Entrance Island is a picturesque little rocky island located 841 metres north of Gabriola Island in BC’s Salish Sea. The lantern of its white lighthouse tower has a red balcony below and red covering on top. There are several buildings, all in white vinyl siding with red roofs. The island is frequented by harbour seals and Steller’s sea lions. The sea lions in particular must offer lighthouse keepers quite a noisy experience.
In 2009, the federal government. announced it would destaff Entrance Island as a cost-saving measure. After many protests, the lighthouse staff was maintained. The practice in many countries has been to automate its lighthouses but for the moment, Canada still has 37 staffed lighthouses including Entrance Island. The island also has been designated heritage by Parks Canada, which further ensures its continued existence. Although its solar-powered light house tower is automated, staff still perform a number of vital functions: recording weather for the Canadian Coast Guard and advising seaplane companies on cloud ceiling. They monitor boaters and in 2015, one of the lighthouse keepers saved the lives of 9 people whose boat capsized off the island. They also monitor the famous bathtub boat races that used to run from Nanaimo (passing the island) to Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach from 1967–1996. No longer crossing the Salish Sea, the bathtub races now circle the island as part of their route which ends in Nanaimo.
Many of us have idyllic fantasies about living on a lighthouse island, but the early history of Entrance Island is anything but idyllic.
Construction began on the lighthouse in 1875. It was built to safeguard the entrance to the harbour of Nanaimo, often foggy, since coal was being exported from the region. During construction, three workers drowned when their boat capsized after leaving the island. The first building contract was awarded to Louis Baker who, after completing only 2/3 of the job, absconded with all the money leaving workers and suppliers unpaid. The next contractor, James Gordon, created a similar legacy and lasted only two months. Arthur Finney finally finished the lighthouse in April of 1876.
John Kenny, the first lighthouse keeper, lasted for 6 months to be replaced by Robert Gray who served for 20 years. During Gray’s tenure, he witnessed the death of two men, two women and two children whose boat crashed into the island and despite his rescue efforts were washed out to sea.
Gray’s successor was M.G. Clark who gained some notoriety for rescuing two Indigenous people whose boat capsized off the island. He served for roughly 17 years but mostly hired assistants to do the work. He was more interested in maintaining his farm on nearby Gabriola Island. His assistants were treated poorly and expected to work at both his ranch and the lighthouse. There were suspicions over the death of one assistant who was rowing to tend the lighthouse after a day’s work on the ranch.
Clark was succeeded by W.E Morrissey who seemed even more derelict than Clark. He expected the couple who were his assistants to exercise their lighthouse duties by standing watch 22 hours a day as well as feeding pigs and chickens. They were confined to two rooms with no access to a washroom and after nearly starving were forced to resign after two months without pay.
Morrissey’s tenure ended after roughly a year in 1914. Since then it seems the lighthouse has been faithfully tended till the present time.
Entrance Island Lighthouse can be viewed from the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, but also very picturesquely from Gabriola Island along its north shoreline. A visit to Gabriola Island will not disappoint. A 20-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo, the island has 3 provincial parks all with beaches; the well-treed island is fairly flat so offers excellent opportunities for walking and biking. Arts and festivals abound and there are great shopping areas, pubs and restaurants.