P.E.I. lighthouses on shaky ground due to rising costs and aging volunteers, supporters say

Cathy Murchison Krolikowski is the granddaughter of one of the Point Prim lighthouse keepers and sits on the board of the Point Prim Lighthouse Society.  (Julien Lecacheur/CBC - image credit)
Cathy Murchison Krolikowski is the granddaughter of one of the Point Prim lighthouse keepers and sits on the board of the Point Prim Lighthouse Society. (Julien Lecacheur/CBC - image credit)

These are busy times for the non-profit groups that operate lighthouses across Prince Edward Island.

The summer tourism season is when they need to generate the money necessary to keep the iconic structures open to the public.

That's the commitment they made when they took over the buildings from the federal government in years past. But for many of the community groups, it has become a time-consuming and expensive endeavour.

In southeastern P.E.I., the local Women's Institute chapter initially took over the Point Prim Lighthouse when it was divested as a federal asset in 2015. The board of the Point Prim Lighthouse Society, made up of volunteers from the local community, now operates the site.

Built in 1845, Point Prim is one of the oldest lighthouses in Canada, and according to Parks Canada, one of only two in Canada to combine a round form with brick construction.

The Point Prim Lighthouse received nearly $400,000 in upgrades in 2016, including an expanded parking lot and a new building.
The Point Prim Lighthouse received nearly $400,000 in upgrades in 2016, including an expanded parking lot and a new building.

The Point Prim Lighthouse received nearly $400,000 in upgrades in 2016, including an expanded parking lot and a new building on the site. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

"We were lucky enough to have a really good group of people in the area that was very interested in taking it over and looking after it," said Kathy Murchison Krolikowski, a local artisan as well as a granddaughter of one of the historic lighthouse's keepers.

"We felt fortunate that way because a lot of places... if you don't have a community group to take over it, it just gets sold privately, I guess. And we didn't want to see it."

Paying the bills

Murchison Krolikowski said the Coast Guard takes care of the still-operating light in the structure, but the community group handles everything else.

She said the profits from the gift shop generate "quite a bit of money." It features only Island artists as vendors, which supports the artistic community on P.E.I.

Murchison Krolikowski said it costs at least $50,000 annually to operate the site and sometimes more, depending on the repairs needed each year.

For example, the lighthouse floors had to be strengthened "because it was really only made for one person to use it," she said. "Now we have buses with all kinds of people and we worry a little bit about the longevity of the lighthouse if we have that many people going in and out."

A lot of the painting has to be done using boom trucks, which can pose a challenge on a windy fall day.
A lot of the painting has to be done using boom trucks, which can pose a challenge on a windy fall day.

It is expensive to paint a lighthouse. The Panmure Island Lighthouse will be repainted this summer, at a cost of $30,000. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Admission was by donation at first, but they now charge $6 per person to go into the lighthouse.

"We want to make things affordable for people, but we are also considering raising the price of admission just so that not as many people are going in it, because we have to think of that long term," Murchison Krolikowski said.

About 50,0000 people now visit the lighthouse annually, up from 6,000 visitors in 2014, before the non-profit took over.

In Prince Edward Island, a ban on plastic shopping bags is coming on July 1st, 2019.
In Prince Edward Island, a ban on plastic shopping bags is coming on July 1st, 2019.

Built in 1845, Point Prim is one of the oldest lighthouses in Canada. Parks Canada believes it is one of only two in Canada to combine a round form with brick construction. (Alex Bruce/Point Prim Lighthouse, PEI/Facebook)

She said they also receive funding to hire summer employees, which she said makes a "big difference" and lets them hire more than they could otherwise afford.

The group's members are also concerned about coastal erosion, she said. They have already laid heavy stone along the shoreline, but would like to build a tidal reef to protect it.

30-year commitment

The Panmure Island Lighthouse Association has operated its site since 2016. The lighthouse was sold off for a dollar, but with conditions attached.

