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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada





JULY 27, 1971

(Fortress of Louisbourg
Report MRS 32)

Presently, the illustrations and graphs are not included here.
For these, please consult the original report in the archives of the
Fortress of Louisbourg


This study on the lighthouse is intended to provide a coherent source suitable for interpretive purposes, and to be disseminated ultimately as a leaflet in the Louisbourg series.

The study by no means considers all the available evidence, nor does it concern itself with rationalizing the many contradictions inherent in the documentation. Some aspects, such as the illuminant for the 1738 lighthouse, may be determined given a closer analysis of documentary and cartographic evidence. Finally, as they will not be used in leaflet form the footnotes have been abbreviated, and are limited to key documents.

John Dunn, Senior Historian, Fortress of Louisbourg, National historic Park


Begun in 1730 and completed in 1733, the Lighthouse in Louisbourg was the second oldest in North America, and the first lighthouse in Canada. The Boston Light, built on Little Brewster Island in 1713, is older than the one built in Louisbourg; while the Brant Point Light, built at Nantucket in 1746, is regarded as the second oldest in the United States. [1]

Following a near shipping mishap in 1727, St. Ovide, the Governor in Louisbourg, De Mezy, the Commissaire Crdonnateur, and Verrier, the Engineer, held several meetings and surveyed the areas around Louisbourg for a suitable location for a lighthouse. Their proposal to France suggested two locations: the promontory on the eastern side of the harbour, opposite the town, and the clock tower of the barracks in the King's Bastion, an alternative presented by De Mezy. Maurepas, the Minister of the Marine, favoured the clock tower because of lower construction costs, but subsequent arguments convinced him, in 1730, to grant 14,000 livres * to commence construction on the eastern side of the harbour. [2]

* 1 livre equals 1 dollar. 
There are 20 sols in 1 livre and 12 deniers in a sol
Pied and pouce correspond roughly to feet and inches. 
A ligne equals 3/32 of an inch. 45 pots is approximately a barrel.

The construction of the masonry tower was begun in the spring of 1730, and the lantern section was completed in 1733. The illuminant consisted of a bronze basin, containing about 45 pots of codfish oil, and measuring 3 pieds in diameter and 10 pouces deep. A cross-braced copper ring, 4 pouces wide, one ligne thick, and of slightly less circumference than the bronze basin, was floated on the surface of the oil by means of many small pieces of cork attached underneath and to the sides of the ring. 31 pipes, each 3/4 pouce long, and soldered at intervals to the ring, held the cotton wicks that provided the light. The final cost of 21,222 livres 8 sols 3 deniers [3] appears to have been justified for the light could be seen 18 miles at sea, although Maurepas claimed it could be seen from more than 60 miles at sea.

Ever conscious of economy, Maurepas observed, in 1732, that there was little or no shipping during the winter months to justify the expense of operating the light. He therefore ordered the light to be operated between 1 April and 31 December. His estimated costs and revenues both proved to be somewhat in error. He estimated operating costs at 2,700 livres per year, while the 1734 operation showed costs to be 1,003 livres 3 sols 9 deniers. He estimated a revenue of 3500-4000 livres per year, but the 1734 receipts showed 1,945 livres 10 sols. He was correct, however, in projecting a profit from the yearly operation of the lighthouse, as the profit in 1734 was 942 livres 6 sols 2 deniers. This encouraging beginning was to be shattered on the night of 11 September 1736, when the lantern of the lighthouse was completely destroyed by fire.[4]

In the interval until the second lantern was built a system of beacons, utilizing coal and wood, was used.

The brief service of the first lighthouse had proven itself in several aspects, so that little time was lost in rebuilding the lantern. The main emphasis in constructing the second lantern was fireproofing. No wood was used in constructing the tower. [5] The new lantern was supported on six curved cut stone pillars, 20 pieds high, embedded in the masonry tower. A brick dome and iron window frames enclosed the lantern, which was sheathed in 7,000 livres of soft English lead. [6] The last piece of fireproofing was applied to the light itself; to place the wicks farther apart, Verrier ordered the copper basin to be made 3 1/2 feet wide and 6 inches deep.

Le Normant suggested several changes. He agreed with Verrier that the wicks should be placed further apart, which is why Verrier ordered the larger basin. Le Normant wanted to place the copper circle about two pouces under the surface of the oil so as not to require the cork floats. This would require longer pipes, which he thought should be attached by vices, rather than soldered. Finally, he suggested placing the bronze basin in a tub of water so as to cool the oil. Except for the increased basin size, it is unknown what changes were made to the illuminant. The rebuilt lantern cost just under 13,000 livres, and began operating in early July, 1738. [7]

The following dimensions indicate the differences and similarities between the two lighthouses. [8]

Aspect                                          1733                                      1738

                                             pieds   pouces                        pieds   pouces


overall height                         70      -                                 73        6

tower height                           49      6                                 49        -

lantern height                        20      6                                 24       6

wall thickness (base)                6      6                                  6        -

wall thickness (at lantern)      3       6                                  2        -

diameter of base (inner)          9       -                                   9        -

diameter of base (outer)         22      -                                 22        -

diameter of lantern (outer)    12      -                                 15        -

The number of keepers employed at the lighthouse varied over the years. During the construction of the first lighthouse, Maurepas agreed to the appointment of two keepers. A small two-room apartment was to be built into the base of the tower to accommodate them, although it appears that a small house was built instead. Although the pay receipts for a one week period in August, 1733, show that five men were employed as keepers, the number had been reduced to two men by the time of the 1736 fire. Following the fire, Le Normant suggested to the minister that three men be hired as keepers, with one of them being in the lantern at all times when it was lit. The few pay receipts available and the list of yearly government expenditures show that three keepers were employed. The only evidence available for the second French period (1751) suggests that the number of keepers was reduced to one. This, however, seems rather unlikely, considering the duties and responsibilities of the keepers. The number employed was probably never less than two keepers.

The salary of a keeper varied according to the basis on which he was hired. De Mezy and St. Ovide wanted to pay 600 and 700 livres, respectively, to the two keepers. Maurepas considered these rates exorbitant and adopted the following "very considerable" pay scale. Each keeper was to be paid 15 livres per month, receive a soldier's daily ration of food, and be given a soldier's clothing allowance (the allowance would have been in clothes, not money). The whole was estimated to be worth 350 livres per year. Notwithstanding the great difference between 600 and 350 livres, the pay was a fair one for an unskilled worker, and he could live reasonably well on it. Men who were hired on a short term basis, such as the five men hired for a week in August, 1733, were paid at the rate of 20 sols per day. Generally, the keepers tended to be paid 6 to 10 livres less than Maurepas had ordered. One wonders if De Mezy and St. Ovide had someone in mind when they proposed their inflated salaries.

Louisbourg officials followed the practice of the time in levying a charge on those who used the services of the lighthouse. Ocean-going ships were charged at a rate of 5 sols per ton (about 25 cents), while coastal and fishing boats were levied 6 and 3 livres per year, respectively. The fees were paid at the lighthouse, probably on entering the harbour. The rates were established in 1731, and it is noteworthy that they remained the same for over twenty years. The British operated the lighthouse during the 1745-49 period, although it is not known if they levied charges on the port shipping. [9]

The administration of the lighthouse was the responsibility of the Commissaire Ordonnateur. While it appears as if he exercised the responsibility himself during the first French period, by 1751 he had delegated the responsibility to the Port Captain in Louisbourg. The Port Captain was directed to visit the lighthouse at least once each month to inform himself on the general state of things and determine if any repairs were required. Each month he decided the number of days that the light was to burn, and every 15 days he set the number of hours it was to burn. Once or twice during the summer the Port Captain examined and lit the wicks (during the day) to determine the rate at which the oil burned. During these visits he also assessed the keepers' attentiveness to fire prevention. [10]

The military history of the lighthouse, while brief, is significant - the batteries established near it initiated the defeat of the Fortress in both sieges. The lighthouse served the French well during periods of peace by contributing significantly to Louisbourg's status as one of the three main ports on the Atlantic seaboard. During the sieges, however, because of the topography of the land around the harbour, and because of the nature of fortress defence, the lighthouse became a liability to the defenders. The principles of defence dictated that the defenders retire behind the protective walls once an enemy had secured a landing. This left the lighthouse and the surrounding area free for enemy use.

During the first siege, towards the end of May, 1745, General Waldo realized the only method of silencing the Island Battery was to mount a battery adjacent to the lighthouse on Lighthouse Point. The battery subsequently erected by Colonel John Gorham succeeded very quickly in reducing the Island Battery, thus opening the harbour to the threat of Warren's squadron. The French learned the lesson and established a battery of three 18 pounders at the lighthouse following their return in 1749. When the British landed in 1758, however, the French destroyed the battery and abandoned the site. Wolfe immediately occupied the area and the battery that he erected quickly repeated the 1745 results. [11]

The history of the lighthouse becomes obscure following the Conquest. It is probable that the lantern was damaged during the 1758 siege. The last recorded mention of its functioning was 23 June, when it was lighting up all the French positions and ships, much to the chagrin of the besieged. There is no evidence that the lighthouse, or any beacon at all, was in service following the French defeat. Although the fortunes of Louisbourg declined following the evacuation by the British in 1768, Louisbourg remained a small fishing port. Presumably the port would have required some method of guiding its men home. It seems certain, however, that the lantern was demolished between 1758 and 1798. In a 1798 plan of the harbour, Thomas Backhouse refers to the lighthouse as a "ruins", although he shows the tower still intact.

