Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Colonel Anderson's Flying Buttress Lighthouses

My friend, the late Ken Black, used to say lighthouses are like people. They come in all shapes and sizes!

One of the most curious shapes for a lighthouse is the flying buttress, an architectural style made popular by the Canadian lighthouse service a century ago. There are examples of this design all around the globe, but Canada takes the prize, thanks to the work of a civil engineer with the Canadian Dept. of Marine & Fisheries, the government agency placed in charge of Canada's lighthouses in nineteenth century.
Belle Isle Lighthouse, Canada (Public Archives of Canada)
Col. William Patrick Anderson (1851-1927) became chief engineer of the Dept. of Marine & Fisheries in 1880. He had worked in the department for several years as a draftsman and had exhibited skill in the design of several lighthouses and fog signals. By the time his career ended in 1919 he had designed and overseen the construction of 500 lighthouses and fog signal stations.

Col. Anderson in 1904 (Wikimedia Commons)
When Anderson took charge of Canada's lighthouses, he was ordered to update its antiquated system, which at the time was comprised mostly of small wooden towers that were decaying or inadequate. There had been little money for lighthouses in Canada in the early and mid-1800s. The Mother Country in England had many colonies to support and was unable to light the vast Canadian coastline with more than a few stone lighthouses with up-to-date lighting mechanisms. The rest were cheaply-constructed and illuminated wooden towers.

With a limited budget but great enthusiasm, Anderson set to work, and with industry and ingenuity, he put the Canadian lighthouse system on the map. Today, Canada has over 700 lighthouses, about 250 of them traditional styles.

The most famous of Anderson's lighthouses are the flying buttress towers. Only six of the nine he originally built remain standing, and only three of those six are active as navigational aids. They are considered national treasures today. Anderson was applauded and lauded in his day for his accomplishments, and these unusual lighthouses are his legacy.

Point-au-Père Lighthouse in Quebec (Wikimedia Commons)
Russ Rowlett, a lighthouse aficionado and keeper of the website "Lighthouse Directory," describes the design:

"The flying buttress design was the ultimate development of what Anderson called "ferro-concrete" lighthouse design, a marriage of steel and concrete to produce unusually sturdy towers. The central column has steel pillars at the corners, and each of the six buttresses is steel clad in concrete. The resulting lighthouses are durable through the most ferocious weather and relatively easy to maintain."

Additionally, it can be added that the flying buttress towers had a low center of gravity and an open framework design to reduce weight and allow storm winds to pass through without excess swaying. They were well-suited for unstable ground. Anderson also made sure the new lighthouses were equipped with state-of-the-art lenses and their keepers were well-trained. All nine flying buttress lighthouses were built between 1907 and 1915.

The oldest was built in 1907 at Cape Norman, Newfoundland; unfortunately it is gone.

The tallest at 108-feet  the Point-au-Père Lighthouse in Quebec. Though decommissioned since 1975, it is now a popular museum and national landmark of Canada. Belle Isle Lighthouse, Newfoundland is another of Anderson's creations. Others stood at Caribou Island and Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior and Bagot Bluff in Quebec.

By far, the most magnificent of Anderson's flying buttress lighthouses is the first-order sentinel at Estevan Point on the western shores of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was a struggle to construct in the wilderness of Hesquiat Peninsula. Workers first cleared a 5-mile road through the dense rainforest of the area and then hauled all building materials across it.  Everything arrived by ship, was unloaded in a nearby bay, and then was carted over the rough road with teams of horses to the building site. The 100-foot light tower, still the tallest on Canada's western shores, was completed and lighted in 1910. Its Chance Brothers first-order lens was a work of art with a much-needed function marking the dangerous rocks off the point.

Estevan Point Lighthouse (Kraig Anderson Photo)

Life for the keepers was tough in such an isolated and lonely place as Estevan Point. Storms assaulted them in winter, fog was prevalent, and during World War II a Japanese submarine fired on the lighthouse. Little damage was done, but Estevan Point Lighthouse can claim to be the only spot in Canada attacked in the war.

The Canadian Coast Guard still keeps the Estevan Point Lighthouse staffed. A family lives on site and maintains the compound in apple-pie order. Thought they keep tabs on the beacon in the tower, their primary function is to report marine weather conditions every four hours. They also report any problems for vessels caught in the stormy, sometimes cruel, Pacific waters off the lighthouse. They are the last o a dying breed. Canada has made several attempts to de-staff all its lighthouses, with no success. Mariners always fight to "keep the keepers" --- their lifeline to shore and safety.

Colonel Anderson designed and built a number of fixed buttress lighthouses too. Good examples of this design still stand at Point Atkinson and Sheringham Point in British Columbia and Ile Parisienne, Ontario and New Ferolle, Newfoundland. There are many other examples around the world that copy this technology.

The fixed buttress lighthouse at Ostende, Belgium. It has since been replaced by a more modern tower. (Author's Postcard Collection)

Colonel Anderson died in 1957. He is buried in Ontario.

An interesting footnote--
The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment built just one buttressed lighthouse in the United States. It still stands at Sabine Pass, Texas. It is pictured below in its nineteenth century heyday and on a recent postage stamp. this historic tower has been decommissioned and abandoned. Sadly, it is rapidly deteriorating.


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