Built atop this cliff in 1836, the Cape Spear lighthouse is the oldest of its kind in Newfoundland and has played a major role in the Canadian province’s darker times. Its blinking light helped guide rescue ships ashore through plumes of two great fires, warned ships not to dock when the cholera epidemic struck, and illuminated the course for millions of U.S. servicemen who crossed the Atlantic during World War II.
Trusty towers like Cape Spear have been sending navigational messages to sea voyagers since the Dark Ages. Long before the technology had been developed, ancient sailors relied on natural landmarks like volcanoes to plot their course. By the 8th century BC, coastal dwellers had begun lighting hilltop fires to shepherd ships ashore. The Pharos of Alexandria, the first known lighthouse structure, was built five centuries later. Gracing the Egyptian island of Pharos, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After 20 years of construction, the 350-foot high frame stood just shy of the Great Pyramid of Giza — the tallest manmade structure of the time. A fire burned from the tower’s crown until the 14th century, when cumulative earthquake damage reduced it to ruin. The legendary Pharos of Alexandria remains the tallest lighthouse ever built and in its towering image all the world’s lighthouses were realized. The Romans were the first to reference this Egyptian blueprint, building nearly 30 wood-fuelled lighthouses as they expanded their empire from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. The decline of trade during the Early Middle Ages plunged many lighthouse sites into darkness until the 1100s, when France and Italy lit wood fire beacons once again.
“Trusty towers like Cape Spear have been sending navigational messages to sea voyagers since the Dark Ages.”
Whale oil eventually became the light keeper’s fuel of choice in the 1500s; favored for its slower burning time and clearer light quality. To ensure light burned through the night, keepers maintained an eight-hour vigil over oil lamps like the seven initially installed at Cape Spear.
A surge in oceanic travel during the 1600s saw lighthouses claim many hilltops. By the time Cape Spear was erected, there were over 1,000 lighthouses shining across North American seas. The mariner’s course became even clearer with the invention of the Fresnel lens — a network of prisms that magnified and refracted the lamp. The lens shone a light equal to one million candles and could radiate 20 miles out to sea. Due east of the Cape, the Souter Lighthouse in England was the first to be powered by electricity. The most famous electric lighthouse, however, remains the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, whose beam shone from 1886 to 1902. Over 20 years later, Cape Spear joined a host of electric towers, upping its luminosity with the installation of a 500-watt bulb.
Surpassed by electronic navigation systems like GPS, lighthouses are no longer essential to guide the weary sailor home and serve only as a technology failsafe. On the one hand, the Cape Spear lighthouse’s ghostly form represents this antiquity. But as it winks through the fog, its symbolic presence seems intact. For land-lovers and seafarers alike, the lighthouse is a reminder to embrace the uncertainty of life’s long journeys and trust you’ll reach your destination in the end.