Lights Of The Inside Passage - Porlier Pass Lighthouse

Porlier Pass

Porlier Pass light can be considered a benchmark--the first built to cater exclusively to steamships. Up until the 1900s the riptide swirling between Galiano and Valdez Islands had rendered the pass unsafe for sailing vessels. As late as 1905 the B.C. Coast Pilot warned that the channel was "narrow and....rendered still more so by sunken rocks; the tidal streams run from 4 to 9 knots, and over falls and whiling eddies are always in the northern entrance. CAUTION--In consequence of the numerous dangers existing in Porlier Pass, mariners are advised to avoid that passage." Even so, masters of the new steamships were already throwing the Pilot's caution to the winds (which they could now ignore as well), and brazenly cut through the pass to save time en route to Ladysmith's coal chutes. Only those with long service or good memories recalled the fate of the Del Norte.

In October 1868 her captain brought her out of Nanaimo after refueling and elected to take the shortcut. He steamed into the pass in a thick fog, then decided to turn back halfway through. But the pass proved too narrow to make the "U" turn, and the racing flood tide drove the 190-foot steamer upon canoe Reef, shearing off her rudder and keel. For two weeks salvors tried to extricate and refloat the Del Norte until the ship disappeared after a violent gale on 11 November.

Late in 1901 J. Hunter, superintendent of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, joined the captain of the Vancouver-Ladysmith ferry and several "Pilots and masters of local steamers" to press for a range of lights on the north end of Galiano Island. James Gaudin sent their petition along to Colonel Gourdeau in Ottawa, explaining that vessels were flaunting the long-standing warning about Porlier Pass "in preference to making the long detour through Active Pass or going around Valdez and Saturna Islands." He proposed that "arrangements could be made for the economical exhibition of these lights" by engaging a local man to maintain them, as part-time work, at a wage somewhere between $10 and $25 a month.

Always impressed by economy, Gourdeau gave his agent the go-ahead to begin construction and to hire Peter Sit-who-latza, a local Indian, for $25 a month. It would have been an ideal arrangement, even saving the department the cost of a dwelling since Peter lived nearby on the reserve. But politicos, when they cut up their spoils, pay scant attention to coast. Ralph Smith "put his foot don on it" but nominating Sticks Allison for the job. "Of course, I dare not disobey these instructions," Gaudin replied, and grudgingly offered Allison the post for $30 a month, "as these lights...[did]  not require arduous work in their operation."

Gaudin had mixed feelings about Allison's appointment. On one hand he had already offered the post to the Indian and dreaded the effect upon the band when Sticks relieved him: the Roman Catholic missionary had warned that the Indians "were not at all times reliable, also that the disappointment of being relieved by a white man after a short time of office, might create an ugly feeling to exist between the light keeper and the Indian after he has been relieved under these circumstances." Besides, no dwelling had been built, so Allison would have to seek shelter in a crude twelve-by-sixteen-foot lean-to shack left behind by the carpenters.

The new keeper was no stranger to rough living, however. As a nine-year-old Francis Togan (sic) Allison had run away from his home in Greenock, Scotland, in 1875. He joined an uncle aboard a sailing ship and went ashore a few years later at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where he spliced cable in the local coal mines. He set off under sail again, around the Horn this time, and disembarked in British Columbia. He first found work as a farm labourer, then went down into Nanaimo's coal shafts until 1901, when he was lucky to crawl out alive after a mine explosion. While in hospital he befriended a little Italian boy, sharing fruit and candy with him. When the boy's parents demanded to know the source of this largesse, he answered: "The man with the sticks gave it to me," pointing to Allison on his crutches. The nickname stuck; Allison became known as "Sticks," and few people would ever know his real name. He was still using sticks to get around when he took over the new light station at Porlier Pass in November 1902, and was lame for life after he put them aside. But there he stayed, above ground with the sea at his doorstep for the next forty years.

