|Victoria in the 1850's was emerging as an important economic centre. The booming timber business and excellent harbours at both Victoria and Esquimalt resulted in a significant increase in shipping. Captain George Richards aboard the vessel Plumper was surveying the coast for the British Admiralty in London. In his letter to the Admiralty that accompanied Captain Richards' report, Rear-Admiral Robert Baynes wrote: "a great want which is felt by all vessels coming to Vancouver's Island of a light on the North shore on the Race Islands or Rocks." Baynes wrote that it was "almost impossible after dark" to make Victoria Harbour "as the entrance [is] so difficult to distinguish." The decision to construct the Admiralty's first lights on the West Coast at Fisgard at the entrance to Esquimalt harbour and at Race Rocks was soon made.
The construction of the Race Rocks light house was an remarkable undertaking. The Admiralty selected Scottish granite that was cut and numbered in Scotland and then shipped as ballast in an outbound timber ship for assembly at Race Rocks. Throughout the summer of 1860 the massive stones were barged from the harbour to the Race and assembled using timber derricks and scaffolding. The workers struggled with the construction project through the spring summer and fall of 1860.
ADDITIONAL HISTORICAL NOTE:
From The Times of Britain, May 9 January 1860: "THE ROYAL NAVY OF 1860.- By the official Navy List for the present month and quarter we find that the British navy consists o£ 518 vessels, including screw steamers of every description, exclusive of which there are 153 gunboats, 121 brigs, hulks, &c., employed in harbour service, and 47 coastguard tenders. Of the number of vessels composing the navy no less than 314 are in commission and doing duty in every part of the globe. The vessels in commission are distributed as follows:- 65 line-of-battle ships, frigates, sloops, and gunboats attached to the East Indies and China station, 18 on the Coast of Africa, 6 at Australia, 13 in the Pacific, 3 in the Brazils, 8 on the south-east coast of America, 8 at the Cape of Good Hope, 21 on the North America and West India station, 41 in the Mediterranean, 19 attached to the Channel squadron, and the remaining 112 are employed on particular service or attached as guardships to the principal ports in Great Britain and Ireland. The HMS Topaze (1858) was one of the "Channel Squadron" The crew of the Topaze, a 24-gun Liffey class wooden screw frigate of the Royal Navy assisted in the building of the Lighthouse. John Welbore Sunderland Spencer R.N.(1816-1888) , the sixth son of Francis Almeric Spencer (1st Baron Churchil, 1779-1845) and grandson of George, 3rd Duke of Marlborough was Captain of the Topaze from 11 June 1859 to 31 December 1863 (from commissioning at Plymouth until paying off at Plymouth), Channel squadron, then (October 1859) Pacific (Commodore, senior officer on the southern division of the Pacific station)"
This same ship in 1868 was responsible for removing the Moai from Easter Island and shipping them to England as a gift for Queen Victoria. They were then given to the British Museum.
An additional reference from the Rapanui website states the following:
Race Rock Lighthouse in British Colombia, Canada, was built by the crew of HMS Topaz and outside laborers under a contract awarded to John Morris.
(SEE THIS UPDATE FILE which presents a different version of Construction)
This file of the Royal Engineers presents the "quarried in Scotland "version also
In this file I have accumulated several archival entries from the Daily Colonist which refer to the early (1860's-1900's) Race Rocks History.
Shipwrecks at Race Rocks:
A summary index of the shipwrecks at or around Race Rocks is available here.
Three days prior to the official operating date for the lighthouse (December 25, 1860) the Nanette, a British vessel carrying sawmill machinery and Hudson's Bay Company merchandise, ran into thick fog by early evening and was swept up by the swift tide along the shoals. Early the next morning the Nanette was thrown against the rock by a seven-knot tide and the vessel began to sink. The salvage operation became difficult when news of the cargo's value (estimated $200,000) spread, attracting many looters, and requiring officers and sailors to police the area. Further salvage of the vessel came to a stop in 1861 when the Nanette was swept to the depth of 15 fathoms in foul weather.
Soon after the light went into service in 1860 it became obvious that the tower was difficult to see by day when approaching from the west. Distinctive black and white stripes were painted on the tower by the first lightkeeper George Davies to improve it's visibility against the shoreline. These markings remain today maintaining Race Rock's unique appearance. Although the light was a great improvement on clear nights when it was visible for 18 miles the hazards of Race Rocks were still very real in fog.
