Extra Research for Season 5 – Episode 7 – Lighthouse Willy
West Point, Prince Edward Island is a cape located in the southwestern corner of the island. It was the tallest and first lighthouse built in PEI by the federal government following Confederation in 1873. It was also square, much different than the usual octagonal shape of the day. The lighthouse was built in 1875 and originally painted white with broad red horizontal stripes, called day marks. In 1915 the red was changed to black because black is more fade-resistant and provided more contrast. It was first lit on 21 December 1875 and went into full service on 21 May 1876 and was equipped with a dumb waiter to transport oil from the first floor to the fourth floor lightroom.
In the early 1900s there was a cookhouse, a large can shop and a bunkhouse for fishermen and factory workers, a bait house and a small factory. In the early 1920s, part of the Cape Wolfe lobster factory was hauled about 8 miles over the sea ice to West Point. The factory was destroyed by fire in 1944 and by the late 1950s, West Point had no more buildings.
During the early years of World War II the Royal Canadian Air Force established an air base in the area for training air crew under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The Air Training School was located at Mount Pleasant, PEI and so from 1942-1945 the light was kept operational during the winter as a night time guide for the training pilots.
The lighthouse keepers duties were to light the lamp, and in the morning made sure that everything was ready for the next evening. Specific instructions were given on how to clean, polish, and replenish the fuel. “The glass prisms and lenses were to be cleaned every day when in use, first by freeing them from dust by using slightly damp linen dusters, and then rubbed with perfectly clean and dry chamois skins.” They were to perform any repairs, without outside assistance, and paint the different areas when required, or when directed by the superintendent. They received no extra pay for doing this.
They were also to help with the landing and management of any stores delivered. For this reason it was necessary that the keeper be able to read and write as well as keep accounts. There was a considerable amount of paperwork, with even the simplest request having to be made in triplicate.
William MacDonald Lightkeeper 1875 – 1925
William Anderson MacDonald was born on 29 August 1846, in Glenwood, PEI, where his parents had settled when they arrived from the Isle of Skye, Scotland. As a young man he moved to West Point to work at the shipyards. He married Maria Dyment and they lived on a farm adjacent to the shipyard where they raised eight children.
William was appointed as lightkeeper in 1875 and helped build the lighthouse. Because there were a number of William MacDonald’s in the area, he was often referred to as Lighthouse Willie.
Lightkeepers’ wages alone were not enough to support a large family so he continued to farm. In addition to the usual animals and crops raised, he raised driving horses. Driving horses were raised to be hitched with a harness to some type of horse-drawn vehicle. William walked 3.2 km (2 miles) along the shore every day to work on the farm, and returned each evening to attend to his lightkeeping duties.
Benjamin MacIsaac Lightkeeper 1925 – 1963
Benjamin E. MacIsaac replaced William MacDonald as lightkeeper on 9 April 1925. He was born in 1897 to George MacIsaac and Ada Betts. He married Pearl MacDonald and together they raised five children. He also had a farm to tend as well as his duties as the lighthouse keeper.
Bennie was a World War I veteran having enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 18 in October 1915. He had spent two years in the trenches before being wounded in 1918 in the shoulder, back, chest, and thighs. He spent a year in hospitals in England and Halifax and was sent home in June of 1919. He had served in Canada, England, France and Belgium. He was the keeper of the lighthouse for thirty-eight years.
William “Willy” MacDonald and then Benjamin “Bennie” MacIsaac were the only two people to man the West Point Lighthouse and between them they kept it going for eighty-eight years until electricity took over the job.
— Joanne Schiavoni