A Natural History of the Cape Spear Lightstation
Serious maritime intellectuals may question whether a modest trade paperback with a title that sounds like a romance can truly be an example of serious historical scholarship. The answer in this case is a resounding positive. This little gem could also fool the unknowing into the belief that it was a novel by its cover art, predominantly cloud-mottled azure sky, with the landward side of the light station, some of the keepers’ kitchen garden, and a half-dozen children (presumably the off- spring of Frank Cantwell, the penultimate keeper) more in evidence than the light itself or any indication of its valuable services.
Despite this unassuming appearance, Cantwells’ Way contains a wealth of information. The paper quality is good, the font eminently readable and not overly small. More to the point, the charts, plans and sketches are clear and easy to follow and the few actual photographs are far more visually accessible than one might expect in such a small package.
It begins with an historical overview of coastal warning devices and works its way rapidly into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the most fascinating threads in this earlier historical period was the development of aural fog-warning devices. When it comes to the development of the Cape Spear installation itself, Candow has done phenomenal research into the original plans for the buildings and the various changes undergone from conception to eventual construction. The casual reader or mere lighthouse buff may frown in confusion at the book’s title, but the material from page 38 onward make this reference abundantly clear, as five generations of the Cantwell family occupied and staffed the lightstation, from James, the second holder of the position, who began his tenure in 1846, to Gerry, who retired in 1997. There was a brief hiatus of seven years between 1880 and 1887, after James’s death, and before his son, Dennis, took full charge of the operation, but even then, Dennis and his family remained in the main residential accommodation as assistant, and his nominal superior, Austin Sheppard, who seems to have lived with his wife and children in one of the outbuildings, appears to have been relieved to relinquish the post to the Cantwells and return to his previous position at Dodding Head.
After the first lightkeeper, Emanuel Warre, the Cantwell dynasty ruled as follows: James (1846–1880), his son Dennis (1887–1910), two of Dennis’s sons, James (1910–1918) and William (1918–1925), three of William’s sons, Jack (1925–1938), Wes (1938–1944), Frank (1944– 1969) and, finally, Frank’s son, Gerry (1969–1997). The ‘lightkeepers’ chronology’ appears as Appendix 2, at the end of the book, along with Appendix 1, which maps the entire station and its outbuildings, and Appendix 3, which comprises a series of plans chronicling the evolution of the main structure. There is also an extensive index and a comprehensive list of references, as well as substantial end-notes. As I have often noted in previous reviews, it would be most helpful to return to actual footnotes for truly informative data, and use the end-notes exclusively for citation of resources. When all are moved to a significant distance from the actual text, with no way of identifying the relevance in content of the individual notes, the reader may miss significant or particularly interesting content. It was only by chance that I happened to spot an end-note reference to data contributed by Capt. Tom Goodyear, a retired seafarer who was one of my doctoral interviewees and who ranks as a valuable repository of Newfoundland maritime history. This footnote also included a snippet which, I am convinced, would be of interest to New England scholars, to the effect that one travels ‘up’ the Southern Shore (going south) in the same manner that one goes ‘down East’ in New England (specifically Maine) when travelling north. It does not, however, note whether this ‘up’ is, like the Maine ‘down’, a reference to the prevailing winds.
For most of its nineteenth-century service, the Cape Spear light station appears to have entailed not only a light, a red-and-white painted visual safety device which consisted of the building itself, and two audible fog signals, but also what was commonly known in its day as a ‘telegraph’. In this case it was a flag signal relay from approaching vessels to Signal Hill, enabling the merchants of St. John’s to know which of their ships were coming in and to prepare to receive the expected cargo.
By far the longest chapter is ‘The Dying of the Light’, comprising, as it does, the history of St. John’s and its harbour in the twentieth century, two World Wars, Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada, and the automation and destaffing of the light. The last time your reviewer visited Cape Spear, in the late 1980s, Gerry Cantwell was still nominally in charge. The most dramatic items involved the U-boat threat during World War II, the limping into port of vessels that had been attacked at sea, and the billeting of Canadian troops at the light, despite the fact that Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada. Restoration of the buildings to their 1835–1840 state was covered here, as well.
It was interesting to have a brief element of later Cantwell family history in this chapter that included the extent of subsistence gardening by the family, the home-schooling practiced by Frank’s wife, Margaret, and a fair bit about the reducing of the station to a ‘bachelor’ establishment, removing the keeper’s family to town, and the eventual phasing out of a keeper altogether, although Gerry seems to have retired as Supervisor of Lightstation Operations for Newfoundland and Labrador, working out of St. John’s until his retirement in 2009, while Cape Spear itself devolved into a ‘tourist Mecca’.
Candow, a former Parks Canada historian, who has already had one book shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award for historical writing, has once more produced a thoroughly researched, well-written, and eminently readable work.
— Morgiana P. Halley, Husson University, Bangor, ME, USA