In 2010, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) declared more than 970 Canadian lighthouses surplus. At the same time, the Parks Canada Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act came into effect, simplifying the process for groups to acquire—and assume responsibility for preserving—lighthouses in their communities. However, in the preceding decades, preservation pioneers often spent years wading through federal bureaucracy, testing their limits of faith, endurance and patience—and this simply for the chance of volunteering more hours restoring, maintaining and operating a lighthouse.
But old structures have a way of tugging on heart strings, and lighthouses, in particular, can inspire tenacity and fortitude that borders on obsession. What is it about these sentinels of the sea that invokes uncommon commitment? How do such connections, when made, become matters of the heart?
Rita Anderson crossed a narrow neck of land, wading through mucky bog, and ploughing tuckamore bushes as she worked her way to the coast. The dismal call of a foghorn cut through the dense air, and she could hear the rhythmic crescendo of waves breaking on distant rocks.
When she finally emerged high above the shore and looked down on the lonely, crumbling granite tower against the pewter backdrop of the sea—all that remained of the Rose Blanche Lighthouse on Newfoundland’s Southwest Coast—she was smitten.
“You stood here for such a long time,” she whispered to herself. “How many people did you save?”
In that moment, Rita knew that she had a new purpose: “The lighthouse just called to me to do something,” she says.
Members of the community had been discussing restoration for five years before Rita, the only salaried member of the Southwest Development Association, drove out to see the lighthouse in 1993. Although she’d grown up in Port-aux-Basque, this was her first visit to Rose Blanche, a mere 45 kilometres away. She had no particular connection to the community or the light—until that day.
Rita saw the lighthouse as a monument to the island’s early communities—sustained by the sea—and to the courageous seafarers who depended upon the light as their lifesaving tether to home.
She took inspiration from this.
“I was told it couldn’t be done,” she said of the restoration that took another six years to complete. “I guess nobody thought a woman would have the patience and tenacity to drive this.”
She chuckles. “They didn’t count on me.”