved fatal, as the following morning the small boat was recovered with just one dead body aboard. The Argyle family received another dose of bad news just a few months later, when in a political move, Albert was replaced as keeper. Albert protested, “I am not afraid to stand before the world and prove that if not the best and most able lightkeeper in B.C, at least I have not peers,” but connections proved more powerful than experience, and Albert soon enrolled in law school.

A fifty-foor swaure, wooden tower had been established on Race Rocks in 1867 to house a fog bell, but heavy surf crashing on the surrounding ledges often drowned out the bell. The marine agent at Victoria requested a steam fog alarm for Race Rocks as early as 1875, but an appropriation of $3,500 for the signal was not made until 1881. The alarm commenced operation that August, sounding five-second blasts separated by one minute and twelve seconds. The signal could be heard as far away as Dungeness Lighthouse, distant twenty-one miles, and was cause of great complaint by many a light sleeper in Victoria.

The powerful fog alarm still didn’t prevent all accidents as several vessels still wound up on the rocks during a fog. More than one captain complained to the marine agent that the fog signal had not been sounding, but the keepers’ logs always showed that the horns had been blasting away, often hours before the accidents. After an incident in 1925, an officer of the Salvage Association in London wrote Ottawa, explaining, “It is the general opinion in shipping circles that this vessel…ran ashore owing to a ‘silent zone’ … on which the signal cannot be heard. To resolve this problem, in 1927 Race Rocks became the first Canadian lighthouse on the west coast to be equipped with a radio beacon, and in 1934 the height of the fog horns was increased.

Frederick Eastwood was appointed keeper at Race Rocks in 1891 and would serve longer than any other, a total of nearly twenty-eight years. Keeper Eastwood had trouble finding reliable assistants given the meager income they were provided. One night his wife found an assistant sleeping under a boiler, and just a few days later Keeper Eastwood visited the engine room at night only to find the post deserted. The missing assistant was later found fast asleep in a loft above the boathouse. After this, Eastwood started to hire Japanese assistants, as they proved more reliable and diligent than white men. This did not set well with some locals, and Keeper Eastwood was soon accused of absenting himself from his post and employing Japanese.

Several neighbours and even former keeper Thomas Argyle, himself familiar with trumped up charges, testified that Eastwood was a careful keeper and was only absent when retrieving mail or picking up supplies. The commission looking into the matter quickly concluded that “the evidence did not substantiate the charges” and adjourned.

Keeper Arthur Anderson set off from Rocky Point in a fourteen-foot boat to return to Race Rocks Lighthouse in January 1950 after his weekly call for mail and supplies. A severe storm was buffeting the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and Keeper Anderson never made it back to his station. A week after the incident searchers had given up hope of finding him alive.

A new eight-foot lantern, manufactured by Corbet Foundry & Machine Co.of Owen Sound, along with a new illuminating apparatus were installed atop Race Rocks Lighthouse in 1925. New keeper’s dwellings were added in 1951 and again in 1966. With the addition of the latter, the original stone dwelling attached to the tower was no longer used for housing, and in 1972, it was torn down despite pleas from Keeper Trevor Anderson and his wife Flo to have the historic structure preserved.

In 1967, the marine agent at Victoria received an unusual request from Keeper Anderson, who said he felt homesick when he looked out his window on barren Race Rocks. “Please send me some dirt,” was the request, and though no one in Victoria had ever filled such an order, fifty yards of mother earth were shipped out aboard the supply ship Estevan. With the soil, Anderson planted a vegetable garden and small lawn. “Like most government departments, we believe in a bit of landscaping,” said Larry Slaght, the marine agent. “We have no plans however to do the same at all our stations.”

Named for a former Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Prize winner, Lester B. Pearson College was established in Pedder Bay, near Race Rocks, in 1974. Students from the college participating in marine biology courses frequently visited Race Rocks and were instrumental in having the area designated Race Rocks Ecological Reserve in 1980.

Accompanied by his wife Carol, Mike Slater became head keeper at Race Rocks in 1989. Less than a decade later, the Canadian Coast Guard automated the station, but the generosity of a private donor allowed the Slaters to remain on the island after 1997 as caretakers of Race Rocks, which had been leased to Pearson College. The Slaters retired from Race Rocks in 2008, but Pearson College continues to staff the station.

In 2009, scaffolding was placed around the lighthouse, and it was restored and painted during most of that year. 2010 saw Race Rocks celebrate its 150th anniversary and Pearson College launch an endowment that will ensure that the facilities on Race Rocks along with the surrounding ecosystem receive proper care and attention so they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Keepers: George Nicholas Davies (1861 – 1866), Thomas Argyle (1866 – 1888), Albert Argyle (1888 – 1889), William P. Daykin (1889 – 1891), Frederick Mercer Eastwood (1891 – 1919), James Thomas Forsyth (1919 –1932), Henry I. McKenzie (1932 –1933), Andrew Ritchie (1933 – 1940), Thomas Westhead (1940 – 1948), Arthur Anderson (1948 – 1950), Percival C. Pike (1950 – 1852), Gordon Odlum (1952 – 1961), Charles Clark (1961), Ben Rogers (1961 – 1964), J. Alan Tully (1964 – 1966), Trevor M. Anderson (1966 – 1982), Charles Redhead(1982 – 1989), Mike E. Slater (1989 – 1997).

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  1. “Total Loss of the British Bark Nanette,” The British Colonist, December 25, 1860.
  2. Annual Report of the Department of Marine, various years.
  3. Keepers of the Light, Donald Graham, 1985.
  4. “We Aim to Please,” the dot, July-August, 1967.
  5. racerocks.com website.

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