Sambro Island Lighthouse

Sambro Island Lighthouse is a landfall lighthouse located at the entrance to Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, on an island near the community of Sambro in the Halifax Regional Municipality. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse in North America and a Canadian National Historic Site.

Lighthouse history

The Sambro lighthouse was built during the Seven years War by the very first act passed by Nova Scotia's House of Assembly on October 2, 1758 which placed a tax on incoming vessels and alcohol imports to pay for the lighthouse. An earlier attempt by the colonial officials in 1752 to finance the lighthouse with a lottery was unsuccessful. With funding secured by the Assembly, construction began in the fall of 1758. Masonry work was completed by November 3, 1758 and a temporary light was first lit while construction continued. Construction was completed in 1759 and Joseph Rous was appointed as the first keeper. Cannons were used to provide fog warnings beginning in the late 18th century until the 1870s when a steam fog whistle was installed.

The lighthouse grew 22 feet higher in 1906, when two extra stories were added to the top of the tower and a new First Order lighthouse lens was installed. Acetylene was first tested and then manufactured for the light in a specially constructed "Gas House" in the cove below the lighthouse. Red stripes were added to the tower in 1908 to make the tower more visible against the snow. The lighthouse was declared a National Historic Site in the 1937. In 1966, the First Order lens was replaced by a rotating electrical beacon but the lens was preserved by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Sambro served as the departure point from North America for Joshua Slocum's famous solo navigation around the world in 1895, "I watched light after light sink astern as I sailed into the unbounded sea, till Sambro, the last of them all, was below the horizon. The Spray was then alone..." As the landfall light for the major strategic port of Halifax, Sambro has witnessed many shipwrecks and sea battles.

Sea battles

During the American Revolution, on 10 July 1780, the British privateer Resolution (16 guns) under the command of Thomas Ross engaged the American Privateer Viper (16 guns) off of Halifax at Sambro Light. Described as “one of the bloodiest battles in the history of privateering”, the two privateers began a “severe engagement” during which both pounded each other with canon fire for about 90 minutes. During the action the death toll was 18 British and 33 Americans. Another battle during the American Revolution fought near the island was the 28 May - 29 May 1782 Naval battle off Halifax, an engagement between the American privateer Jack and the British transport Observer. In a battle that lasted all night and into the next day, the 12 gun Observer captured the 14 gun Jack.

During the War of 1812, the American privateer Young Teazer captured two vessels in May 1813 right off Sambro Island Light before the privateer was pursued and trapped by British warships near Chester, Nova Scotia where Young Teazer was blown up with heavy loss of life to prevent capture.

In World War I and World War II, German submarines torpedoed a number of allied ships near Sambro.

Recent history

The lightstation was destaffed in 1988 and the island is now uninhabited. One of the three 1960s keeper's dwelling was demolished for salvage in 1989. The other two were abandoned to the elements. After lobbying by the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, the tower was declared a Classified federal heritage building and the Gas House was declared a Recognized heritage building in 1996. Major repairs to the lighthouse followed in 1998 when the lighthouse was reshingled and repainted. In 2003, Hurricane Juan caused major damage to the Gas House. Despite the fact that it is a recognized federal building and donors have offered to assist in repairs, the Canadian Coast Guard has refused to repair the historic building. Many have accused the Canadian Coast Guard of essentially abandoning Canada's oldest lightstation to the elements, despite its historic status and proximity to Halifax. In addition to the unrepaired heritage gas house, the two keeper's dwellings have been left as gutted ruins. In October 2007, after the underwater cable supplying power to the island was damaged, the Canadian Coast Guard turned off the fog horn, ending over 200 years of fog warnings from the island with plans for a solar system with just enough power for the lighthouse beacon. The move triggered a protest move to protect the navigational role and heritage value of the light station. Mariners and heritage groups have petitioned the Coast Guard and the Nova Scotia House of Assembly passed a resolution in November 2007 labeling the neglect of the island as "a careless disregard for the nation's Maritime and its history of responsible government." In the wake of these concerns, an enlarged solar system was installed in the spring of 2008 with enough power to run both the light and a foghorn. The tower was also repainted. On August 16, 2008, the community of Sambro Harbour and the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society celebrated the lighthouse's 250th birthday by bringing 150 people to the island for talks and tours. One of the derelict keeper's houses was destroyed by a suspicious fire on September 14, 2008, raising fears about the fate of the other neglected heritage structures on the island such as the Gas House.

The Site

The lighthouse is located at the summit of the half kilometre square Sambro Island. It is located on the western approaches to Halifax Harbour, about 6 kilometres southeast of Sambro Harbour. It is surrounded by a maze of dangerous shoals. The lighthouse and island are owned and maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard. In addition to the 18th century stone tower, the light station includes the endangered 19th century wooden building known as the Gas House as well as a fog horn shed which is in poor condition. Ruins on the island include the basement of one abandoned keeper's house, the burned out ruins of another and a partially dismantled keeper's dwelling, all from the 1960s. Several cannons used as fog signals can be found near the tower. A narrow sheltered cove runs into the centre of the island. The island is granite, covered by a thin layer of topsoil.

A unique geological formation, an intrusion dike, called "The Devil's Staircase" can be seen near the lighthouse. The massive First Order Fresnel Lens used at the lighthouse until 1968 can be seen at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. Good views of the site are obtained from Crystal Crescent Beach and Sandy Cove near Ketch Harbour. The Canadian Coast Guard has discouraged regular tours of the island, but in 2008 and 2009 the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society and the community of Sambro offered one day open house tours of the island and a charter company run by a semi-retired local fisherman in Sambro Head began in 2008 to offer visits to the island by appointment.


The Sambro lighthouse was declared a National Historic Site in 1937, marked by a plaque and cairn mounted beside the United Church in nearby Sambro Harbour. A $20 silver coin featuring the lighthouse was issued in 2004 by the Royal Canadian Mint. Canada Post announced a permanent stamp honouring the Sambro lighthouse in December 2007.