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Partridge Island, NB  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.   

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Partridge Island Lighthouse

A committee was appointed by the House of Assembly of the Colony of New Brunswick in 1787 to find a proper place for a lighthouse at Saint John and to estimate the cost of its construction. The following year, the committee reported that it had selected Partridge Island, situated at the entrance to the inner harbour, as the most eligible site, and believed the lighthouse could be erected for £120.

A bill, entitled “An Act to Provide for the Support of a Lighthouse to be Built upon Partridge Island,” was passed by the House in 1788 and provided that vessels greater than fifteen tons belonging to the Port of Saint John should pay a lighthouse duty at the rate of two pence per ton, while foreign vessels would pay twice that rate. Fishing vessels were exempt from the duty, while coasting vessels operating solely within the Bay of Fundy paid no more than ten schillings each year. The duty was not to take effect until after the lighthouse commenced operation, which it did in 1791 with Samuel Duffy serving as its first keeper.

1880 Partridge Island Lighthouse before it was heightened.
Photograph courtesy Library and Archives Canada
In consequence of his advanced years, Keeper Duffy was removed from the position of keeper in 1810 and replaced by Lewis Huestis. In 1812, the “Commissioners of the Light House on Partridge Island” were granted £200 to repair and enlarge the keeper’s dwelling, dig a well, construct an oil vat, and build a wharf at the island. The commissioners were given another £200 in 1831 to have a fog bell erected on Partridge Island for guiding vessels in foggy conditions. The bell replaced a small cannon that had previously been used as a fog signal.

Partridge Island Lighthouse was destroyed by a fire in January of 1832. The fire originated in the lantern room floor, through which a stove pipe passed. A large lantern was hung on the western yard-arm of the signal-post until a new lighthouse could be completed. The signal-post was part of a signal station that broadcasted the arrival of ships at Saint John.

A sum not exceeding £300 was granted in 1832 to rebuild Partridge Island Lighthouse. According to records from 1833, £316 was spent in constructing and furnishing the new lighthouse, which was octagonal in form. In 1840, the eight sides of the tower were alternately painted red and white, giving the tower its characteristic daymark of red and white vertical stripes that persists to this day. The new tower measured forty feet from its base to the top of its lantern and had a focal plane of 119 feet. The diameter at the base was twenty-three feet and seventeen feet at the lantern deck. A fog bell was initially attached to the lighthouse, but as this prevented it from being heard at a sufficient distance, £40 was allocated in 1835 for a fog bell tower.

A new keeper’s house was built in 1841. The previous dwelling was at some distance from the lighthouse, which made accessing the tower in inclement weather a great difficulty for the keeper. As the lighthouse was located “within the circle of the Battery,” the Commissioners had to obtain permission to place the dwelling closer to the tower, but it is not clear from their reports exactly where the new dwelling was built. Firings at the nearby battery must have affected the lighthouse as well as those living at the station. In 1861, money was requested to replace plate glass in the lantern and to repair other damage done when a salute was fired from the battery in honor of the arrival of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

When a lighthouse was proposed for Cape Enrage, a new lantern was ordered from England for Partridge Island Lighthouse, and its old lantern was installed at Cape Enrage. This new larger lantern allowed an extra bank of reflectors, also received from England, to be installed above the existing bank, bringing the total number of lamps and twenty-three-inch reflectors in use to fifteen in 1841.

Recognizing that a fog alarm in poor visibility was more important than a light in clear conditions, the Commissioners responsible for navigational aids were always open to improvements in this area. A metal gong, which on being struck purportedly produced a shrill sound that could be hear for over four miles even in a heavy breeze, was ordered from England in 1847 at a cost of £25. This device, however, didn’t prove to be more effective than the large bell on the island that was struck by a hammer worked by clock machinery and attended by the artillerymen in charge of the fortification on the island.

One of the Commissioners firmly believed that swinging the fog bell and letting its clapper function as was done with church bells would prove more effective than striking a stationary bell. Daniel Jones, an ingenious local blacksmith, was encouraged to furnish machinery to produce this effect. A preliminary version of this apparatus was tested on the island in 1850, but it required a very heavy weight to operate it. The Commissioners reported that a bell working on the principle of Jones’ invention was about to be installed at the entrance to Boston Harbour.

Daniel Jones never completed the installation of his fog bell invention on Partridge Island to the satisfaction of the Commissioners. By 1854, he had moved to Australia, and the Commissioners were forced to abandon any hope of that undertaking being finished. Jones’ design was improved upon and manufactured by machinists in the United States, and adopted by that government. Besides Boston Harbour, bells had been installed at White Head and Cape Elizabeth in Maine. Captain Green Walden of the United States Revenue Service was tasked with testing the usefulness of the bell at Boston and found that while underway aboard a steamer, he could hear the 1375-pound bell distinctly at a distance of five miles. The patentees of the improvement agreed to furnish a bell and striking mechanism to the Commissioners for $2,000, but it appears this did not happen.

