Light Hearted

Light Hearted ep 114 – Cindy Larouche, Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, Canada

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Pointe-au-Père is near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and about 160 miles northeast of Quebec City, Canada. For many years, river pilots helped incoming vessels to steer safely toward Quebec City. The Montreal Ocean Steamship Company established the first lighthouse and foghorn on Pointe-au-Père in 1859. The government of Canada purchased the lighthouse two years later. After the original lighthouse was destroyed by fire, a new one was built in 1867. The first and second lighthouses were both wooden dwellings with lanterns on their roofs.

Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse, U.S. Lighthouse Society photo.
Cindy Larouche (Parks Canada)

Work on the extant lighthouse at Pointe-au-Père began in 1909. The octagonal tower, 92 feet tall, is made of steel-reinforced concrete. With its buttresses, the design was unusual for Canada. Today, the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site offers climbs to the top of the tower and exhibits in the former keeper’s house.

Cindy Larouche is the manager of the Pointe-au-Père National Historic Site, and she also manages the Battle of the Restigouche National Historic Site

Here is a transcript of the interview:

JEREMY D’ENTREMONT

I’m speaking today with Cindy Larouche, who is the manager of the Pointe-au-Père National Historic Site in Quebec, Canada. We’ve covered lighthouses in Nova Scotia and British Columbia before on this podcast. This is the first time we’re focusing on one in Quebec. Thank you so much for joining me today, Cindy.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Nice to meet you.

JEREMY

Likewise. Let’s talk about the history of the lighthouse and so forth. But before we do that, I just want to ask you – I’m kind of curious to know a little bit about what led you to being the manager of two historic sites in Quebec.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Well, it was a happy coincidence that led me to become the visitor experience manager at two historic sites of Parks Canada. First of all, having a very great interest in travel, I first studied tourism and then I did a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Quebec at Rimouski. I always been drawn to culture, education, and museum sector. And furthermore, I have worked in tourism and cultural development in various institutions in Gaspésie and the Lower St. Lawrence region. So when I saw that Parks Canada was looking to fill a position on its team, I told myself, Cindy, you must apply right away. There was a mix of my interest and it helped me to use my skills in many ways. I applied for my dream job and I got it. And I’m still here eight years later. Managing two incredible national sites and doing my best to keep employees happy at work and visitors enjoying their visit. 

JEREMY

Yeah. Well, that’s great. You know, not everybody gets to find their dream job, so I’m happy that worked out for you. That’s wonderful. 

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah. 

JEREMY

So besides the lighthouse site, you also manage the Battle of the Restigouche National Historic Site. Can you explain what that is?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah, this national historic site highlights a very interesting but little-known event in the history of New France. It was the last naval battle that took place in the Restigouche River between the French and the British for the conquest of the North American territory. During this war in 1760, the colony of New France was forced to ask for reinforcements from France, which sent soldiers and ammunition and food to the fleet of six ships. In the end, only three ships including a frigate and two merchant ships ended up in the Restigouche River to hide. They were eventually sunk by British ships in a battle that took place and resulted in the victory of the British fleet. And for more than 200 years, the remains of the different ships remained underwater. But in the ‘70s, Parks Canada carried out archeological excavations, which brought to the surface parts of the Machault ship, such as an anchor and a stern post. Today visitors can view an exhibit about this naval history, which takes place in four rooms that have a vintage ship look, such as a boardroom, between-decks, and a cargo room. It’s a very interesting site.

JEREMY

Yeah, well, it sounds like it. I feel like I really need to get up there and visit both the lighthouse and the historic site for the battle. Yeah. And I will come one of these days. So I’d like to talk a little bit about the history of the light station. What makes Pointe-au-Père so important for navigation on the St. Lawrence?

CINDY LAROUCHE

The Pointe-au-Père site overlooks the point where internal waters meet the open sea. The very particular geographic location made it one of Canada’s main navigational aid stations for over a hundred years. The pilot station was in operation between 1905 and 1959. And it’s interesting to know that four separate lighthouses were built on the site, surrounded by a sound signal and various outbuilding like a lighthouse keeper’s house, a foghorn shed, and a pilot shelter. The site had also a Marconi telegraph office and a medical inspection service for ships traveling up river. And finally the station was also used as a testing ground for various sound navigation before use at other Canadian light stations.

JEREMY

Pointe-au-Père Light Station in 1905
(U.S. Lighthouse Society archives)

So I was reading that the first two lighthouses there were actually keeper’s dwellings with the lanterns on the roof. Why was it decided to make the third structure, the one that’s there today – why did they make it so different than the others?

CINDY LAROUCHE

At the time, reinforced concrete had just begun to be used in engineering. Reinforced concrete was chosen mainly because of its high/low capacity and fire resistance in addition to being the most economical solution at this time.

