Cape Spear Lighthouse

Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada | C.1836

Photo Credit: Peter Crosby

A royal rescue at sea ends with a new lightkeeper dynasty.

It was a foggy morning on the easternmost point of North America. The route from Queen’s Wharf to Government house was lined with people and draped with flags. The stage was set and the crowd was eager: Prince Henry of the Netherlands was about to arrive, marking the first foreign potentate ever to visit Newfoundland. It was August 9th, 1845, and disaster was about to strike.

The prince’s frigate was lost at sea, unable to complete their long journey because they couldn’t see through the dense fog. The town of St. John’s sprung into action. Six oared boats took off from shore, tasked with finding the prince. Among them was James Cantwell, who, with his keen eye, managed to rescue royalty and establish his own familial dynasty, all in a morning’s work.

Cantwell spotted the frigate through a brief opening in the fog, then safely piloted the vessels through the Narrows to Queen’s Wharf. The prince owed Cantwell his life — and in return, he asked the sailor to name his reward. “Your Highness, I would like to be the lightkeeper at Cape Spear.” Cantwell’s wish was granted — and the prince even threw in a cherry on top: the position would belong to the Cantwell heirs for as long as they desired.

Over the next six generations and nearly 150 years, the Cantwells indeed looked after the lighthouse, spending their days along the stunning seaside and among the jumping dolphins, breaching humpbacks, and the occasional meandering iceberg. The Cantwell dynasty came to a close in 1997, but the lighthouse lives on as a historical monument. On its grounds, everyone can celebrate the family who ensured that long nights would be a little brighter — a fitting legacy for the first place in America to be touched each morning by the sun’s first light.

Community Insight:
Vicki H explains – The second photo of the Old Cape Spear Lighthouse shows the one that would have been active during Prince Henry’s visit. Built in 1835, it was activated September 1, 1836. The primary photo is of the newer Cape Spear lighthouse, built in 1955. The Fresnel lens was transferred from the old lighthouse to the new lighthouse, where it still lights the way to this day.

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