"Our contract stated that we would maintain the lighthouse and restore it and keep it open to the public for a period of no less than 30 years," said operations manager Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown is operations manager at the Panmure Island Lighthouse.
Jackie Brown is operations manager at the Panmure Island Lighthouse.

Jackie Brown is operations manager at the Panmure Island Lighthouse. (Julien Lecacheur/CBC)

"There is a penalty clause that states if we do not maintain our lighthouse, the government can come back and the board of directors would be charged for the fair market value of the lighthouse and the land," Brown said.

"So we are very motivated to make sure that our board of directors doesn't face that. That's in our contract."

We've had our lighthouse now since December of 2016 and it's hard work.
— Jackie Brown, Panmure Island Lighthouse Association 

Brown said she worries about the future upkeep of the lighthouse, though.

"That's going to be tough as our volunteers age. We've had our lighthouse now since December of 2016 and it's hard work," Brown said.

"Thirty years is a long time and all of us are most of us are seniors. So that is an issue. We definitely need younger blood."

Seacow Head lighthouse appeared in the opening scenes of many of the episodes of the TV series Road to Avonlea, adapted from books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Seacow Head lighthouse appeared in the opening scenes of many of the episodes of the TV series Road to Avonlea, adapted from books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Friends of Seacow Head Lighthouse Inc. took ownership of the lighthouse from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2022. The building will be open to the public starting in July 2024. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Brown said erosion is also a concern where the Panmure Lighthouse sits.

"We are very close to the edge. We have spoken to our government officials about moving the lighthouse and about shoreline protection," she said.

"But right now there appears to be a [provincial] moratorium on shoreline armouring, which would be my first choice."

The Cape Bear Lighthouse is a unique landmark in PEI, in that it was the first Canadian lighthouse to receive the distress signal from the Titanic in 1912 (a lighthouse in Newfoundland received the signal before Cape Bear, but Newfoundland had not joined Canada yet). Cape Bear, PEI. May 30, 2024. See the iconic red top of the lighthouse that has been restored.

The Cape Bear Lighthouse recently had the top section repaired and restored. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Moving the pre-Confederation lighthouse back from the shore won't be easy, she said.

"It was built in 1853 and it is a heavy-timbered lighthouse," Brown said. "Honestly, it's the location of this lighthouse that is so special. So if you move it, you've lost some of that."

Provincial help

Brown said the Panmure Island Lighthouse receives provincial funding to help the volunteers hire summer students from the surrounding area, which was part of their business plan.

They've also gotten rural infrastructure funding to redo the railings inside the lighthouse, as well as a free heat pump from the province.

Now the lighthouse needs a fresh coat of paint, which is scheduled to be applied in July, as well as new shingles to replace some lost during post-tropical storm Fiona in 2022.

Brown says there are 23 full lighthouses on P.E.I., along with 20 pairs of range lights, for a total of 63 structures across the Island. (Tourism P.E.I.)

Brown said it is "excellent" that the P.E.I. government will cover 75 per cent of the $30,000 price tag.

"This is a very difficult climate for any building, and this one is as solid as a rock, but it needs some tweaking to keep it looking nice," she said.

Brown said they charge admission for people to climb to the top of the tower, as well as raising money through the gift shop. They also do other fundraisers over the winter to help cover the costs.

Brown says nine lighthouses that are open to the public are on the Points East Coastal Drive, so they are a draw to the area, including the East Point Lighthouse.
Brown says nine lighthouses that are open to the public are on the Points East Coastal Drive, so they are a draw to the area, including the East Point Lighthouse.

Brown says nine lighthouses open to the public are situated on the Points East Coastal Drive, including the East Point Lighthouse. They draw many visitors to the areas in which they are located. (Julien Lecacheur/CBC)

Brown said nine lighthouses that are open to the public are situated along the Points East Coastal Drive, so they definitely draw people to the area.

She said the Panmure site alone gets between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors a summer.

Brown said there are 23 full lighthouses, along with 20 pairs of range lights, for a total of 63 structures across Prince Edward Island.