About Cape Forchu
The Cape Forchu Lighthouse is a significant tourism draw. The light itself, its 19 acres of well-groomed grounds, the view of Yarmouth's working harbour and the drive to the Cape through the very heart of an active fishing community, are all emblematic of Nova Scotia's coastal heritage. It is truly a historic landmark. As the light shines across the water, we are reminded of our historic and economic ties to the sea.
History Timeline of Cape Forchu Lighthouse
contributed by Mike Cunningham, Yarmouth County Historical Society
Original Lighthouse built in 1840
Samuel de Champlain explored this part of Nova Scotia’s coast and named the area "Cap Forchu", meaning forked tongue of land.
Representatives of Yarmouth begin to petition the British Lieutenant Governor and the legislative council in Halifax for a lighthouse to guide the many vessels that were calling Yarmouth home.
The Cape Forchu lighthouse, the 13th built by His Majesty’s government in Nova Scotia was lit on the 15 Jan 1840 by lightkeeper, James Charles Fox. It was only the 2nd lighthouse in Nova Scotia with a revolving white flashing light to distinguish it from others. Tragically, just 3 months into his new job, lightkeeper James Fox (age 52) died 27 March leaving behind his wife Bessie and 8 children. His 24-year-old son Cornelius “John” Thomas Fox was appointed the new lightkeeper.
A fog bell mounted in a small wooden tower was installed making Cape Forchu a light station and not just a lighthouse. The bell’s mechanical striking system which rang 7 times each minute had to be wound up periodically by the keeper.
The 3rd steam powered fog alarm in Nova Scotia was installed in a wooden building built closer to the end of the Cape. It was first sounded 20 Nov 1868 sending a 10-second-long blast from its whistle once each minute.
After 33 years of faithful service John Fox retired at age 57. John and his wife Sarah had 4 children during their time on the Cape. Their oldest son James R Fox, age 31 was appointed as lightkeeper 1 Sept. James and his young wife Maggie gave birth to a son Harry who died at Cape Forchu, just 4 months old in February 1874. Following this the couple moved to Yarmouth following James resignation in the spring.
John H Doane, age 30 was appointed as keeper of the light station 1 Jul 1874. John, his wife Catherine Ann (Porter), their 4 young children and John’s brother Thomas, age 25, as assistant lightkeeper moved into the residence at the Cape.
A new, more powerful lantern arrangement consisting of 10 mineral oil lamps with 12” reflectors were installed in the 9-foot diameter, 8-sided iron lantern room at Cape Forchu. The revolving white light gave a bright 1 ¼ sec flash followed by darkness for 30 seconds.
A large fog alarm building of stone block replaced the old wooden structure built in 1868. Two independent steam power plants were installed for backup during regular maintenance and unexpected breakdowns. The more powerful fog whistle gave a 5 sec warning blast every 30 sec.
John Doane retired 14 Dec 1904 after 30 ½ years of dedicated service. The years John and Catherine Doane lived on the Cape had their challenges. Out of their 10 children (6 born at the Cape) the Doane’s suffered through the deaths of 6 of their children, 3 of them in just 2 months during 1876. Despite these tragic deaths, the Doane family operation of the light station never wavered. John’s brother Thomas was appointed chief lightkeeper 31 Dec.
An experimental submarine bell system, one of only 3 in NS, was installed in a brick extension to the fog building. The equipment sent an electrical signal through heavily armoured underwater cables to ring submarine bells on two 20 ft steel tripods, 2 miles from the Cape. Specially equipped vessels could receive and determine the direction to the bell’s location. The bell system, prone to frequent equipment and cable breakdowns was finally stopped in 1914.
A 2nd order Fresnel lens was installed 10 Jun 1908 at a cost of $38,000. A new metal lantern room 12 ft taller was built to house the new lens which today is displayed in the Yarmouth County Museum. The lens 9 ft tall and weighing 5 tons was mounted in a large copper frame with 8 lens faces containing 360 prisms. It gave out a brilliant ¼ second flash 24 times a min.