Sticks Allison wasted no time complaining about his spartan accommodation. The floor had been laid on bare ground and its boards soaked up water like a sponge. He asked Gaudin to have it raised two feet off the ground, and to build on an addition. "I think we should do everything to make the poor man comfortable," the agent wrote Colonel Anderson; "[he] lives there in solitude all the year round." There were other drawbacks. The new keeper also had to fetch water in pails for "quite a long distance," until Gaudin ordered a 400-gallon tank be installed to collect rainwater from the roof. Sticks also had two fixed lights to watch: on at Race Point and a second beacon on Virago Point, assessible only by boat. (When in line, the two beacons gave proper bearings for the northern entrance to Porlier Pass.)

The agent first inspected Porlier Pass in April 1903 and found all equipment, the towers, and their illuminating apparatus, in "very fair condition." As for the musty dwelling, Gaudin remarked "[As is] customary with our experience of the absence of a woman at a station [it] is not as tidy as could be desired, but on the whole I consider Allison makes a very good light keeper" Besides Allison was in love with Mathilda Georgeson, Scotty's granddaughter from Active Pass. Their married in 1907.

Allison, who knew as well as any mariner the dread of being lost in fog, soon won a legendary reputation aboard the steamers for his dedication. For a year before the department landed a hand horn at Porlier he would hobble down to the shore and stand just above the incoming waves, beating a five-gallon oil can with a stick in response to a steamer's whistle day or night. Later, when the horn arrived, he cranked it as soon as heard a signal and kept pumping away, heedless of wind and weather, until the "all clear" came back through the mist. In return, the CPR issued him a lifetime pass to travel free on their fleet.

"The safety of the ships and sailors was instilled in us at a very early age," his daughter Devina (known, along with her sister Frances, as "Miss Sticks") recalled sixty years later, "and we often [blew] the boats through the Pass. At the age of eight I was taught to tend the Race Point Light and it came to be my special charge. I would clean lamp glasses and polish the brass lamps. My dad often brought strangers home in the evening for a meal, and sometimes a bed for the night, if they were caught without food or blankets," Devina remembered. "It seemed we always had folks in for meals especially in the evening. Sometimes they would stay and we would loan them a lantern to find their way home." During Allison's tenure, hundreds of unexpected guests from seaward came up to the new house, soaked and shivering after Sticks rescued them when their boats swamped off Race Point. He lent them clothing and gave them a meal while their own clothes hung steaming by the stove. "My father was not a religious man, but he was a good man with a heart of gold." she recalled. "He would give the shirt off his back if someone needed it. We girls were taught to pray and to love God and to trust him. When and if we were in town, he would send us to Sunday school."

Devina and her sister, Frances were typical lighthouse children, adept at substituting imagination for playmates. On floor-washing day, she remembered, "Daddy used to clear out all the kitchen chairs and everything and pile them on the veranda. My sister and I would line them all up with boxes, get our dolls out, and we'd sit there and watch the picture show. The picture show was the clouds." Seventy years later Devina claimed, "I can still see different things in the clouds that we used to see when we were kids." They had special, secret place called "down on the grass" where they played. When airplanes made their first appearance among the broken lumps of cloud, the girls would tie a rock in the corner of a handkerchief and would "zoom it from one end of the spot to the other."

There were only two blemishes upon their otherwise idyllic existence: the die-hard animosity of some of the Indians infused with the "ugly feelings" which Gaudin had shrewdly anticipated, and the pay, always the pay. In spite of Allison's reserve of tact, some band members seemed bent upon revenge. After receiving complaints in August 1903, Gaudin counseled Sticks to tread carefully in his dealings with them as they were "treacherous," especially "those residing in the vicinity of the lighthouse who were under the impression when the lighthouse was built that they would have been entrusted with the operation of the lights .. and not without reason either."

As early as March 1094 Allison was writing Ralph Smith to thank him for his appointment, but also to ask for a raise to $45 a month. Because he had two towers to maintain, he had to "use .. [his] boat twice a day in rain or snow to go to one of the towers." He had to cut and haul his cord wood a mile. "Mr. Smith," he wrote, "these things all add to my work and as there is no land goes with the lighthouse, I have to buy all my vegetables and pay freight on all my groceries from Nanaimo; Sir, it soon takes away my wages." Gaudin had been out three times and "found things to his satisfaction," and promised to recommend an increase.

