The Lighthouse of Mabou Harbour

by Mary Anne Ducharme

The lighthouse at Mabou Harbour, built in 1884 by E.C. Embree of Port Hawkesbury is now a museum. A group of people connected with the Mabou Harbour Authority has leased the lighthouse from the government and on June 28th 1998 officially opened a museum and visitor centre illustrating the history of the site through photographs and artifacts.

The federal government has not developed a firm policy in regards to divesting itself of lighthouses, and this has created a limbo in which the fate of these structures remains uncertain. At this time the Treasury Board wants to sell the lighthouses for "fair market value" to anyone who cares to bid on them. On the other hand, the Canadian Coast Guard wants to see the formulation of a policy for the alternative uses of lighthouses and would hand over the structures to approved community groups for a nominal fee.

The Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, one of only two societies in Canada, aims to promote awareness and preservation of Nova Scotia’s lighthouses, as well as assisting community groups in taking ownership of these sites. This Society also provides access to written research and photographic documentation, and would like to see the formulation of a Lighthouse Preservation Act. Mabou Harbour Authority president Jackie Rankin is among those involved in the lighthouse museum project as well as Harbour Authority bookkeeper Carrie Beaton. Eugene, Carrie’s husband and a Mabou Harbour fisherman, has also worked hard for over a year to see the museum become a reality.

" We feel that lighthouses are an important piece of our local history– a piece of ourselves," Carrie said. "This Mabou Harbour light has been here through generations of fishermen and it has guided them safely home. We are grateful that it is still here and want to express that gratitude by gathering and preserving as much of the related history as we can."

The group has been collecting research and anecdotal information, photographs, artifacts, and other materials over the past two summers. Jolene MacNeil, a St. Mary’s University student, has been employed to assist with research for this project. She has conducted a number of interviews with those who remember the days of the lobster cannery and the gypsum plant that were part of the life experiences of so many people in past decades. Now only one person remains who once worked at the Nova Scotia Coal and Gypsum Company and he is Angus "Cu" MacDonald. In the 1920's when he worked there, Johnny Rankin (the father of Daniel Rankin of Mabou) was the timekeeper. There were about 40 to 50 people working there at that time. The incomplete story of the gypsum plant and the hardships caused by the physical environment of the Harbour is just beginning to unfold through documented sources. The present wharf at Mabou Harbour was built in 1955 and the adjacent buildings in 1966. There are twelve boats and between 25-35 fishermen and their helpers, depending on the season, fishing with the Harbour as their base.

The first gypsum operation at Mabou Harbour was by the Montreal-owned Nova Scotia Coal and Gypsum Company in 1890 and it was located at the mouth of the Harbour ‘below Andrew Rankin’s house.’ Today the landscape surrounding Mabou Harbour is sculpted in gypsum formations, a reminder of the old days when gypsum was a major industry in the area.

Mabou Harbour history exists at this time in scattered materials including old photographs, the memories of local people and in sheaves of government documents that tell only a part of the story. There is a vast amount of productive research remaining to be done to reconnect the present generation with the story of this fascinating place. It is a story of battling the elements, of disappointed potential, government efforts and failures, and most of all of individuals as well as businesses and large companies struggling to eke out a living.

This research has begun, but it is at a stage in which every question answered evokes many more as yet unanswered. Many thanks to the Mabou Harbour Authority, including Jolene MacNeil and Carrie Beaton for adding their research efforts to my own for this article. What follows, however, is admittedly incomplete and anyone wishing to contribute to a fuller history of this interesting Harbour is most welcome to do so. If you have information or photographs, please share it with Partici-Paper. To contact Partici-Paper call 945-2982 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Your help and interest will be most gratefully received.

Mabou Harbour: The Physical Environment

In the early  part of this century there were few harbours that could provide refuge for larger vessels in this region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Shipping was the indispensable key to development of the coal mines, gypsum mines, lumbering, farming, and mercantile businesses, and it provided employment for a large number of people. Mabou had special potential because it was ideally situated at the mouth of the Mabou River. Mabou Harbour is a passage 800 feet long and 175 feet wide, flowing into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a westerly direction. The north side of the passage consists of a high clay bank extending for a considerable distance beyond the Harbour. The south side consists of the end of a beach or spit which projects across from that side.

