At The Lighthouse: Installment 1

My undertaking for this project is to delve deeper into the history of the Sheringham Point Lighthouse, located on the coast of Vancouver Island. I have been going down so many rabbit warrens with this project–the phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know” couldn’t be more applicable to this situation. One day you think you know everyone who worked at the station, and the next you sit down for an interview with some lighthouse personnel and they rattle off four names you’ve never heard and you’re back at square one, trying to find phone numbers or obituaries. It does make it difficult to focus on the original history I was trying to stick with, but I think that some the unexpected tangents that have spun off of such endeavours are really interesting, so I’ll share a few.

The first tangent: After chatting with the eldest daughter of the second-to-last lightkeeper, Jim Bruton, I discovered that there had been a movie filmed at the lighthouse back in 1991. She said she even had a still photo from the filming of a stuntman jumping through a window at the top of the lighthouse (aka ‘the lantern room’) and free-falling onto a huge pillow at the edge of the cliff! IMDB was a helpful resource, to a degree. While it is listed in the database, with all of the cast and crew listed, it is fairly unhelpful in actually locating a copy of this film–which probably isn’t helped by the fact that it seems that the film was completely panned, coming in with a stellar 3/10 stars rating on IMDB. Alas, not every film can be an Academy Award winner, I suppose. However, in an interesting twist, it turns out that while the film did not fare well, and most of the actors disappeared off of the face of the earth, the cinematographer went onto be a well-known Hollywood name: Tobias A Schliessler. Film gurus might recognise his name off the top of their heads, but in terms of popular knowledge, he worked on the most recent live action rendition of Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson. But then it gets better…411.com and 411.ca are an amazing trove of information if you know where to look. Lo and behold, I managed to get a hold of Tobias for an interesting discussion about the film, and with a little bit of luck, though he doesn’t know where it is, he thinks may be able to track down a copy of it! So fingers crossed there.

Tangent two: I had two interviews scheduled for yesterday, and had a long drive to the opposite side of the Island (if you’re curious, look up going from Sheringham Point Lighthouse to Campbell River…it felt even longer than it probably was). When I got to Campbell River, I met with Mike and Pat, who were at Sheringham Point Lighthouse twice in the 1960s–as far as interviews go, this was easily my favourite that I have conducted to date. They were truly just such lovely people and had lived such interesting lives–in the next post, I’ll post the link to the interview. By the sounds of it, they also managed to take more than just the memories with them when they left Sheringham Point Lighthouse! They managed to collect a vial of the mercury on which the lens floated (it was used to ensure perfectly friction-less rotation of the lens), and they said that they donated that to the Sooke Region Museum. They also managed to take one of the huge lightbulbs that was used in the lens with them–Pat described the lens, and said that it looked like an ordinary lightbulb, only that it was almost two feet tall! Unfortunately, they donated it to the Campbell River Maritime Heritage Centre (which was entirely new to me, I had no idea this even existed), and when I drove over, it being Sunday, they were already closed, so I could not take any photos. I am hoping to get in contact with their archivist, however, so the story of the giant lightbulb has not reached its conclusion…I am determined to see a photo of this, at the very least. Especially since the rest of the day was a bit of a bust when my second interview cancelled on me. 🙁

Tangent numero tres (which is really more just a funny story): In prehistoric times, when the internet was not around to tell you how long it would take to sail from the bottom of an island to the top, lightkeepers used to see a wide variety of enthusiastic and energetic (and a bit delusional) travelers go by their station in an invariably impractical boat with some lofty and probably unachievable goal. In the interview with Pat and Mike that I mentioned earlier, they said the best example of a delusional traveler they ever saw was that of an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman. He set out from Victoria in a rowboat to which he had added an outboard motor. Feeling like he was going to educate the entire Island, one encyclopedia at a time, he filled his little boat with Encyclopedias (and a couple sewing machines, just in case he could make some sales for Singer while he was at it) until this boat had about two inches of lee-way (in other words, the boat was only two inches still above water…one good wave and he was going to find out exactly how well encyclopedias could float). Evidently, he thought that he was missing something, maybe a bit of music, because he then tied an inflatable dinghy behind this little boat and put an organ in there. And it was in this manner that he sailed by Sheringham Point Lighthouse in the mid 1960s, waving at Pat and Mike. Apparently not too far up the coast, he saw a totem pole that took his fancy, so he chopped it down and tied it behind the dinghy and proceeded to sail all the way to the top of the Island. Pat and Mike were sure that he was not going to survive that trip, but just to see, they radioed up to the last lighthouse that he was headed for, and told them that if a man showed up with a barely-afloat boat inundated with encyclopedias, they would order some from him over the radio. And lo and behold, to their sheer surprise, they ended up with several encyclopedias.

Interesting tid bits aside, from a research perspective, I can certainly understand how people get overwhelmed by having too much material to work with (of course, the corollary to that is that I shouldn’t complain because you can always cut down, right?), but it’s like digging up running roots–you start trying to remove one plant and as you pull you realise that it’s connected to this one, which is connected to these three, and before you know it you’ve pulled up an enormous root system and your garden is in tatters. The more information I collect, the more I feel like I have less of a grip on the ‘history’ and the more I realise that I’m going to have to eventually make the executive decision to not include some material–I mean, a two foot tall lightbulb is incredible, but exactly how pertinent is that going to be in my grand-scheme? I’m not currently sure. Nonetheless, I hope I can work all of this more personal history into my final product, since it makes the history seem a bit more alive.

Comments

  1. Kristin Passero says:

    This was a truly engaging post! I love hearing what research outside of the biological sciences is like. I’ve grown so accustomed to “research” meaning “Me, Alone, with my HeLa Cells” that reading about how you tracked down people in the know about the Sheringham Point Lighthouse was an epic adventure. I definitely am excited to learn whether you uncover any more amusing anecdotes!

  2. Hi Rebecca! This sounds like such an interesting project- the lighthouse seems like a fascinating piece of public history. I can definitely relate to digging through too much information and trying to determine what’s relevant, but it sounds like you’re being incredibly thorough! Good luck finishing your research, and I look forward to seeing what you find!

  3. What a fascinating post! I feel that we can become spoiled by museum exhibits that present history nice and packaged, so it is interesting to learn about the massive behind-the-scenes work that goes into piecing together a full historical narrative. I am also fascinated by your research methods. I know when I need an answer for something I am used to just pouring through internet databases, and sometimes forget that real people can be a valuable source of information –
    particularly information such as this, which has likely never been transcribed! I can’t wait to hear what else you uncover in your research, and look forward to hearing about the final product!

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