Restaurant, souvenir shop and observation deck all rolled into one. Set among the rocks in beautiful Peggy’s Cove, the most …
Peggy’s Cove lighthouse at a standstillBy Alison Lawlor | Aug 31, 2012
Tags: lighthouse, Nova Scotia, Peggy's Cove
Watching the evening news one spring night, Bill Mont’s interest was piqued by a report about one of Nova Scotia’s Maritime icons under threat. A few days later, Mont and his rallying cry to save the famous lighthouse that sits on top of a massive granite rock in Peggy’s Cove was soon in all the local newspapers. The light that has guided fishermen and sailors since 1868––and has become one of the most photographed and visited places in Canada––caught his imagination, like so many others before him. “I couldn’t believe no one was interested in saving the lighthouse,” says Mont, a local, eccentric entrepreneur and heritage buff who founded a small group called the Canadian Heritage Preservation Society.
The idea that the classic red and white beacon on the South Shore, which is visited by more than 500,000 tourists each year and is an important piece of the province’s $1.8-billion dollar tourism industry, faced an uncertain future seemed ludicrous to Mont.
The Peggy’s Point lighthouse (also known as the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse), in need of paint and repairs, is one of about 500 lighthouses across the country that the federal government declared surplus in 2010. Individuals, non-profit groups or other levels of government had until May 29 that year to petition Parks Canada to have surplus lighthouses declared heritage properties.“It would look really bad if they [the provincial government] didn’t do something,” says Mont.
Across the province, Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, identified 70 traditional-style lighthouses that could be protected under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. The Society filed petitions for 50 of the lighthouses (including Peggy’s Point) and close to 40 more were petitioned by others. The provincial government also filed a petition under the act for the lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove. While petitions had to be submitted, groups still have until 2015 to draw up business plans showing how they would sustain the structure.
In a meeting with Nova Scotia’s Tourism Minister Percy Paris in June, MacDonald suggested the lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove be taken under the provincial museum system. “What better museum outlet could you have in the province?” he asked. In his travels across the country, MacDonald says people can’t understand why it’s taken the provincial government so long to act on the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, considering it’s already showing signs of neglect and Ottawa has offered it to them for a nominal fee. “The eyes of the country are on the lighthouse,” he says.
Darlene MacDonald, manager of tourism development for Nova Scotia, who handles the government’s “lighthouse file,” knows this. “The province is presently negotiating with Federal Fisheries for the Peggy’s Cove property,” she says.
However, the province wants the federal government to put forward the funds to bring the lighthouse into reasonable condition—including dealing with environmental contamination–– anything from lead paint chipping into the soil, leaking oil tanks and even removing baths of mercury, used for the lights. While the lighthouse remains in limbo, a group of volunteers began working on repainting it in late August, planning to be finished by early September.
“We want to make sure that we identify any issues such as environmental clean-up, state of repair, any legal surveys, maintenance. We are making sure that we have that information available,” says Darlene MacDonald. While there is no deadline for when a deal could be reached, MacDonald says negotiations are moving forward. “We recognize Peggy’s Point as being a very integral part of our tourism industry,” she says. “It is one of the most visited spots in Nova Scotia.” While the province is interested in Peggy’s Cove, it isn’t currently in negotiations for other lighthouses. “We thought we’d start with this one,” says Darlene MacDonald. With more than 165 lighthouses in Nova Scotia, the province can’t take over each one, she adds.
“We don’t have any definite plans for the [Peggy’s Cove] lighthouse,” she says. Ideally, it would include a museum and be open to the public to climb to the top. “That would be a really unique experience,” she says. Until 2009, the ground floor of the lighthouse operated as a post office where visitors could mail their postcards in the summer months.
The province is open to partnering with heritage organizations to run programming at the lighthouse, says Darlene MacDonald. In a meeting with the tourism minister, the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society recommended opening the building to visitors and charging a reasonable fee to offset upkeep costs. “It’s a gold mine waiting to happen,” says Barry MacDonald.
This is where Mont thinks he could help. Mont, who at age 83 is best known as Halifax’s “king of flea markets” for bringing the first one to Nova Scotia in the 1970s, has expressed his interest in working with the province to run the iconic structure. The details, including where the money would come from, are vague. He suggests a donation box at the lighthouse entrance, sponsorships, grants or selling $50 annual memberships to his heritage society. Still he says, “I think it would be one of the easiest things I’ve ever tackled.”
The Peggy’s Cove lighthouse isn’t the first piece of history that’s caught Mont’s interest.He already owns Devil’s Island, a purportedly haunted piece of land at the mouth of the Halifax Harbour, an old Dartmouth wooden ferry, a Sackville cemetery and truckloads of antiques and other people’s junk.
When he’s not focused on heritage properties, you’ll find Mont these days in a rundown Robie Street warehouse––once home to an auto parts business. He’s set up temporary shop there in an effort to rid himself ofobjects he’s accumulated over his long, colourful life. Inside “Bill’s Bargain Centre,” he’s trying to sell everything from an old stuffed Santa Claus to large murals from a movie set.
“I’ve got enough stuff for a museum,” he says. When people remind him that he can’t take it all to the grave, he’s quick to reply. “I own a graveyard. I could easily set aside five acres for Bill Mont and his treasures.” But the lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove is one piece of the province’s history that can’t go with him.