In 1871, the first breakwater on the seaward side of the passage was constructed to prevent sand from moving from the south and filling up the channel, but it was not extended far enough for adequate protection. In the following decades, there was a constant battle to maintain this breakwater which was often undermined or destroyed by drift ice and violent storms. In 1872, the channel was dredged and deepened for the first time, a costly operation that had to be repeated many times through the years. In 1891 the government built cribwork groynes or jetties at the mouth of the Harbour to prevent littoral sand drift and to prevent tons of hard pan clay from sliding into the channel each spring. There were five of six of these jetties spaced at short distances apart to the north side of the entrance to the Harbour These jetties were each about 100 feet long by 6 feet wide and consisted of piles spaced five feet award with the interior space filled by closely packed spruce spars.

These were kept in place by boulder pile caps and this work was often done in the winter when horses could be driven on the ice. The problem of the jetties were as persistent and troublesome as with the breakwater because they were constructed of native timber and with the prevalence of worms, they were in constant need of repair and reconstruction. The fishermen would sometimes plead for over a decade for badly needed repairs, but their requests met deaf ears because of lack of government interest or lack of money. To be fair, the Department of Public Works had spent $437, 564.25 by 1932 on efforts to protect and improve the Harbour, but the forces of ice, wind, currents, and storms were unstoppable, and remain so.

There were often serious difficulties for shipping. This was the entrance through which the coastal steamers all passed to get to Mabou village, and at times it appeared that use of the Harbour and the public wharf at Mabou Bridge would have to be discontinued.

Finley Archie Rankin recalls that boats that were loading gypsum at the wharf had to finish their load in Dingwall because the ship couldn’t make it out of the channel of Mabou Harbour with a full load. In June of 1912, there was a letter from Barrister Thos.Gallant to J.B. Hunter, the Deputy Minister of Public Works in Ottawa. "The business people of Mabou are put to a great deal of inconvenience this year, owing to the fact that the S.S. City of Ghent is unable to dock there. . . I am informed that several day of dredging in this harbor would put the channel in shape so that the Ghent could go up to the wharf."

In the same year, Gallant expressed fear that the Keystone Material Company of New York would not operate in Mabou if improvements were not made. The company was proposing to develop a large scale gypsum plant, making Mabou one of the largest, if not the largest gypsum-exporting ports in Canada.

At the time the entrance was only four feet deep at low tide and the Company wanted a depth of 20 feet at low water to accommodate boats from three thousand to four thousand tons carrying capacity. They suggested a channel of 150 feet at the bottom with a length of 3,000 feet. They also wanted a substantial extension to the breakwater and protection works consisting of stone embankments and crib work structures. It appears that these improvements were not forthcoming quickly enough because there is no further mention of this company in documents from the Department of Public Works for Mabou Harbour.

The Lighthouse

The present lighthouse, with a height of 47' has been in continuous operation since July 15, 1884 and remains a necessary and functional part of Mabou Harbour. The present lighthouse was the "back tower" which was constructed as a wooden building, square in plan, painted white, with sloping sides surmounted with a square wooden lantern. It is the surviving twin of a second and shorter lighthouse (33') that stood at the entrance of the Harbour and was known as the "front tower." Both buildings were erected by E.C. Embree for $2,450. The front tower which was built on a pier was removed in 1893 "to a place of safety" because of the dilapidated condition of the pier. It was later replaced by a buoy beacon. At this time no photographs of this former lighthouse have been found, nor is its history well documented.

The first lighthouse keeper in 1884 was Alan MacLean who earned $54.00 that year. He was succeeded by Malcolm McFayden in 1891; Roderick McLean in 1906; J.B. MacDonald in 1912, and William Cummings, the last keeper, appointed on August 8, 1935.

