Vanishing Lights: A Lightkeeper's Fascination with a Disappearing Way of Life


168 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88999-487-0
DDC 387.1'55






Reviewed by Terrence Paris

Terrence Paris is Public Services Librarian at Mount St. Vincent
University in Halifax.


It is not so much the lights that are vanishing from the coastline of
Nova Scotia as the human presence. In the 1980s, more than 70 light
stations in the Maritimes were destaffed as a consequence of the federal
government policy of automation. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, only
four stations remain staffed.

Chris Mills has had direct experience as a keeper at four different
lights, and devotes one chapter to each site. Cross Island, at the mouth
of Lunenburg Harbour, is 400 acres of spruce, woods, grassy bluffs, and
shale cliffs, once occupied by 16 families and now left to wildlife and
the ghosts of drowned fishermen. In 1989, 155 years of lightkeeping
ended with the inevitable automation. While describing his next posting,
at Seal Island, located 25 nautical miles off the southwest extremity of
Nova Scotia in a graveyard of ships, Mills pays tribute to the women who
have worked as lightkeepers and rescuers of mariners in distress. In
1990 the last keeper left the newly automated lighthouse, abandoning the
island to feral cats and kelp-eating sheep. Mills then describes his
life on Machias Seal Island, known informally as the “seabird
republic” and more formally by partisans of the U.S. claim as the
“U.S. Territory of Machias Seal Islands.” Finally, he describes his
current posting as assistant keeper of the light on tiny Gannet Rock, a
one-half-acre “lump of conglomerate” at the mouth of the Bay of

Mills has written an interesting and timely book, and is to be
commended for providing a clear map of the sites he describes. More than
simply recalling a vanishing occupation, he has produced a tribute to
the men and women who have kept the lights burning for a century and a
half. A second book of lightkeepers’ reminiscences is promised.


Mills, Chris., “Vanishing Lights: A Lightkeeper's Fascination with a Disappearing Way of Life,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,