(Musée régional de Rimouski)

JEREMY

I was reading about the history of the fog signals there also, which is very interesting. By my count, there were at least five different types of fog signals used there over the years. Maybe you could say a little bit about that.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Absolutely. Whenever conditions reduced visibility at sea, the lighthouse keeper has to replace the usual visual signal by a sound signal. The Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse played an important role in testing different types of sound signals, which were subsequently implemented in other Canadian lighthouses. As you said, they were five different signals used at Pointe-au-Père. The first was a fog cannon. The sound was produced by a cannon, which the keeper had to load with gunpowder and fire every half hour. The fog cannon had its failing, because its sound lasted for such a short time. Pilots would miss this if not paying attention. This gave rise to many complaints from captains and pilots since a single detonation every half hour was not enough to navigate through fog. 

And so the cannon signal was replaced by an explosive bomb signal. The signal was now using explosive firecrackers. The light keeper would light the firecrackers at 20-minute intervals to guide navigators. And the explosion took place on a crane, a long pole on top of the building sheltering the cannon. Like the cannon, the system required the use of explosives and was also dangerous to use. And by the time the navigation system opened in spring 1903, the explosive signal made way for the siren. This whistle used compressed air and went off when the air passed through a rotating cylinder. It made a high note and then a low note for two and a half seconds apart every two minutes. And after that, a little later a professor at the University of Toronto invented the diaphone by making changes to the siren. And finally, as part of Transport Canada’s effort to upgrade navigation aids, the diaphone at Pointe-au-Père was decommissioned in 1972, and the system was replaced by an electronic sound signal. It means that a visibility reader activates the audible signal as soon as there is too much mist. And the electronic sound signal was used until the Pointe-au-Père navigational aid center closed in 1997.

JEREMY

Okay. That’s quite a history there. I was in England a couple of years ago and got to hear a diaphone horn that’s still operating at the Souter Lighthouse in England, and it’s very impressive. It’s so, so loud. It’s incredible. Yeah. 

CINDY LAROUCHE

You’re lucky!

JEREMY

You can hear that online. There are YouTube videos; it’s the S O U T E R Lighthouse in England. So if we can touch on the human history a little bit, are there any particular stories of the keepers and families at Pointe-au-Père that you find especially interesting?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yes. There are several interesting stories about lighthouse keepers at Pointe-au-Père. Several keepers have been witness to great and tragic events in the two world wars and the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. It should be mentioned that keepers’ work involved many dangers. Also, it did not happen at Pointe-au-Père, but some even lost their lives while on duty. The keeper always had to be careful, vigilant, and resourceful. From 1911 to 1936, John Cahill, John Wyatt, and his son Robert succeeded each other at Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse. After the first world war the keeper’s job had become more demanding as he became responsible for the sound signal, a very demanding job for both the keeper and his assistant. Charles Augustus Lavoie was at Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse between 1936 and 1964 and he left the world testimonies that described the complexity of the work on the light station. For example, he relates that the day started at midnight and ended up at midnight. With that system they would work by rotation, six hours at a time, because they always had to be on the job. Then there was a lot to do on the station, so the grounds, the buildings, painting, repairing a leaky roof, and replacing windows. He relates how it was. It wasn’t easy to install a window that weighed between 40 and 50 pounds, a hundred feet from the ground with the wind blowing.

JEREMY

Wow.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah. An interesting fact to know is that the role of Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse keepers changed during the second world war with the introduction of a curfew in 1942, to deal with the intrusion of German submarines into the river. So the monitoring role complicated the keeper’s already overloaded schedule because he now had to conduct aerial surveillance. At the designated time at Pointe-au-Père, it was at 3, 6, and 11 in the morning, they received a code that transmitted over the radio and they had to conceal it. But after that, there were three other lighthouse keepers on the site. And the last one, Armand Lafrance, took over in 1972, and as he was close to retirement, he was not surprised when the lighthouse was placed on top of a skeleton tower about three years later. He still lived in the keeper’s house with his family until 1988.

JEREMY

I was curious – during World War II in this country, almost all the lighthouses on the East Coast were dimmed, were actually turned off, during the war so they wouldn’t help attract enemy vessels. Was that the case on the east coast of Canada as well?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah, it was the case. So the lighthouse was turned down and they just had to do a job of a surveillance.

JEREMY

Right. Just keeping an eye out. So I’m wondering if there was U-boat activity, any enemy submarines, things like that, during the war.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah. They came into the St.Lawrence River trying to go up river. We stopped them at the little, I don’t remember the name, I guess it’s Cloridorme in Gaspésie. They didn’t go to Pointe-au-Père.

JEREMY

People don’t know about that. People don’t realize how much of a danger that was. Okay. If we could move forward to more recent years and the present day – if somebody visits the Pointe-au-Père National Historic Site and the lighthouse – and before I complete that question, I know that things have been different recently with the pandemic, but in normal times, what can people expect when they visit there? Can they climb the lighthouse when they go there?

CINDY LAROUCHE

During a normal season, visitors can climb 128 steps in the lighthouse with a guide to a splendid 360-degree landscape. And as you said, our 2021 season should be launched in June, but we have to wait a little longer before announcing our tourism offering, which is significantly influenced by the evolution of the COVID pandemic. In 2020, visitors had access to a presentation at the foot of the lighthouse presented by our partner, the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père, but whether visits to the lighthouse is possible or not, visitors will be able to meet a guide at the foot of the lighthouse, and take some time to read the outdoor interpretation panels, and they will also have access to a picnic area with a magnificent view of the river.