Gypsum at the Harbour

The first gypsum operation was by the Montreal-owned Nova Scotia Coal and Gypsum Company in 1890 and it was located at the mouth of the Harbour ‘below Andrew Rankin’s house. ‘ In 1891, the company built a cribwork wharf with a frontage of 135 feet, and they installed $100,000 worth of machinery. In 1925, the company opened the mine near the mouth of Harbour and built another cribwork shipping pier in the following year.

In 1929, 10,000 tons of gypsum were being shipped from the Harbour to Montreal and American ports. However, the effects of the Depression were being felt and by 1933, operations had been cut back drastically with only a few ships leaving the port. A year later, the Company ceased operations, but kept the quarry in condition to start operations again as soon as the economic outlook was brighter.Company representatives requested that the Harbour be dredged to allow the use of larger steamers than previously, but operations were not resumed as hoped. At this time, however, thousands of cords of pulpwood were shipped by steamers from the Harbour. Much more needs to be collected about this history, but it was apparently not exactly a safe employment. John "Alec Johnny Ban" MacDonald tells the story of falling into a deep gypsum hole, suffering scrapes and bruises and what turned out to be permanent injury to his arm. He tried to grab a beam overhead to pull himself out, but couldn’t reach it, and was trapped until dragger men from the coal mine in Inverness came to help in the rescue effort.

The Lobster Cannery

In 1891 there were thirty resident fishermen in the Mabou Harbour vicinity and the catch that year was valued at $25,000. According to the April 23,1896 edition of The Casket, two Pictou men by the name of Tait and Fraser were building a lobster factory at Mabou Harbour and they planned to do canning there during the lobster season. In 1900 the factory produced 20,856 pounds of canned lobster, and 100 pounds of canned salmon and there were twenty two boats and forty-six fishermen. In 1905, the production had doubled with 42,048 pounds of canned lobster and 192 pounds of salmon. This was despite the fact that two less boats and six less fishermen were plying the waters that year. The catch included lobster, salmon, herring, mackerel, haddock, hake, halibut, trout, smelts, alewives, bass, eel. Squid was a small but highly valued part of the catch, providing what was considered the best possible bait. Any scarcity of squid was often reflected in a reduced catch.

In 1925, Herbert Hopkins acquired the lobster cannery which then was owned by James Rude. The cannery provided summer employment for approximately 40 workers o more per season, and ironically, there were times when so many of the men were employed either in the cannery or the gypsum plant, that the number of men actually fishing was reduced. However, in 1932, there still were thirty active fishermen, and the total value of the fish marketed at Mabou Harbour was $20,000.

Some of the cannery workers were as young as nine years old, and some of them were French-speaking girls from as far away as Pubnico, Yarmouth and Arichat. There was a Percilla Dionne who was cook, and the big cookhouse shanty that served food for the workers also housed families who were working. The girls from away boarded with families or shared living quarters in other shanties near the waterfront. From the stories told by those who remember the cannery days, life at the wharf was intense: courtships; rivalries among the French and Scots; occasional fights among the fishermen-- fueled by cheap whiskey sold from the boats; and good and bad times mixed together.

One year there were 52 girls working at the cannery, to just 8 boys, and this business likely provided a rare opportunity for paying work for young women. The pay was 90 cents a day for a ten hour day for women and children, with a higher wage of $1.50 a day for the men, including the "cleavers." Finley Archie Rankin remembers that John Robert White made the same wage for sealing cans, and that Angus White was a fireman at the boiler where the lobsters were cooked. Donald A. Rankin, worked canning the tomali of the lobster, and Mrs. Margaret MacInnis remembers that after the tomali work was finished, or there was a break, the men would fool around by flinging tomali at each other, and chase each other around.

After the lobster season was finished, the factory was used to can the relatively small catch of salmon. In the early 1940's, the Maryville Cannery in Judique was in successful operation, and Herbert Hopkins found it more and more unprofitable to stay in business at the Harbour and he ceased operations. In the early 1950's the cannery at the Harbour opened for one season under the co-management of James Rude, Herbert Hopkins, and a Mr. MacFadgen, but that was end of the cannery era at Mabou Harbour.

The Public Wharf

Through the years the various wharf facilities at Mabou Harbour were owned by private concerns, including the cannery and gypsum plant and fishermen used them only by permission and at risk to their vessels. These wharves frequently were in a dangerous state of disrepair. By 1931,when the Fishermen’s Union at Mabou Harbour resolved to petition the government for a public wharf, the need had been urgently apparent for many years. John Rankin spoke for the fishermen at Mabou Harbour in an interview with Member of Parliament I.D. MacDougall, and it was subsequently decided that the new public wharf could be located on the southern side of the "back tower" near MacFayden’s Wharf. The new structure would be 50 feet along the shore by 15 feet wide.

In 1934, only the dilapidated cannery wharf remained at the Harbour, and the Hopkins Brothers claimed that they could no longer afford to maintain it. Even though the government had agreed in principal to build a public wharf there had been many delays caused by red tape: the gypsum company owned water rights to a portion of the chosen site which had been leased to the company for 21 years in 1927.

Finally, the legalities were cleared up; Angus A. MacLean transferred a parcel of his land for the right of way and the public wharf was completed in 1935. The cost was $1,994.64. But apparently, the terms of use were not clear for in the following year, John F. MacDonald of the Fishermen’s Union sought permission for the fishermen to use the public wharf to split and clean their catch. Donald MacLennan, Member of Parliament for Inverness-Richmond was presented with a petition in 1937 for similar wharf construction at MacLean’s Point in West Mabou. Residents traveling to Mabou to attend church or do business had to do so by crossing the harbor by boat, and because there was no wharf, this was at best inconvenient, and at times impossible. Also six boats were operating out of West Mabou and there was no place for them to split their catch.

Of course, the need for continuous maintenance never ceases and by 1938, the public wharf at Mabou Harbour was already in need of repair, requiring planking, stone fill and some new pilings. Three years later, two public wharves are located in the Harbour, one of them at Mabou Bridge. They were called upon daily by a subsidized steamer from Port Hawkesbury, and by other vessels from Halifax when there was sufficient cargo. A Mabou Harbour fleet of twenty-seven fishing boats were valued, with gear, at $15,000.

Mabou Harbour: 1998

The present wharf at Mabou Harbour was built in 1955 and the adjacent buildings in 1966. There are twelve boats and between 25-35 fishermen and their helpers, depending on the season, fishing with the Harbour as their base. Much of the catch is marketed to New Brunswick, and the employment creates income for the fishermen and spinoffs for the community.

The catch of lobster and crab are unloaded at this site while tuna and ground fish such as flounder, hake, and cod are unloaded at Port Hood. A number of tuna fishermen prefer the Mabou Harbour facilities because of proximity to the tuna grounds where many tuna have been caught in the last couple of years. There is hope of bringing in a tuna buyer who will operate from this wharf. Pleasure boaters enjoy the quietness of the Harbour, and the friendly atmosphere, and last year boats from as far away as Ireland and New York came into the Harbour.

In May of 1996, The Mabou Harbour Authority formed as an incorporated company, and during their three year lease which is up in March of 1999, they are responsible for the upkeep of the Harbour and wharf. The government is meanwhile divesting itself of Small Craft Harbours so when the lease is up, similar groups will be on their own in harbor maintenance. The group is now working on getting two or three floating docks installed, and there is a need to pipe in a source of fresh running water. There is also an application submitted to obtain funding to dredge the channel but this has not been approved as yet. As in all the history of the harbor, sand is filling in the channel, and the depth now only ranges between 6 to 14 feet, depending on tide. This makes it difficult for the larger boats to navigate into the Harbour.

Governments have not always been responsive to the needs of small harbours, but when all Small Craft Harbours revert back to private ownership, history may come to haunt us. Private companies come, stay while things are profitable, and when the economic situation becomes less attractive, the whole infrastructure of the harbor is neglected and begins to deteriorate and become dangerous. And then the company leaves.

Harbour Authorities or Co-operatives made up of fishermen are likely to have a greater vested interest in keeping the complex environment workable, but how will dredging operations and costly repairs to jetties, breakwaters and wharves be funded? Will the government be more responsive now? At this time the only income for the Mabou Harbour Authority is from docking fees. What this will mean in the long term about the fate of our many.