Review of Cantwells’ Way in the St. John’s Telegram

Cantwells’ Way
A Natural History of the Cape Spear Lightstation

By James E. Candow  

I spent the best part of a cold, rainy day hunkered down under a quilt reading James Candow’s “Cantwells’ Way,” the story of the old Cape Spear light station that is now a National Historic Site. What a great way to pass an otherwise gloomy and unproductive day.

When a teenaged boyfriend boasted to me that he’d gone to boarding school with Prince Charles, I countered with the fact that I’d been in residential school with one of the Cantwell girls. The Cantwells were Newfoundland royalty.

Candow, who was a historian with Parks Canada, has interwoven the stories of the lighthouse and the Cantwell family to make a compelling, complex narrative. What a pity he wasn’t in charge when Parks Canada planned the rather sterile and apparently inaccurate lighthouse restoration that so many tourists enjoy today, for it would have been far more interesting in both scientific and human terms.

The history of lighthouses and fog alarms dominates the first half of the book, where Candow gives readers a crash course in light refraction and sound waves. He provides clear explanations of fog guns, whistles, horns and trumpets, Mansby mortars, and the various types of fuel used to feed the light, such as whale oil, seal fat, acetylene gas and petroleum vapours.

When he moves on to the light keepers, it gets really interesting. The keepers were classified as unskilled labour, but were in reality mechanical engineers, signalmen, and lifesavers, not to mention farmers and carpenters, which is why the Cantwells were so highly thought of. Each of the five successive generations of Cantwell light keepers was able to adjust and adapt to changing technology without losing his grasp of the traditional skills that allowed the family to survive isolated in a particularly harsh environment.

Candow’s informal, often witty style, makes for an easy read, even if you aren’t interested in learning that the Villa Rotunda was the architectural source for the old Cape Spear Lighthouse, and his no-holds-barred critique of the restoration will make you head for the Cape to have another look.

Anyone interested in St. John’s Harbour should read this book, if only to discover that there were no less than seven rocks in The Narrows (Chain, Pancake, Merlin, Ruby, Seal, Prosser’s and Cahill), shoals that “lurked like bad neighbours who refuse to move.” That little snippet alone made “Cantwell’s Way” worth the read.

Although this book comes with acknowledgements, endnotes, bibliography, maps, charts, architectural drawings and index, it’s not a bit stuffy or academic. If anything, it is evidence that when people are released from the tyranny of paid work in institutions such as the civil service or the academy, and can say what they like, they sometimes produce their best work. Now if only some of our fish scientists would retire and start writing.

— Robin McGrath, St. John’s Telegram

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