The nineteenth century revival of the fishing and coal industries in Cape Breton created the need for a new lighthouse in Louisbourg. The lighthouse built in 1842 lasted for almost a century before it burned in 1922. Perhaps it was during the construction of the 1842 lighthouse that the original 1733 tower was demolished. The present lighthouse, built immediately following the 1922 fire, has a plaque from the 1733 lighthouse, found in the debris following the fire, embedded in its wall. The foundations and rubble of the French lighthouse have always been plainly visible in the area adjacent to the present lighthouse. When the French tower was reduced to its present state, and who did it, may remain one of those mysteries that lends to the Fortress of Louisbourg its aura of fascination.


[1] Stevenson The World's Lighthouses Before 1820, pp. 173, 175, 176.

[2] Barkham, "Lighthouse Report," passim.

[3] Ibid; C11B, vol. 18, ff. 149-52, 27 December 1736.

[4] AC B vol. 63, 19 April 1735 - Barkham's note 34; I have been unable to trace this reference.

[5] McLennan, Louisbourg, p.27, fn.3.

[6] Barkham, "Lighthouse Report," pp.9, 10.\

[7] McLennan, Louisbourg, p. 79, fn.3, he is confused, C11B vol. 18, ff. 149-52, 27 December 1736; C11B vol. 20, ff. 115-116v, 15 October 1738, and ff. 227-235, 1 November 1738.

[8] Barkham, "Lighthouse Report," passim.

[9] Barkham, "Lighthouse Report," passim; Dudley Bradstreet Diary," Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 1897, p. 438.

[10] Barkham, "Lighthouse Report," passim.

[11] McLennan, Louisbourg, pp. 161-2, 248, 266.


Almon, Robert, Louisbourg: The Dream City of America. Glace Bay, N.S., 1934. Derives his information from essentially inaccurate sources.

Barkham, Selma, "Lighthouse Report". Unpublished manuscript, Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park, 1968. Superficial, untrustworthy, and considers only a small proportion of the documentation available.

History of Modern Louisbourg 1758-1958. Louisbourg: Women's Institute of Nova Scotia, 1958. A recent local history.

McLennan, J.S., Louisbourg from its Foundation to its Fall. 3rd. ed; Sydney, N.S.: Fortress Press, 1969. As usual a good source, although he is confused on the illuminant and the difference between the 1733 and 1738 lighthouse.

Stevenson, D.A., The World's Lighthouses Before 1820. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1959. Has only a few lines on the Louisbourg light, but draws an interesting comparison between it and others in North America.



This Verrier plan is probably early 1732 and shows the way he intended to build the lantern. The fire is undoubtedly exaggerated, or else it is no wonder the lantern caught fire. The smoke would have had to accumulate under the roof before being forced out. The method of expelling the smoke, and probably the support for the basin, underwent changes during this year of constructions


An anonymous plan of late 1732 showing what remained to be constructed the following year. The system of ventilation has changed to a more efficient one. The support for the stand has not yet undergone a change. It is evident that considerable smoke was generated from the codfish oil, which would have required frequent window cleaning.


This plan shows the completed lantern. The draft system allowed the smoke to clear without accumulation, and at the same time prevented a back draft. The plan shows the brick base on which the bronze basin is supported. The arrangement of the wicks is illustrated, although the cross-braced copper circle supporting the wicks is not. The plan also details the crest, plaque, and what was probably the correct positioning of the windows.


This plan provides a good illustration of the cut stone pillars, the vaulted brick roof, the ventilation system, and the proposed method of supporting the bronze basin in the rebuilt fire-proof lanterns. The enlarged copper basin is shown with its cross-braced copper circle, although it appears as if the new illuminant was to have two circles of wicks.


This late view of the operating lighthouse shows a more rounded roof than other plans, and fails to detail the vaulted roof. The main difference, however, is in the different type of pedestal supporting the illuminant. It appears as if the pedestal is constructed of plastered stones, or of cut stone. In any case it seems as if there was a change from the proposed brick pedestal.


This somewhat fanciful view of the harbour following the 1745 siege illustrates the good use to which the lighthouse was placed. The keeper's house is placed on the wrong side of the lighthouse.


This Backhouse survey of Louisbourg in 1798 is the first absolute proof of the destruction of the 1738 lighthouse. The general accuracy of the survey supports his statement that the lighthouse is a "ruins." Note that all of the tower and part of the lantern are still extant.

N.D. 83

This view of the lighthouse probably dates from 1730, or 1731. Views of the lighthouse start appearing in these years. The view shows the proposed vents and the window placement. Both of these features probably changed. The house to the left is one of the best views of the keeper's lodging and the storeroom for codfish oil.