The history of lighthouse keeping on Lake Superior is fraught with tragic deaths and shipwrecks, liberally sprinkled with colourful characters, and steeped in the harsh environment of what can only be described as a temperamental inland sea. It is there I found inspiration for The Light Keeper’s Daughters, in the men and women who set out in questionable weather, sometimes in equally questionable vessels, early in spring to light the beacons and sound the fog horns. I was intrigued that they made for themselves homes in remote locations, scraping gardens out of rocky ground, planting lilacs, fishing, hunting, and whiling away long hours in solitude. Wives often became assistant keepers, children relished the freedom of a playground that included the lake and forests, and the love of the profession passed from generation to generation.
I was fortunate as a writer to be able to have access to the journals of a lighthouse keeper, Andrew Dick, who served on Porphyry Island, the setting for my novel. His tenure there began in 1879 not long after the light was commissioned, and continued for 30 years. He chose to live on the island year-round with his indigenous wife Caroline and their ten children, some born on the island, and some, sadly, who are buried there. The journals, or daybooks as he called them, captured his personal writing – his opinions, the number of eggs his hens laid, fish caught, and visitors to the island, and on the back cover of one volume, instructions on how to boil an egg. They’re a fascinating snapshot of a lost time, a lost profession.
While The Light Keeper's Daughters is set a few decades after the Dicks were keepers at Porphyry Island, the writings of a Scottish keeper and his Ojibwe wife, the anecdotes about his family, the meals they ate, the anguish of losing a child, the treks across the Black Bay to Porphyry, and even the number of eggs his hens laid helped frame life on the Island. The voice of Andrew Dick speaking from the past was an absolute treasure. And I listened.
Excerpts from Andrew Dick's Journals:
Tuesday, June 22, 1987 Did not even have a flag to hoist. Mighty poor Govt that don’t have a flag at every lighthouse. Long life to Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India. I have nothing to celebrate her Jubilee well only this old pen.
Monday May 31, 1900 Georgina came today with Alice and her family getting away from the smallpox.
Wednesday, June 24, 1901 Agnes died tonight at 7 o-clock PM the same month she was born in, her mother died the same month and same date. Agnes age 36 years.
Friday March 7, 1902 George… had a long and hard tramp from Silver Islet down Black and through the bush. Brought the mail.
Friday, March 6, 1903 …got a load of caribou home this morning, went to swamp, took Emily’s piece of rope home as we have enough meat. My piece of rope is now called a snare, Emily’s rope is not promoted yet.