In 1853, Robert Foulis proposed to the Commissioners of Lights that his invention be used to fuel the light on Partridge Island by gas rather than oil. Foulis had earlier purchased five mining leases in New Brunswick, and he used the coal mined in Albert County to produce gas. For the sum of £75, Foulis agreed to direct and superintend the manufacture and installation of the apparatus, to be built with materials provided by the Commissioners. Then, for a period of four years, Foulis would keep the apparatus in working order and instruct the keeper in the manufacture of gas of proper quality and sufficient quantity for an annual salary of £50.

The gas lighting apparatus was put into operation on Partridge Island in August of 1853 after £542 had been spent for its manufacture and installation. The gas produced a most brilliant light and appeared to be providing the anticipated cost savings during the first few months it was in operation. Detailed recordings of the cost of operating the gas plant commenced that November and showed an average savings of £20 per month over the next three months. But then in late January, the extreme cold of the season froze the water in a tank used to produce the gas, and oil had to be used once again in the lamps. The freezing problem was resolved by plastering the interior of the gas house, thus making it frost-proof.

In 1855 and 1856, it was found that the cost of using gas was roughly £100 more than the cost if oil had been used. Although the light was certainly more brilliant, it was questionable if this improvement justified the added expense. Foulis was still being paid an annual salary and a gas maker had to be employed at the station. In 1857, the cost of furnishing gas was roughly the same as oil. The reduction in cost was partly due to supplies from the previous year lasting for a portion of the current year, but the gas maker, James Wilson, was also credited with superior management. The cost of gas making was roughly the same as oil through 1860, but some years after this the gas making experiment was abandoned.

Partridge Island Lighthouse and surroundings in 1942
Photograph courtesy Canadian Coast Guard
In April of 1859, T.T. Vernon Smith submitted to Isaac Woodward, Superintendent of Lighthouses for the Bay of Fundy, a drawing of a steam whistle, similar to that used on locomotives, that could be used to guide vessels into a harbour during thick and foggy weather. Smith estimated that this device, which consisted of a whistle, a boiler, a mechanism to activate the whistle, and a ten-foot-long speaking tube to focus the sound, could be manufactured for around £250. Fleming and Humbert agreed to make a device according to Smith’s plan and install it on Partridge Island for £300. In addition, the two men guaranteed that the whistle would be heard for six miles or they would require no pay.

With the blessing of the Chamber of Commerce of Saint John, Fleming and Humbert were authorized to build the steam whistle. During a test of the whistle on Saturday, November 14, 1859 over a period of four-and-a-half hours, ships that were situated ten and six miles away were able to hear the signal. While their steam whistle was a success, Fleming and Humbert were only paid £200 as they failed to provide the whistle within the agreed upon timeframe of six to eight weeks.

The initial test was done without a structure to house the steam whistle or a method for supplying water, but these necessary additions were completed before the following spring, when the steam whistle was placed in operation. Captains of passenger steamers, pilots of Saint John, masters of steam tugs, and the Saint John harbour master all signed a “lengthy certificate of the utility and efficiency of the Steam Whistle, and as superior to any thing heretofore adopted as a warning to vessels approaching the land during fog.” The Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution congratulating Vernon Smith on his efficient and useful invention of the world’s first steam foghorn.

There was just one problem. The invention did not belong to Vernon Smith. As would be shown by a committee of the House of Assembly appointed in 1864 to look into the matter, the invention belonged to Robert Foulis, who was responsible for the gas works on the island and who had been telling the Commissioners of Lights since March of 1854 that a steam whistle would be the best mode to signal vessels during foggy conditions. Vernon Smith had adopted Foulis’ plan, reportedly at the prompting of Isaac Woodward, and submitted them to the Commissioners in April of 1859.

The committee, “after a careful perusal of the papers placed before” them, concluded “that Robert Foulis, Civil Engineer, Saint John, is the true inventor of the practical application of the Steam Horn or Whistle now in such successful and beneficial operation at Partridge Island, which, although three miles distant from the City is distinctly and loudly heard throughout its bounds.” Foulis had also proposed that unique sounds and intervals could be deployed to help differentiate fog signal stations, much as had been done with distinctive light characteristics for lighthouses.

Robert Foulis started petitioning the government to recognize him as the inventor of the steam fog whistle shortly after it went into operation on Partridge Island, but it took years of letter writing before he received the credit he deserved in 1864. Foulis died in poverty two years later. A plaque recognizing his achievement was later placed on Partridge Island.

It took some time to fine-tune the fog whistle installation, but this was finally achieved in 1861 as noted in the Journal of the House of Assembly. “After several trials in the management of this instrument to determine the most effective signal, combined with the greatest economy of steam, it has been found that a continued alarm of 10 seconds per minute, during foggy or thick weather, is in both respects the most satisfactory, and has been finally adopted.” From 1862 to 1865, the fog whistle averaged 888 hours and 47 minutes of operation each year.

