By Cynthia Parr
[Editor’s Note: This article is an expanded version of the article that ran in the April 2023 issue of the Cooperator.]
Lighthouses are as Nova Scotian as lobster traps and painted buoys; stories of violent storms, shipwrecks, and even ghosts still capture the imaginations of visitors and locals alike. While a few of our lighthouses were home to such drama regularly, others guarded calmer waters, like the one that stood on Jeddore Rock. From 1881 to 1958, the small island near the harbour’s entrance was home to a tended lighthouse, not surprisingly named Jeddore Rock Light. Before it was automated in ‘58, the lighthouse was manned by several Eastern Shore locals, each of whom contributed to the preservation of the light and the safety of fishers and others passing and entering the harbour.
By 1881, lighthouse operations in Nova Scotia were supervised by the Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries. In May of that year, Jacob Howser of Halifax was awarded the tender to build a lighthouse on the Rock, as well as a dwelling and several out buildings, all for $3,362. John Harpell, of Lower West Jeddore, recalled that youth in the area could hear the construction from shore and were very excited when the new lighthouse was finally lit. By December of 1881, the wooden tower stood 50 feet high (86 feet above high water), with a fixed red light. It was square, painted white, with a keeper’s dwelling attached. By 1905, two red stripes were painted on the tower for daytime visibility, and during WWI, the red light was changed to white to make the Rock less identifiable by submarines.
There is some difference of opinion over the first keeper of Jeddore Rock Light. Some accounts mention George Crockett, who was a teacher on the Eastern Shore. Two of his five daughters married lightkeepers, and George also stayed on the Rock for a while, but no official accounts record him as a keeper. Albert Warnell, of Salmon River Bridge, became the first lighthouse keeper in 1881. He and his wife, Eliza Jane Crockett, lived on the Rock for less than a year and resigned by the fall of 1882. The Canadian Parliamentary Sessional Papers, 1883, mention that, “By order, in council,” John William Mitchell was appointed keeper of the light at Jeddore Rock on September 29th, 1882 “in the room of Albert Warnell, resigned.” Like Mr. Warnell’s, Mr. Mitchell’s salary was to be $400 per year.
John William Mitchell, or John Will, as he was known, was 25 when he and his wife, Ann Harpell Crockett, moved to the Rock along with two young sons: Wesley, who was three, and Guy Meadows, born in January that year. John Will and Annie would raise four boys on the Rock: Wesley, Guy, Asef Hall, and Robert. They kept the light for 40 years until John retired in 1922, the only keeper to spend most of his career on the Rock. Like many lightkeepers’ families, John and Annie and the boys likely created their own entertainment and hobbies, did some fishing, and grew what they could on the island. They welcomed visitors when they were able to land at the Rock, including John Harpell, who had followed the lighthouse construction as a child.
However, even in a lighthouse relatively close to shore (approximately two miles from Jeddore Cape), life was challenging. In his book, Lighthouse Legacies, Chris Mills describes the responsibilities of the lightkeepers who often made the difference between life and death for mariners. John Will would have been expected to clean and light the kerosene lantern every evening, keep watch at night and respond to boats signaling in the fog with a hand-operated foghorn, perform all repairs to the machinery, and keep the lighthouse painted. Although unpaid, wives were often relied upon as backup keepers, and it was assumed that Annie would take over the lighthouse duties, in addition to her own, if necessary. Receiving deliveries of supplies could be extremely challenging, requiring coordination of the supply boat’s crew with the conditions and the keeper, then, in early days, hauling the supplies up ladders poised on the cliffs. Storms, of course, made moving around the Rock even more hazardous than usual. The lighthouse and dwelling were often cold and drafty, with no running water or electricity, and looking after children was complicated by the ever-present dangers of falling from the Rock. The only form of communication to the mainland was a conch shell, which John or Annie would blow in emergencies, no doubt hoping, but not knowing, that someone ashore would hear and respond.
John and Annie were able to leave the Rock, when necessary, although never for extended periods of time. Annie went ashore to give birth to their sons, at least one at the home of Mrs. Grace Blakeney in Harpell’s Cove. Tragically, their third son, Ira Judson, born in 1884, died on the Rock three months later and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in West Jeddore. In 1890, John and Annie were able to build a family home on Mitchell Point in Oyster Pond. According to one report, when the four boys were ready to go to school, Annie took them back to Oyster Pond for the school year, and they visited the Rock on weekends and holidays. There are several mentions of Annie’s father, George Crockett, living on the Rock and helping with the work, which may have freed John and Annie to be absent together.
Unfortunately, it was not unusual for families at the time to suffer great losses, and another of John and Annie’s sons passed away during their time on the Rock: Wesley, their firstborn, had left to work elsewhere, and died in 1912 at the age of 33. After their 40-year tenure, John and Annie left the Rock in 1922 and retired to the family home in Oyster Pond. Their fourth son, Asef Hall, known as Hall, had stayed with them on the Rock and became the keeper in 1922 when John and Annie left. Lighthouse keepers – especially bachelors – had to entertain themselves for weeks on end: Hall, in addition to performing all the lighthouse responsibilities, built rocking chairs and other furniture from the crates used to ship supplies. Before the end of the year, he too moved to the house in Oyster Pond, and the keeping of the light was passed to Otto Baker.
Annie became involved with the Baptist Church in Oyster Pond, and by 1927 was president of the United Baptist Women’s Missionary Unit. John Will died on June 11th, 1938, leaving Annie and Hall in the family home. The youngest son, Robert Addington Stedman Mitchell, born in 1889, had moved off the Rock to become a welder. He lived as a bachelor until he was 56, at which time he married Lena Alice Hartlin, a widow. The wedding was held on June 29th, 1945 at Annie’s home in Oyster Pond with Hall as the best man. After only three short years of marriage, however, Robert died suddenly on November 10th, 1948. He was 59. Annie, who had survived the loss of her husband and three of their sons, lived until 1952. Guy Meadows, who had left the Rock and worked as a Commissioner for the Halifax and Dartmouth ferry, lived until 1960. Although he passed in 1974, there are reports that Hall’s spirit remains in the family home that still stands today.
Special thanks to Heather Mitchell for sharing her time and her wonderful collection of family information. Picture of John and Annie used with her permission. Picture of John in front of the lighthouse, and picture of the lighthouse, by Clara Dennis, used with permission of The Nova Scotia Archives.
The keepers of Jeddore Rock Light were
- Alfred Warnell (1881-1882)
- John William Mitchell (1882-1922)
- Asef Hall Mitchell (1922)
- Otto Baker (1922-1926)
- Reginald W. Baker (1926-1930)
- Howard J Blakeney (1930-1942)
- Frank L. Baker (1942-1946)
- Albert R. Arnold (1946-1958)
Invaluable details of the keepers’ lives come from their families and friends. If you would like to share information, pictures, or stories about any of these keepers, it would be much appreciated. All bits of knowledge are important and can be pieced together to preserve Jeddore’s history.
Cynthia Parr taught college and university English before she moved back to West Jeddore in 2018. Now that she is retired, she has time to pursue her interest in local history and hopes to compile a collection of stories about the keepers of Jeddore Rock Light. You can reach her at [email protected] or (902)889-9081.