JEREMY

Sounds nice. I saw that the Onondaga submarine is also on the site. Is that also open to visitors?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yes, it is open to visitors this year and it’s the only submarine that can be visited in Canada. 

JEREMY

Wow. So when people visit the site there, what other kinds of exhibits are there for people to see?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Oh, you can see the temporary exhibition, “Beacons Burning Bright,” presented by the Musée maritime du Québec in the light keeper’s house. This exhibit takes the visitor on a new and really original of Quebec’s coastal landscape. The visitor can explore the history of Quebec’s lighthouses through the lens of a talented photographer, Patrick Matte, known in Quebec as the Lighthouse Hunter. Yeah, Patrick Matte. I invite you to see his website. It’s very, very interesting. And this exhibit also features authentic lighthouse lenses and scale models of many St. Lawrence River lighthouses.

JEREMY

That sounds good. And I was reading on the website something about Parks Canada Xplorers, that’s spelled  X P L O R E R S. What are the Parks Canada Xplorers all about?

CINDY LAROUCHE

It’s a program designed for ages six to 12. Mainly it’s a booklet that has a range of fun activities that will take you around the different points at Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site and all young explorers who have completed at least three of the booklet activities will get a surprise by presenting the booklet at the reception area.

JEREMY

That’s great. I’m really happy to hear you do that there. Some lighthouses in the U.S. have educational programs like that, and it’s always great to hear. We’ve got to keep the, get the children interested, start them early, so they maybe appreciate lighthouses later on. Maybe help with the preservation and so forth. So that’s really good to hear. The lighthouse at Pointe-au-Père is part of Quebec’s lighthouse trail. Can you explain a bit about what the lighthouse trail is?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yeah. Quebec has some 43 traditional lighthouses, the vast majority of which are located along the coastline or on one of the Quebec maritime islands. Thanks to the force of enthusiasts to transform them or their outbuildings and to museums, some 20 of these lighthouses are now enjoying a second life. The Quebec Lighthouse Trail invites people to follow the lighthouse route in order to visit them when possible or simply to admire and admire and photograph them. The trail, which includes the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse, can take up to 14 days to complete, including a three hour’s ferry crossing from Riviere-du-Loop to Tadoussac.

JEREMY

I understand there was some restoration done on the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse in 2017.  What exactly happened—what was done at that time?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Before that, Parks Canada started major innovation work in 1980 to strengthen the lighthouse, repair the lantern and ensure the long-term conservation of the entire site. All the loose concrete and surfaces in bad repair were removed and the whole tower encased in new metal mesh and covered in and out with a shell of sprayed concrete. In 2017, renovation work included treating metal components, replacing the lantern glass, and a lot, a lot of painting. It’s very important for us to keep these structures in good condition because it’s kind of an investment. Parks Canada is protecting and conserving national treasures while working look at economies and contributing to growth in the tourism sector. So yes, it’s very important.

JEREMY

Oh yeah. Are there any other additional restoration projects kind of in the pipeline?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Yes. We have a project to conserve the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site, including a major analysis of we will adapt to climate change in order to preserve the site from shoreline erosion. The site is very close to the river and each year it is more at risk from bad water conditions. We are aware of this program and we really want to find a solution.

The Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site (Parks Canada)

JEREMY

Why do you think the Pointe-au-Père light station is important? Why does it need to be preserved?

CINDY LAROUCHE

I think we must preserve the site for many reasons. First, the location was designated a national historic site by the government of Canada in 1974, owing to its historic role as the major pilot and light station for the river and Gulf navigation. I would add that the remaining buildings, which are all in good condition, bear witness to great improvements to navigation. In addition to the third lighthouse, the site also includes the light keeper’s house, the assistant light keeper’s house, a garage, and a skeleton tower with electronic foghorn. Finally, the site is also home to numerous archeological remains, mainly in relation to the first two lighthouses and their outbuildings.

JEREMY

So I have one final question for you, and this is for bonus points. All right. So what has been your favorite part of managing the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site?

CINDY LAROUCHE

Good question. I guess that what I like most about managing this historic site is that the possibilities are endless. I mean, the site is stimulating, steeped in history, superbly located with a breathtaking view of the river and the coast. As we have a small team on the site, we have the opportunity to touch a little bit of everything to surpass ourselves. There are always new developments, conservation projects, or events to be organized. So the work is very dynamic and in no way routine. In short, they just follow on one and another, and are never the same.

JEREMY

Well, it sounds like a great place to live and work around there. And it sounds like a perfect fit for you. So again, congratulations on finding your dream job. I think it’s a minority of people who ever find that. So Cindy Larouche of the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site and the Battle of the Restigouche Historic Site, also, I really appreciate you spending this time with me today. Thank you so much.

CINDY LAROUCHE

Thank you, too.

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