The old 1939 residence house was replaced with a new duplex based on the current Dept of Marine standard to house both the families of the chief keeper and an assistant.
The steam powered fog alarm was changed to a fuel-oil powered plant. The old steam whistle was replaced with a Canadian built diaphone fog horn system. The diaphone horn produced an extremely powerful low-frequency note with a very distinctive sound.
Thomas S Doane retired in May after 48 years of faithful service at Cape Forchu working 30 years as assistant keeper and then 18 years as chief lightkeeper. At age 31 Herbert L Cunningham became the 6th chief lightkeeper at the Cape. Herbert with his wife Grace and 2 young sons moved into the keeper’s residence. The couple would have 4 other children born at the Cape.
Sept 17, the lighthouse was hit by lightning twice around 1:15 am. The wooden floor of the tower, where lamp oil was stored, was set on fire. Lightkeeper Cunningham assisted by several others managed to keep the fire under control until a Yarmouth fire truck arrived. During its 100-year history this was at least the 5th time the lighthouse or residence was struck by lightning.
A new fog alarm building was built, attached to the front of the lighthouse tower. Electrical service began in October and Herb Cunningham (last of the old lamp lighters) reported the first light bulb lasted 5 months. During the WWII years all lightkeepers became an important part of the Coastal Defense Program watching for German submarines and unidentified aircraft.
Herb Cunningham retires after 30 years, estimating he had climbed the lighthouse stairs about 47,000 times. His assistant at the time, Albert Smith succeeded him. Herb and Grace considered Cape Forchu home and they moved into a retirement property house not far from the lighthouse. In total the Fox family, the Doane’s and Cunningham’s had kept watch at Cape Forchu for 112 years.
The old tower now 122 years old was pulled down and replaced with the current 75 ft octagonal concrete tower with its distinctive wind-resistant apple-core shape. The old Fresnel lens had been carefully removed from the old tower and was eventually reassembled in its new home at the Yarmouth County Museum.
Albert Smith and his family left the Cape and Raymond Baker, his assistant and Herb Cunningham’s son-in-law became the chief lightkeeper until June 1964 when he became the assistant for JE Chetwynd from 1964 until 1967.
JE Chetwynd leaves and is replaced as chief lightkeeper by D. Earl Flemming who remains in the position for 5 years until 1977.
The light station was changed to a one lightkeeper operation. Wayne O'Connell, the sole lightkeeper at the time, was replaced after 1 year by Lawrence Wentzell who remained in charge until 1986. The station had been automated and equipped with a INTRACT 2000 system that monitored the operation of the automated Bug Light and Green Island lighthouse. Eventually 22 light houses were monitored from Cape Forchu.
A unique new lamp arrangement with two DCB-36 double-ended lamps mounted one on top of the other was installed. The new light was reported to be visible from 30 miles out at sea. Walter Goodwin took over as lightkeeper and remained until 1991.
The fully automated light station was de-staffed and the last lightkeeper Marjorie Fairservice left the Cape.
January, the original DCB-36 Lens was dismantled and removed from the light tower at Cape Forchu.
Cape Forchu was the first light station in Nova Scotia transferred to a municipality by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under the Alternative Use Programme. The light station, owned by the Municipality of the District of Yarmouth, was operated on their behalf for many years by a non-profit group called the Friends of the Yarmouth Light Society.
In April of 2018 filming of the movie The Lighthouse produced by Robert Eggers and co-starring Willem DeFoe and Robert Pattinson took place on site in the Leif Erikson Trail.
The Municipality took over the operations of the site and commissioned a Comprehensive Master Plan to provide a clear path forward for future tourism development.
Public tours to the lantern room – titled the Climb the Light Experience – are launched to visitors becoming the first lighthouse in Nova Scotia to offer this experience. Climbers take the 77 steps to the top of the lighthouse to enjoy the beautiful ocean scenery overlooking Yarmouth Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean.