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Ferries are gone, but lights at Cape Tormentine illuminate memories of sailing to P.E.I.

Original Article by Vanessa Blanch, CBC News - Posted: Apr 30, 2023

A spot on the Northumberland Strait that played host to thousands of travellers bound for Prince Edward Island is mostly deserted these days, but the lights that safely guided the ferries remain.

James Upham, a Moncton historian and educator, says Cape Tormentine has fallen "very much by the wayside," when compared to the bustling spot it used to be before Confederation Bridge was built.

Over the years, locals and tourists set off from the tiny community in southeastern New Brunswick "for their chance to get over to P.E.I."

One of the relics from Cape Tormentine's heyday looks at first glance like an old lighthouse. In fact, Upham explains, it is a "range light."

"It looks like a really classic East Coast, quintessential lighthouse," he said. "But this specific thing is actually a bit different."

There were two range lights in Cape Tormentine, one at the end of the pier and one on the bank and both are still there. The one on the bank was built in 1907 and remained in service until ferry service ended in 1997.

"The way this works is, this high upper tower would be in back and the lower tower is in front," Upham said. "If you keep those beams of light one above the other, and you keep tracking along that, you're going to have a safe, clear passage from P.E.I. over here to Cape Tormentine."

The lights were visible for 12 nautical miles, which allowed captains to line up with them as they approached New Brunswick.

"And everybody, believe it or not, who traveled that route over that 90 years, whether they recognized it or not, were being guided by this specific light."

'The yellow line down the middle of the road'

Another difference between a lighthouse and a range light, said Upham, is that a lighthouse sends out a pattern of light, such as one long and two short bursts. Range lights shine steadily, allowing sailors to "take a bearing on that light" to figure out where they are on the Northumberland Strait.

Upham describes range lights as "more like the yellow line down the middle of the road when you're driving."

"You don't even have to steer. You just keep it between the lines and keep it straight on," he said. "We had thousands of hassle-free, safe crossings here for decades, and one of the things overseeing that entire thing for that entire process was this light."

The range light is still in good condition and stands as testament to the maritime history of the area.

Not just a ferry landing

According to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Cape Tormentine "was a farming and fishing settlement with about 50 families" in 1866.

"In 1898 Cape Tormentine was a seaport, terminus of the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Railway and a settlement with one post office, one hotel, two lobster factories, one church and a population of 250."

The Chignecto Ship Railway, which was a plan to transport ships by rail from the Northumberland Strait across the Isthmus of Chignecto to the Bay of Fundy, was never completed, but the stones used in its construction found their way to Cape Tormentine.

Upham said the the engine houses built at either end of the rail line, to house the pumps that would have lifted the ships, got a second life as a breakwater for the ferry terminal.

Fixed link the end of an era

"From 1907 until 1997 we had an entire era here that is gone: the experience of … waiting for the boat, the anticipation of, 'I'm going to get on the boat, I'm going to this kind of mysterious island sitting off in the distance.'"

Before there was year-round scheduled ferry service, Upham said, "professional ice-boat people" were offering passage to Prince Edward Island as early as the 1820s. While it was a pleasant and safe 24-kilometre sail in the summer months, in winter it was "an entirely different kettle of fish," which Upham jokingly compares to Ernest Shackleton's expeditions to the Antarctic.

He said with the ice, crew members were sometimes forced to get out of the boat and pull, "and if you didn't pay a premium as a passenger, you were expected to get out and haul too."

In 2019, nearly 900,000 vehicles crossed Confederation Bridge in comfort, an achievement that would have been unfathomable just 100 years earlier.

"If you tried to explain to somebody that there was going to be an actual concrete bridge that went across that stretch of water — they would have looked at you like you were crazy," said Upham.

"The fact of the matter is that there's a sort of a mystique that just isn't here now," Upham said of driving across a bridge, compared to sailing on a ferry. "It's not part of that experience anymore. And that's the nature of things, that's how it goes, that's part of life."

While the adventure of crossing the Northumberland Strait to visit Canada's smallest province is now gone, Upham is pleased the guide lights remain as a link to the past.

"It is really interesting to be able to stand in a spot next to an object that saw the whole thing pan out and still be able to see it and recognize it for what it is," he said.

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