In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cape Roseway Light, 1857

In 1857 a newly-appointed superintendent,  very conscientious, visited nearly all of the forty-one lighthouses then in operation in Nova Scotia. Sailed from light to light, all along the edges of the province. He spent two days at the light on McNutt's Island. And the report that he submitted to the House of Assembly is a snapshot of what life was like at Cape Roseway Light then.

This report -- of almost useless lights, leaking roofs, "wretched" living conditions and complaints against the light -- gives us some insight into the hardship of keeping the light at McNutt's Island. Though some of the other lighthouses at the time had an assistant lightkeeper, Alexander Hood Cocken did not, at least not officially. He may have paid somebody out of his own pocket if he needed to leave the island. Or maybe his wife Jannet took care of the light if he was away, or too tired, or sick.  

According to the report, the complaints against the light were valid -- it sounds like it couldn't be seen very well from out at sea, which would be a problem for a lighthouse -- but the fault was not in the light keeper, who was doing the best he could. The fault was in the condition of the lights, which had not been maintained and repaired by the province.

The lightkeeper in 1857 was Alexander Hood Cocken. What we know about him: he was christened in the Anglican church in Shelburne in 1787, the oldest of five children born to Alexander and Catherine Cocken. Since there's no information about his two brothers except for their christening, they likely died young. His father Alexander, a Loyalist, was the first keeper appointed at Cape Roseway Light, and oversaw the slow, fitful construction that began in 1787. Remember, Shelburne was a bubble that burst fast. Even in 1787 it was already subsiding.The light was not actually put into service until several years later. That first Alexander Cocken would be light keeper for twenty-four years.

When the elder Alexander Cocken died in 1812, Alexander Hood Cocken, then about twenty-five years old, became keeper. He had probably grown up helping his father care for the light.                                                                     

So when the provincial superintendent made his visit in that summer of 1857, Alexander Hood Cocken was seventy years old. Maybe he once toddled about in the shadow of the lighthouse; maybe he spent his childhood climbing its ladders and polishing its glass. He had been the official keeper for forty-five years. This old man could surely tell the new superintendent all there was to know about Cape Roseway Light. He would continue to keep the light until his retirement in 1860.

The superintendent reported that the lightkeeper's house was wretched and ought to be torn down but maybe could be patched up and made to last for a few more years.

Altogether the Cockens -- father and son -- kept the light for seventy-three years.

You can click on the Superintendent's Report to enlarge it.

Information on Alexander Cocken and his son Alexander Hood Cocken is in Founders of Shelburne, Nova Scotia: Who Came, 1783-1793, and Stayed (Eleanor Robertson Smith and Kim Robertson Walker, Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society, Lockeport, NS, 2008), 29-31; and a letter  from Alexander Hood Cocken to Joseph Howe, in the Nova Scotia Archives.

The Superintendent's Report on Light Houses, 1857, is courtesy of NSARM, where you can read more at the wonderful virtual exhibit on lighthouses.

The photograph of Cape Roseway Light c.1942 is used by permission of the family of Augustine (Gus) Gough, whose connection with McNutt's Island you can read about here

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