The islets are shrouded in fog for up to 45 days a year. With only the station bell for a keeper to sound in the fog, the Race continued to be the final resting place of the ships of unsuspecting crews drawn to the reefs by the relentless tide rips.
In 1892 the Department of Marine and Fisheries installed a steam plant and two compressed air fog horns at Race Rocks. The Department had taken over operation of lighthouses from the British Admiralty in 1871 when British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada. Despite the addition of the powerful horns tragedies continued at Race Rocks.
Another reference on the foghorns is here:
The issue of the reliability of the lightkeepers and the operation of the horns at Race Rocks was finally resolved in May 1929 when the Hydrographic Survey ship Lilloet conducted an investigation of the so called silent zone the keepers and various ships masters had always claimed existed. The Lilloet expedition proved that an unusual deflection of the sound as a result of the location of the horns was in fact a serious problem. The horns were then moved to a separate tower and for the first time were truly useful.
Lightkeepers of the coast were the heroes of the new frontier and the burgeoning coastal communities. Their living conditions were extremely difficult. The original stone house at the base of the light tower at Race Rock was very drafty and damp. In southeast gales the rain penetrated the cement joints in the structure. At some stations the keepers claimed the curtains flapped in a good gale! The first keeper's time at the Race was a very unfortunate one. George Davies and his wife Rosina eagerly awaited the visit of her brother, sister-in-law and three friends on Christmas Day 1865. As the skiff approached with the Davies family watching and waving from the station, a tide rip only 20 feet from the jetty swept the small boat away, capsizing it and dumping the shocked passengers and their Christmas gifts into the water. The station had no boat at this time and each the unfortunate visitors perished. The new year was no better for the Davies family. During the winter of 1866 George became seriously ill. The Union Jack flew at half mast at the station as a signal of distress for nine days but to no avail. George Davies died at the Race shortly before Christmas 1866.
In 1867 Thomas Argyle was appointed as Chief Keeper of Race Rocks Light at an annual salary of $630. His wife Ellen was retained as matron at $150 and two assistant keepers were hired at a salary of $390 each for the year. Supplying the station was always difficult as it involved rowing out from Victoria but at least the Admiralty paid up to $900 a year for supplies. The employment conditions for the keeper of Race Rocks were relatively good at this time compared to the situation after 1871 when the new Dominion Government took over the lights. Argyle's annual salary was then cut to a paltry $125 and he was expected to pay for his own assistants and all supplies. Argyle apparently took to the sea to supplement his food supplies. His family had grown considerably as six children were born to the Argyles at Race Rocks. He was known to dive into the frigid waters around the station in search of abalone, scallops and mussels.
It seems that Thomas Argyle's luck suddenly changed in about 1885. The Colonist newspaper reported that he was paying for his weekly supplies in Victoria with gold sovereigns. When Thomas died thirty years later at the age of eighty he had still not exhausted his apparently endless supply of gold coins. It would appear that Thomas Argyle's diving expeditions had resulted in the discovery of sunken treasure. "The sea provides!" Argyle served at Race Rocks for twenty-one years and retired in 1888. One son was drowned at age 19 when returning from Victoria with a friend. Another son Albert took over as temporary keeper until a new appointment was made on January 1, 1889. According to descendants of Argyle they would not allow him to stay on as keeper because he was not married!
A watery grave: Thomas Argyle Jr., at 25 years of age
Lightkeeper Argyle searches and is unable to find his son and other drowning victims.
Appointments to government jobs were always closely linked with political patronage. The appointment of W.P. Daykin who came from Sand Head station was clearly influenced in this way. Daykin served for three years before moving on to Carmanah Light Station on the outside coast. Frederick Eastwood, his wife and three children moved to Race Rocks in April 1891. When Eastwood hired two Japanese assistants the discriminatory attitudes of the times befell him. He was charged with dereliction of duty when the local MP Colonel Edward G. Prior wrote to the Minister in the fall of 1900 stating that "for a long time past this lighthouse has been in the charge of two Japanese instead of a white man" The Minister Louis Davies replied that "The Department was not desirous to encourage in any way the employment of these men." White men should have the preference. Eastwood served until he retired in 1919.
A second keeper was lost in a tragedy on January 23 1950. Arthur Anderson left his wife and two children to obtain supplies ashore and never returned. His skiff turned up empty along the American shore near Port Angeles. Anderson was never found.
In the early 1960's , the old stone house attached to the bottom of the tower was destroyed under the "efficiency policies" of the time by the Canadian Coast Guard