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Shipwrecks and Lighthouses

Since the first recorded shipwreck in 1847, 85 ships have been lost along the coast of Kangaroo Island, many with loss of life. The largest vessel to be wrecked off the coast was the 5800 tonne Portland Maru in 1953. One of the most notable and tragic events occurred to the Loch Vennachar, which sailed into the cliffs on the west coast in 1905 with the loss of 27 crew. Only one body was found.

As a result of the many shipwrecks, lighthouses and beacons were put in place. These served as navigational aids with their individual light 'character' (blinking rate) at night, and individual building design (e.g. tower shape, window placement, colour pattern).

Another vital service was that of aid stations in the event of a shipwreck close by. At certain unmanned sites shelters containing basic provisions were stored, allowing an unfortunate survivor the chance to keep travelling to a point of rescue.

There were three lighthouses on Kangaroo Island that were manned - Cape Willoughby, Cape du Couedic, and Cape St Borda, and one that was unmanned - Cape St Albans.

Cape Willoughby

Found on the eastern tip of the island, this was the first lighthouse built in South Australia (SA) in 1852. Originally named The Sturt Light (after Capt. Charles Sturt), the tower was constructed from locally quarried granite and limestone slurry. It was put in place to mark the dangerous waters of the Backstairs Passage.

  • The Headkeepers' residence was constructed close to the existing cottages but only the original door stone remains. The original underkeepers' cottages were constructed in a small valley about 1 km away and close to the sheltered waters of Pink Bay. This afforded a comfortable access by small boat to deliver provisions and equipment, as well as a launching spot for fishing trips to supplement the residents' diet. The situation also led to problems as the walk up to the lighthouse was considered tedious, especially at two in the morning on a stormy winter's night.
  • By 1912, the current cottages had been erected just below the tower and the original oil (whale/seal) burning wick lamps were replaced with kerosene burners.
  • In 1959, the light was converted to electric operation by use of two 110 volt diesel generators.
  • By 1974 the lighthouse was no longer considered a significant light and was considered for demolition and replacement. Public pressure saw renovations take place, including the replacement of the original (and by now rotting) wooden staircase with a steel construction. The original lantern room was removed and found its way into Kingscote eventually, to the Hope Cottage Museum. The new top of the lighthouse was much lighter being made of fibreglass and aluminium, and the lantern became banks of sealed beam lamps, connected to 240v mains power. There is no longer a permanent keeper at the sight but due to the heritage status, DEH run tours on a daily basis. Until 2005 the Cape Willoughby Lighthouse was still supplying manual weather readings for the Bureau of Meteorology. Cape Borda is the third oldest (built in 1858) and highest elevated (155m) lighthouse in South Australia and the only square lighthouse in Australia. It would have been one of the first in South Australia to be sighted by ships coming from the west.

Cape Borda

Cape Borda is infamous for the hardships endured by lightkeepers in those early days, cut off from the rest of the world and medical help for months on end. The first headkeeper, Capt. Woodward, died from infection of a pierced eye.

"I tripped over a stump and fell and the stump pierced my right eye. So beautifully written, and he just says - "it's cut away the lower lid of my eye and I fear I will lose sight of the right eye" - at 5.23 light on winds moderate, west sou-west..."

As you can see from his logbook extract, life just had to go on as best as you could. A visit to the cemetery down the road near Harvey's Return shows 16 graves including many children.

  • A signal cannon was kept due to heavy fog in the area and also to deter the Russians. One reason for the choice of site is reported to be to warn of incoming Russian ships and look like there was a military presence. Keep in mind during the early days of the South Australian colony, Imperial Russia was expansionist and this area was left with little protection from Mother Britain. Another remnant of these times is the Fort Glanville on Adelaides coast.
  • The last full time lightkeepers left in 1989, with DEH continuing at the site to conduct weather observations and run tours, the museum, accommodate guests in the old cottages, and most importantly, fire the replica signal cannon at 1 p.m. every day!

Cape du Couedic and Weirs Cove

Many shipwrecks in the vicinity quickly prompted the construction of a lighthouse. Construction started in 1907 using local limestone. A telephone line was laid through to Cape Borda in 1908 - 1 year before the Cape du Couedic light was first lit on 27 June 1909. It was powered by kerosene, which was kept in the small store near the base of the lighthouse.

  • The three keepers' cottages are now available as holiday houses. Traditionally the headkeeper would have his house located slightly higher and maybe larger or closer to the work place. This is very obvious at Cape du Couedic by the one cottage across from and looking down on the other two. Chain of command was important to establish in such a remote and small community. This led to most lightkeepers being retired mariners, especially as they understood signal flags.
  • The original light was run with kerosene, the store room for which was a small stone room still on site today. In 1957, acetylene gas took over, allowing full automation and demanning of the light. Mains power finally came through in 1974.
  • At Weirs Cove the remains of a store building and a cutting in the cliff can be seen. Until road transport improved in 1940s, supplies were winched up the 92 m cliff every 3 months on a flying fox from the jetty to the storerooms. At first horses were used to pull the winch until replaced by a motor. One story tells of an unpopular keeper's wife being ferried from the cliff top to the jetty in the flying fox when the motor broke down. It took a couple of hours to be repaired, with the basket and contents swinging in the breeze half way down the cliff. This appears to be around the time more pressure was applied to better overland access.

Cape St Albans

Constructed in 1908, this lighthouse was one of the first unattended lighthouses to be built in SA. At first It displayed a fixed white light with a red sector to warn of the Scraper Shoal. A keeper from Cape Willoughby was tasked to look after it, then responsibility was passed to a resident of Antechamber Bay.

  • In 1914 the light was converted to flashing with the upgrade to acetylene gas. This use of acetylene gas for automatic unwatched lights in Australia was pioneered by the South Australian Marine Board. The system was developed by Nobel prize winner, Gustav Dalén of Sweden, between 1900 -1910 and was subsequently adopted by lighthouse authorities worldwide.
  • 1976 was the year mains power was connected.

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