Around 1860, a bell boat was anchored off the eastern end of Partridge Island to mark the eastern side of Partridge Reefs. The boat's bell was rung by the motion of the boat on the waves. On February 11, 1903, the original bell boat sank at its moorings and was replaced by a new bell boat of stronger construction. A bell boat was in place off Partridge Island until at least 1920.

Besides being the site for New Brunswick’s first lighthouse, Partridge Island was also home to North America’s first quarantine station. The island was set apart for a quarantine station in 1785, but it didn’t start being used as such until 1830. The greatest influx of Irish immigrants occurred during the 1840s, when, due to the Irish Potato Famine, over 30,000 people were processed at the island. Sick immigrants were subjected to a kerosene shower, followed by a hot water shower to remove the oil. Over 600 immigrants were buried on the island in 1847, when the island hospital was so overwhelmed that the infirm were forced to lie on the bare ground.

Alexander Reed, who had succeeded his father as keeper, petitioned the government in 1848 for compensation for “losses sustained in consequence of depredations committed upon his property on the Island, by the numerous Emigrants landed thereon during the past year by direction of the Public Authorities.” In 1855, Keeper Reed petitioned for an increase in salary as his children were deprived of school, and the sick immigrants at the quarantine station exposed his family to infectious diseases.

Due to poor health, Keeper Reed had to give up his position as keeper after nearly forty years of service. James Wilson, who had been the engineer in charge of the fog alarm since 1860, was put in charge of both the light and alarm. Keeper Wilson received an annual salary of $800, out of which he paid an assistant.

The Saxby Gale of 1869 caused considerable damage at several lighthouses on the Bay of Fundy, and Partridge Island was not spared. The landing stage and steps were swept away, the bell tower was blown over, and all of the buildings received some damage. An outlay of $438 was made to cover repairs.

In 1872, twelve new lamps, nine using mammoth flat-wicks and three using the largest round-wicks available, were installed in the lantern in place of lamps that used a half-inch flat-wick. The following year, two additional mammoth flat-wick lamps were put in place. The change to these new lamps instead of the half-inch variety resulted in the consumption of an additional 118 gallons each month, but the improved light gave much satisfaction.

The system of lamps and reflectors was replaced in 1887 with a dioptric lens, housed in a new lantern. In 1911, the height of the lighthouse was increased by nine feet through the addition of a concrete foundation under the tower. A third-order lens and a ten-foot Canadian lantern were placed top the tower in 1915.

A new fog alarm was installed on Partridge Island in 1906. A brick engine house, measuring twenty-seven by thirty-two feet, had been completed the previous year on the east side of the boiler to accommodate a diaphone operated by air compressed by steam. The new signal produced two 2.5-second blasts every thirty seconds. A water system installed on the island for the quarantine station was extended to the fog alarm in 1906, eliminating the need for wells, water tanks, and reservoirs.

The installation of an electric lighting plant was completed on Partridge Island in 1914, and ten years later a 2 ½ kW Delco lighting plant was placed in the fog alarm building with an array of sixty storage batteries, and wires were run to the lighthouse. In 1926, commercial electricity reached the station when a submarine cable was laid to the island.

A completely new fog alarm installation had to be built on Partridge Island in 1953 to replace a building and equipment lost to fire.

The present Partridge Island Lighthouse was constructed after its predecessor, a wooden octagonal tower reportedly built in 1880, was torn down in 1959. Ralph Eldridge started serving on Partridge Island as a second assistant in 1971. After a year as acting Principal Keeper in 1975, he became Principal Keeper in 1977, after Stan Green left, and remained in this capacity until 1986, the year Partridge Island Lighthouse was de-staffed. The island’s foghorn, so important to the history of the area, was silenced in 1999 despite a huge public outcry.

Partridge Island, rich in both cultural and lighthouse history, is now designated as both a National and Provincial Historic Site. A large Celtic cross was dedicated on the island in 1927 as a memorial to the Irish immigrants who perished there along with a local doctor who cared for them. Thanks to arsonists and vandals, the lighthouse is the only structure remaining on the island.

Head Keepers: Samuel Duffy (1798 – 1811), Lewis Huetis (1812 – 1827), James Reed (1830 – 1842), Alexander Reed (1843 – 1873), James Wilson (1873 – 1900), D. L. Richards (1900 – 1906), Hugh Andrews (1906 – 1913), Jedidiah B. Day (1913 – 1927), S.W. Herrington (1927), Harold K. Lauder (1927 – 1950), Thomas Furness (1950 – 1966), Lawrence B. Benson (1967 – 1972), Albert S. Smith (1972 – 1975), Ralph A. Eldridge (1975 – 1976), Albert S. Green (1976 – 1977), Ralph A. Eldridge (1977 – 1986).

Steam Whistle: James Wilson (1860 – 1879).


  1. Journal of the House of Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick, various years.
  2. Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, various years.

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