Review of Cantwells’ Way in Canada’s History

Cantwells’ Way
A Natural History of the Cape Spear Lightstation

By James E. Candow  

Living at a lighthouse conjures thoughts of a peaceful, idyllic life. However, as we learn in Cantwells’ Way, life at Newfoundland’s Cape Spear lighthouse involved isolation, ingenuity, and hard work. James E. Candow’s book begins with a description of the people, geography, and “interplay of tradition and modernity in the Newfoundland and Labrador region.” The author gives us an education in the history of lighthouses and related technology, such as the use of optics, fog alarms, and acoustics. The first Cape Spear lighthouse was based on the design of the Villa Rotondai in Vicenza, Italy, and is described as a “square, hip-roofed two-storey structure of wooden construction.” It was completed in 1836 and manned by Emanuel Warre until his death ten years later. James Cantwell kept the light from 1846 to 1879, and, aside from a seven-year appointment given to Austin Shepperd, it was the Cantwell family — five generations of them — that lived, worked, and played there until late in the twentieth century They lived a dual life as both self-sufficient farmers and middle-class, salaried civil servants. During the Second World War, military workers were stationed at Cape Spear. Along with added responsibilitiies for the family there was also social activity with dances, movies, and trips to nearby St. John’s. Additional buildings were added in the 1950s, including a senior lightkeeper’s residence and a new lighthouse. There were plans to demolish the original lighthouse, but, thankfully, it was spared. In 1970, a national program commenced to destaff lighthouses, and, despite public criticism, Cape Spear was included. The Cantwell family’s involvement ended on March 31, 1997, but the restored 1830s lighthouse — the oldest remaining lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador — is now part of a National Historic Site that sits at the easternmost point of North America. Candow’s history of the Cantwell family is entertaining, while his analysis of the restoration of the original Cape Spear lighthouse and knowledge of lightstations in general are insightful.

— Beverley Tallon, Canada’s History

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