By August 1905 Allison's reserve of tact was depleting as fast as his savings. The Indian agent for Cowichan District forwarded a letter to Gaudin from some Indians complaining of verbal abuse. "I do not wish to condemn you unheard," Gaudin told Allison, but warned him, "This Department will not tolerate any of its officers to use offensive language to any persons, not even to Indians." In future, he instructed the keeper "to have nothing to say to them, good, bad or indifferent."

In March 1909 smallpox erupted on the reserve. Allison immediately wrote to Victoria asking for disinfectant. Gaudin advised that disinfectant was a futile means of prevention and ordered him to take his family at once to hospital at Chemainus and "get vaccinated," which was "the best preventative." Upon his return Allison could not ignore his neighbour's suffering; he flouted Gaudin's orders and went onto the reserve to minister to them.

In July 1911 the Indian agent forwarded more complaints to Victoria alleging that Allison had been "Under the influence of liquor, etc." It was Robertson, now, who warned him that "such conduct, if true, will not be tolerated by the Department." Allison rebutted the charges. Though "of the opinion that where there is smoke, there is liable to be fire," the agent was willing to overlook the complaints. If they continued, however, he would have "no option but to recommend ... [Allison's] dismissal."

Allison was crushed. He had blithely walked into a situation poisoned by Ralph Smith's "kindness," to which the Indians responded in kind. Even so, Allison attributed the slanders to a jealous neighbour, Andy Deacon, who wanted his job. Deacon, Allison charged, had threatened to stir up the cauldron of hatred if Allison refused to apply for a transfer. "I can find you an Indian who lives here, he was offered money to come here & fight Me & also to pay is Fine if I Prosecuted him," he revealed. "Another Indian was Entised and & Promised Pay to Come & Shot my dog." Charges of his abuse and mistreatment of Indian neighbours were imaginary ones, Cannot be Real. As I never have yet in My 14 Years Here on this Station Been anything But their Friend I have begged off indian agent to feed & care for their Sick which I Had been doing I Have letters of thanks here in my Possession from Officers off the indian Dept. Appreciating my Kindness towards them. Capt. Robertson I never yet Entered an indian House unless it was to see & give aid to the Sick. My Carryings one as your informants tell you are only I want his job I must get a lighthouse & their only way is without outside detection in use the Superstition of the indians & tell him about Frank he beleaves it Capt. I know my own friends here & I also Know my foes. Capt. Robertson I would Rather think you would Protect on of your Crew until you yourself Knew the man & his Character.

The charge that Allison was mistreating the Indians was blatant slander. Every Christmas Eve Sticks cleared out the kitchen, tied two huge Christmas puddings up in pillow cases, plunged them into copper kettles boiling on the stove. When he had lit up in the evening, the family rowed off for the reserve with two jugs of brown-sugar sauce steaming on the floor of the boat. He sent his daughters up to the houses and waited in the boat with a breadknife. The Indians came down in turn, carrying "a plate for each one in the house, whether it be man or woman, and for each child, and a little bowel or jug," Frances remembered. "They would bring their utensils down and Daddy would have his knife and he would carve off a slice of pudding for each on in the family and pour some sauce in their container." The Indians, Devina affirmed, "were our closes friends," After visiting the Indians they pulled up the bay to the "Jap" fishboats riding at anchor, and divvied out more pudding, pouring the last of the sauce into ornate ceramic bowls held over the side. "No no work, no fish Christmas Day," Allison exhorted the puzzled Japanese. "That's Jesus' day. Everybody rest. Suppose you don't rest; then Jesus bring no more fish. You go out catch fish after Christmas-time -- no fish!"




Lights Of The Inside Passage: A History of British Columbia's Lighthouses and their Keepers
Author: Donald Graham
Canadian Author | ISBN: 0920080855
Published: September 1986 | Published by Harbour Publishing
pp: 80 - 93