Archaeological monitoring at the Cape Sable Lighthouse was conducted during manual excavation of the sonotube installation locations for the new front step of the lighthouse in March 2017. In addition, a test unit against the side of the lighthouse was excavated to confirm the disturbed nature of the soil in order to eliminate the need for monitoring during foundation improvements within a narrow trench of soil around the lighthouse base. Archaeological deposits were not encountered, nor was any disturbed archaeological material observed. Although archaeological deposits are anticipated in the surrounding area related to the long occupation of the area by lighthouse keepers since 1861, none appear to have been impacted by this restoration work.

The most famous of the wrecks in the Cape Sable area was that of the S.S. Hungarian, a three-masted passenger steamer that was lost in a blizzard and wrecked on the inner rocks of Cape Ledge (off Black Point) on February 20, 1860.  The ship was carrying 125 passengers and 80 crew.  All on board perished but very few of the bodies were ever recovered.  Those that were brought ashore were buried at Swim’s Point Cemetery. It was the loss of life in this wreck that prompted the Cape Sable lighthouse to finally be built on the Cape. There are a few brief references of some earlier form of light on the Cape, but nothing could be confirmed.

In 1861, following the tragedy of the wreck of the S.S. Hungarian and the realization that more lives and property had been lost at Cape Sable than anywhere else on the Nova Scotia coast, work had begun on a new eight-sided lighthouse structure on the Cape by builder John MacKinnon. The lighthouse was 65 feet tall and was made of wood. On November 12, 1861 the lamp was first lit by keeper John Hervey Doane. Unfortunately, though a white first-order (largest) lens was ordered, the light that was installed was a red light with nineteen lamps, making it the most expensive to operate in the province, and it could not be seen even on a clear night at a distance of eight miles, as 4/7ths of the light’s power was lost in the thick red glazing.


In 1869, eight years after the light was first lit, the red glazing was changed to clear with ruby chimneys to create a much stronger red light. Only a year later, a clockwork mechanism was installed to rotate the light so that on July 15th, it became a flashing white light. Reportedly, high winds on the exposed Cape would cause the lightkeeper’s house to lean sideways – the doors would stick on one side of the house and pop open on the other during windstorms.


A fog alarm building and a steam-whistle were added to the site in 1876.  The whistle was located about forty-five feet from the high water mark. Its blast was of ten seconds duration each minute. An 1882 map of the county shows not only the light and fog whistle, but also the homes of lightkeeper Isaac Doane and another Cape resident, G. or C. Smith.

The year 1897 saw the addition of a 16-foot lifeboat with lightkeeper Isaac Doane as coxswain, though he had no organized crew for rescues. Three years later this plan was abandoned in favour of a new lifeboat stationed at Clark’s Harbour.


On July 1st, 1902, a third-order Fresnel lens was completed.  These complex glass lenses were extremely effective at ensuring that almost all available light was directed out to sea instead of being lost or dissipated within the tower.

The wooden lighthouse was replaced in 1923-24 by the concrete octagonal tower that still stands today, 101 feet tall (the tallest in Nova Scotia) and visible for fifteen miles with its third-order dioptric lens. The old lighthouse remained for a time, after being truncated, to be used as storage.  In 1956 Benjamin Smith, lightkeeper, and his son Sidney “geared up” a little engine to rewind the weight for the light’s mechanism, which maintained the regular rotation of the light and the resetting of which was one of the most tedious tasks for any lighthouse keeper. Then, in 1967, an electric motor was installed to turn the light, and this eliminated the use of the chain and weight.


During the late 1950s a submarine cable was laid to transmit electricity to the island – prior to this, the light had been powered by kerosene vapour, which had to be carried up to the light.


A new dwelling for the keeper was built on the island in 1960 and an assistant moved there by 1961. The change-over to automation began in 1971 and the station became totally automated on June 1, 1986. The Cape Sable lighthouse has had 14 head keepers throughout its lifespan. None of the supporting buildings that historically surrounded the light stand today; the last of them were burned down by the Coast Guard in 1988. The lighthouse was protected beginning in 1989 as a Classified Building, designated by the Federal Heritage Building Review Office.

Sources and Further Reading:

Messenger, Margaret E.  1986.  Our Island Reminisces.  Cape Sable Island: Archelaus Smith Historical Society. 

Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society. 2016. “Cape Sable Lighthouse.”


Perry, Hattie A. 2003. “A Bridge Over Time.” Spindrift Publishing. Barrington Nova Scotia.