Swallowtail Lighthouse Gets A New Top

By John Graham

The Swallowtail lighthouse on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada, was the first of several to be built on the island.  At first called “Swallow’s Tail,” the lighthouse is named for the peninsula of land that juts out eastward from the island, said to resemble the tail of a swallow.  Constructed in 1859, its inaugural lighting was delayed for almost a year, until July of 1860, awaiting delivery of the cast iron lantern room from the manufacturer in England.  A century later, in 1969, the by then badly deteriorated lantern was cut into pieces and removed from the lighthouse.  The replacement lantern was made of aluminum, and although large enough to accommodate the fourth-order Fresnel lens inside, it was three feet smaller in diameter than the original had been.

This photo shows the lighthouse with the “too-small” lantern-room on top.

In 1985, after 125 years of operation, the Canadian Coast Guard destaffed the now automated Swallowtail Light Station, and Grimmer Ingersoll, the last official “keeper,” and his family departed the station.  As was often the case, a period of virtual abandonment followed.  Eventually, both the lighthouse and other station buildings, and the peninsula of land on which they are located were obtained by the Village of Grand Manan.  The Swallowtail Keepers Society was founded by local residents in 2008 to restore and maintain the station under lease from the village.  Today, the lighthouse is still fully commissioned by the Coast Guard  which owns and operates the automated light in the tower and the electronic fog horn  located there.

In the years since, significant renovations and restoration have been accomplished.  In addition to the tower, the Swallowtail Light Station includes the new keepers’ residence, a duplex  built in 1958 to accommodate the head keeper and an assistant.  This house replaced the badly deteriorated original 1859 structure.  The original boathouse and portions of the tramway, by which supplies and materials were brought up from the station dock down below, also remain.  A CG-1000 electronic fog signal, as well as the original fog bell which preceded it, are also part of the Station today.   The bell had been removed from the station years ago and has now been returned. 

Swallowtail with the new proper-sized lantern room.

During recent renovations, the decision was made to replace the lantern that had been installed in 1969 with another of the original size.  The smaller one had never looked quite right – light a man with a too-small hat upon his head.  Dexter’s Machining, a local firm on Grand Manan Island, was contracted to build the new lantern using plans of the 1970 lantern from Gannet Rock lighthouse, which was built by the Coast Guard at their base in St. John.  Funding for the project,  some $60,000, was provided by the Swallowtail Keepers Society and the village of Grand Manan.  The Coast Guard assumed the costs of the installation work.

While the new lantern was under construction, work began to disconnect the 1969 lantern from the top of the lighthouse tower.  This involved not only a lot of unbolting, but also the temporary disconnection of the light itself, the fog detection equipment, the weather station equipment, radio antennas, and the WiFi equipment that serves the commercial ferry boats coming to and from the island from the port of Blacks Harbor on the New Brunswick mainland.  When all was ready, a Bell 429 helicopter from the Coast Guard arrived on scene to lift the old lantern from the top of the tower.  Hanging below the helicopter, it was taken to the Grand Manan airport, from where it was trucked to the Saint John base.  That lantern was refurbished and soon installed on the Apple River lighthouse in Nova Scotia.

The Swallowtail lighthouse sat topless for a brief period after the old lantern was removed, and during this period a new composite base ring was installed on which the new lantern would be set down upon.  When all was ready, the new aluminum lantern, which weighs about 900 kg, was helicoptered out and lowered down to the crew waiting to set it in place.  The several electronics and antennas, as well as the light and lens, were quickly reinstalled and the Swallowtail lighthouse was once again back in service.  The lighthouse once again had a hat that fits properly, and the tower once again looks like it did in 1860 when Johathan Kent, the first lighthouse keeper here, first lit the lamps.

The smaller-sized lantern that is on the Memorial Deck – it is the same size as the incorrect one that was removed.

The fourth-order fixed Fresnel lens, which had been installed in 1910, replacing a smaller lens that had served since 1888, had been removed from the lighthouse in the 1980s.  Some diligent detective work by the Society and the Coast Guard found the 1910 lens stored away at the St. John Coast Guard base.  This lens has now also been returned to the lighthouse and was installed in the lantern room with an LED light inside.

Another feature of the Swallowtail Light Station is a second lantern that for many years had been in service on the Great Duck Island lighthouse farther south off Grand Manan.  When that station was deactivated, the lantern was transferred to Swallowtail, thanks to a Coast Guard helicopter, and has been installed as a part of the memorial deck on the site of the original 1859 keeper’s house.  The Carlisle and Finch DCB-36 Aero-Beacon now inside was formerly in service at the Machias Seal Island lighthouse.  This lantern is the same size as the smaller one that was removed from the Swallowtail tower, and provides an easy comparison of the relative sizes of the old and the new.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *