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GEORGESON, HENRY (Scotty), stopping-house owner, fisherman, lighthouse-keeper, farmer, and boatbuilder; b. 17 July 1835 in Walls, Scotland; m. 21 Feb. 1881 Elizabeth Sophia (Sophy), a native woman, in Duncan, B.C., and they had four sons and one daughter; d. 2 Feb. 1927 on Galiano Island, B.C.
Born in the Shetland Islands, Henry Georgeson supposedly left home at 14, with limited education, to work on sailing ships. He made voyages to Australia, New Zealand, and China, and “deserted” at San Francisco. With a large number of future Cariboo pioneers, in 1860 he signed a petition for responsible government for the colony of British Columbia, presumably at Hope. He took part in the Cariboo gold rush, and with a partner, George Buchanan, operated a stopping-house at Beaver Pass, on the pack-trail to Barkerville. After selling his half interest for $2,500 in 1863, he settled on a lot on Galiano Island, one of the Gulf Islands. He made formal application to pre-empt the property in 1873. Like many Gulf island residents, he earned seasonal income fishing for the Fraser River canneries. His experience as a mariner gained him a position on the Sand Heads lightship at the mouth of the Fraser from 1868 to 1869.
By the early 1880s increasing traffic, and two shipwrecks off Mayne and Saturna islands, had made it imperative for the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries to install lighthouses on the major channels through the Gulf Islands. To safeguard the heavily used Active Pass, called Plumper Pass on some charts and the shortest route between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland, the first light was planned for Georgina Point on Mayne Island. Georgeson was appointed keeper by an order in council of 21 July 1884. Following the station’s completion the next year, he was ordered to light up on 10 June 1885. Other lights would be erected at East Point on Saturna Island in 1887 and Porlier Pass on Galiano Island in 1902. The Georgina Point station was described in a report by deputy minister William Smith* in June 1885: “The building is of wood painted white, and consists of a square tower 42 feet high from the ground to the vane of the lantern, with keeper’s dwelling attached.” Georgeson held his position here until 31 Dec. 1920, when he retired to his farm on Galiano Island. In 1923 he received the federal Long Service Medal for his 36 years of lighthouse work. He is buried on land that he donated for the Galiano Island cemetery.
The role of lighthouse-keeper in the early years was demanding and hazardous. The clockwork mechanisms for the Georgina Point light and the fog-bell installed about 1887 were wound by hand, as frequently as every two or three hours during the night. Georgeson quickly gained expertise in operating the steam fog-alarm that replaced the bell in 1892. The fixed white coal-oil light, which would not be replaced with an occulting white petroleum-vapour light until 1910, floated in a tub of mercury that produced noxious fumes. The dioptric lenses and reflectors were cleaned daily, with a more thorough cleaning twice weekly. Georgeson was expected to remain alert through the nights, use alcohol in moderation, and maintain accurate records. His carefully kept logs served as evidence on more than one occasion when captains of Canadian Pacific Railway ships complained that the foghorn was not operating. One of the more exciting events in Georgeson’s career was the grounding, in dense fog on 13 Oct. 1918, of the CPR’s Princess Adelaide on the rocks in front of the lighthouse, even though the foghorn was working. There was no loss of life and the ship was refloated. At some point, to assist Georgeson in his duties, a telephone was installed at the Georgina station. For many years it was one of only two telephones on Mayne Island.
Keepers’ pay was notoriously meagre. Georgeson’s annual salary of $500 increased to $550 in 1888 and, when the fog-alarm was installed, it jumped to $900, from which he paid an assistant, his son George; by his retirement it had risen to $1,680. He augmented his income by building boats for local residents. His wife, Sophia, quite possibly helped him tend the light and, as much as lighthouse duties would permit, they both took part in community activities.
The Georgeson name is synonymous with lighthouse keeping in the southern Gulf Islands. Henry’s brother James manned the East Point light from 1889 to 1921 and he too received the Long Service Medal. James’s sons Peter and Henry as well as Henry’s son George also became keepers.
BCA, GR-0584, vol.23. LAC, RG 12, Acc. H-1988-89/205. National Arch. (G.B.), CO 60/9 (mfm. at BCA). Private arch., Marie Elliott (Mayne Island, B.C.), Copy of Henry Georgeson’s diary (original owned by Mary Ellen Harding); Interview with Donald DeRousie of Mayne Island. Private coll. (Mayne Island), Henry Georgeson’s logbooks. Canada Gazette, 19 (1885-86): 9. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1885, no.9: xxxii, 130; 1886, no.11: xxviii, 121; 1888, no.5: xxviii; 1892, no.10: 44; 1894, no.11: xxxii; 1912, no.21: 79-80; 1923, no.2: 100. 1881 Canadian census: Vancouver Island, comp. Peter Baskerville et al. (Victoria, 1990), 188-89. Marie Elliott, Active Pass Lightstation, 1885-1985 (Ottawa, 1985); East Point Lighthouse, 1887-1987 (Ottawa, 1987); Mayne Island & the outer Gulf Islands: a history (Mayne Island, 1984). Janet and G. W. Georgeson, “Henry Georgeson (Galiano Island, 1858-1927),” in British Columbia Hist. Assoc., A Gulf Islands patchwork: some early events on the islands of Galiano, Mayne, Saturna, North and South Pender (Sidney, B.C., 1961), 9. Donald Graham, Keepers of the light: a history of British Columbia’s lighthouses and their keepers (Madeira Park, B.C., 1985).