Monday, June 1, 2015

A Lighthouse for the Rats!

The first lighthouse built in Western Australia was illuminated on this day, June 1. The year was 1851, and the lighthouse was on Rottnest Island, about 11 miles west of the mainland city of Freemantle. The island was both a hazard and a seamark for ships bound for Fremantle and the Swan River Colony, now known as Perth.

Rottnest was the name given to the island by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1696 when he stopped there and found a large population of rat-like creatures. He called the place Rottnest, which means "Rats-Nest." The animals actually were native marsupials called Quokkas. They are, as evidenced by the Wikimedia Commons photo below by Sean Mack, much cuter than rats!

A 15-foot-tall white obelisk served as a daymark on Rottnest Island before a lighthouse was built. The first lighthouse was begun in the early 1840s, built of stone, quarried locally from Nancy Cove. A prison for Aborigines, mainly the Nyoongar people, had been established on the island a few years earlier, and convict labor was used in the construction of the lighthouse. It was built on Wadjemup Hill, the highest elevation on the island. Many old sources refer to it as Wadjemup Lighthouse. Wadjemup translates to "place across the water." Today, it goes by Rottnest Lighthouse or the Rottnest Main Light.
Although completed in 1849, the lighthouse was not illuminated for almost two years because not all of the equipment for the light had been delivered. In the meantime, a keeper was hired to look after the place and operate a set of signal flags that announced the impending arrival of ships in Freemantle. A series of observers relayed the flag information ashore to Arthur Head at Fremantle, and a pilot was dispatched to help the ship get into the port. There was quite a lot of competition in town waiting to provision the ships, unload cargo, and entertain sailors, so early notification was important for businesses as well.
In 1851, the clockworks for the revolving light finally arrived and the illuminating apparatus went into service on the night of June 1. Coconut oil was used as fuel for the lamps. It produced a beam visible 16 miles.
A Notice to Mariners was issued shortly before the lighthouse was inaugurated: "...a light has been established on Rottnest Island---a revolving estopric [sic] light will be exhibited from a tower near the center of Rottnest Island after June 1, 1851 [anniversary of the colony on Rottnest] from sunset to sunrise---white stone tower 53 feet high with lantern 11 foot high superimposed, 2 groups of 3 powerful lamps, the whole apparatus revolving once in 2 minutes and showing a flash of light 5 seconds in duration once a of light 197 feet above high water mark seen in clear weather 7 leagues."
A first-order lens was installed in 1881. But the Government of the colony at the time felt the lighthouse was outdated. Plans and funding were secured for a new lighthouse. Another lighthouse was in the works at Cape Leeuwin, where the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean converge off Western Australia. Its engineers, William Douglas and C.Y. O'Connor, also designed and built the new Wadjemup Lighthouse. It stood 127-feet tall and had a first-order flashing Chance Brothers lens. The photo below, from the Rottnest Island Authority, shows the old lighthouse and new lighthouse on dedication day March 17, 1896.
The 1896 lighthouse is the one that stands at Rottnest Island's Wadjemup Hill today. (Photo above by Djanga for Wikimedia Commons.) The original tower and keeper's dwelling are gone, replaced by the newer ones. The tower has been updated several times and is electrified, but the first-order lens remains in place. The buildings have been repurposed for research and exhibits.
Another younger lighthouse stands guard on Bathurst Point on the east end of Rottnest Island. It's keepers' quarters are rented to vacationers.
I visited Rottnest Island in 2000 and was fortunate to have a private tour of the island, courtesy of the one of the reserve rangers, Peggy Webb. (The island is now a public reserve for wildlife and culture and there is no vehicular traffic permitted, except by bicycle, park shuttle-bus, or the on-duty ranger's jeep. I got a ride with her--thanks Peggy!!) Western Australians affectionately call the island Rotto. It is one of the most popular tourists spots in Western Australia.
On my tour of the island, I met some Quokkas, who were eating potato chips from a visitors hand. (Bad idea to make them moochers. Peggy scolded him!) I photographed and climbed both lighthouses, and I enjoyed a glorious day of sunshine and cool breezes. Ranger  Peggy warned me about poisonous snakes on the island called dugites. Thank goodness I didn't meet any of those!
To end the visit, I had a late lunch at the visitor center cafĂ© with Peggy Webb and the others in my party, including my husband, Jon.  The day was clear enough that I could see the taller buildings of Fremantle in the distance, namely the Dingo Feed silo at the shipping terminal, and beyond that I could just barely make out the hazy outline of the skyscrapers of Perth.
Below is a shot of me looking up at the beautiful Bathurst lens. (Photo by Jonathan DeWire) Unfortunately, this is one of the few print photos from my trip that got scanned, else I'd have more in this blog entry.
Back in Fremantle, my friend Pauline O'Brien (an Aussie lighthouse expert) took me to several places where I found additional information on the history of the lighthouses. She also took to me to the town cemetery where I photographed one of the graves of a Wadjemup Lighthouse keeper. The highlight of that jaunt were the pink and white parrots in the trees of the cemetery!
After returning home to the United States, I gathered together my research and pictures on the Rottnest Island lighthouses and wrote an article for the U.S. Lighthouse Society's Keepers Log. It appeared in the Summer 2002 issue and then was reprinted by the World Lighthouse Society in one of their newsletters. It is a much longer, more in-depth look at Rottnest Island's history and its lighthouses. I have plans to put it in an eBook soon. I'll post the cover when it becomes available.


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