How do you research and write the history of Canadian coastlines? Find out in this interview! Here, we speak with Kate Bauer, a current U of T PhD candidate in the Department of History, about her research on lighthouses in Eastern Canada, how she engages with coastal spaces, and some of her favourite lighthouses in Canada…
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Kate Bauer (she/her) and I’m a PhD candidate entering my fourth year in the Department of History. My research focuses on the relationship between the Canadian state and coastlines in the first decades after Confederation, primarily looking at the origin and expansion of a federal system of navigational aids on the oceans and lakes of the new Dominion. This is research that moves between the federal and the local, and between the social and environmental, to consider the significance of lighthouses and their keepers in nineteenth-century Canada.
How did you become interested in this topic?
As a landlubber born and raised in Ontario, my interest in lighthouses began when I received an internship with the Friends of Head Harbour Lightstation on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, between my third and fourth years of undergraduate study at McGill. I spent the summer pouring over records and conducting interviews with former lighthouse keepers. I realized that not only was this an area of history with an immense and dedicated contingent of local and amateur historians, but also that there was essentially no published academic work, in history or otherwise, on Canadian lighthouses. This made it challenging to write my undergrad research paper, but it also gave me a clear and exciting idea for graduate work.
How do your research concerns intersect with space and the built environment in Canada?
My research looks at how the environmental technopolitics of settler colonialism and state-making unfolded in coastal environments—specifically the cold and foggy coastlines of northern North America. Unlike canals or dams that could change and shape the direction and flow of rivers, lighthouses and other navigational infrastructure like buoys and fog horns do not fundamentally remake coastal environments. They could provide order and safety at sea only in conjunction with the tacit knowledge and sensory abilities of mariners.
“Coastlines emerged as contested spaces where the technological aspirations of the Dominion of Canada to make its coastlines safer and more legible to mariners encountered the recalcitrant coastal environment.”
Lighthouses and fog horns were built on solid ground, but the work they did as navigational infrastructure was primarily in the air (beams of light and sound waves) and over the water. With this in mind, coastlines emerged as contested spaces where the technological aspirations of the Dominion of Canada to make its coastlines safer and more legible to mariners encountered the recalcitrant coastal environment. I also consider the “house” part of lighthouses alongside their roles as navigational aids, looking at how these structures could at once be homes and navigational tools (and how these realities either worked together or challenged each other in daily life).
How do you research the history of architecture, landscape, and space in Canada? How do you engage with the space and the people who built/use it?
Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, Nova Scotia. Credit: “Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse and Village,” Nova Scotia Canada.
My research has a two-pronged approach to try and tease out some of these questions about coastal space, state power, and local knowledge. Lighthouses are both nodes in a national/international system as well as individual, distinct locations, so I try to approach my work with both of these histories in mind. I consider both the political and economic imperatives behind their construction at the federal level, as well as their embeddedness within specific environments, communities, and family histories.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the former approach has been more accessible, as I have been unable to travel to access local resources that are integral to telling the sort of lived-in stories that I want to be able to tell. But things are looking up for research travel in the next few months, and I’m excited to be able to continue expanding the research methods I use to tell these stories.
How do you connect the history of the built environment with social history?
Lighthouses were more than just structures that held lenses and fog alarms—most of them were also purpose-built as family homes. They were built with domesticity in mind. In the nineteenth century, Canadian officials overtly preferred to hire lighthouse keepers with a wife and children because it was cheaper to pay the salary of one man to keep a light with the expectation that his family would join in the care and maintenance of the station without remuneration.
“These were blended spaces where national, technological networks relied on a traditional family structure and gender roles.”
These were blended spaces where national, technological networks relied on a traditional family structure and gender roles. And accidents and drownings were not uncommon among lighthouse keepers, often leaving wives or teenage children to care for the station until the end of the navigation season or until a replacement could be found. I am fascinated by this duality and the possibilities that lighthouses hold to help us think about the ways that traditional gender and family structures undergirded “modern” infrastructures in Canadian history – and what potential this might hold for thinking about other built environments.
Why do you think it’s important to examine or consider the built environment in Canada?
Built environments are places where power and politics become material—in other words, the built environment is like an archive of the different ways people have related to the world around them. This is important for Canadian history especially, as the resettlement of the space called Canada is a very recent phenomenon. The ongoing process of settler colonialism becomes more visible the more we pay attention to the politics and patterns of built environments. Even something as simple as a lighthouse can tell us something about this history.
What other projects are you working on?
I have a few ongoing side projects that are offshoots of my dissertation research, but the one that is currently occupying most of my time and energy is my research on the Machias Seal Island lighthouse. For those unfamiliar with this tiny little island, it lies equidistant from the coasts of Maine and New Brunswick, and its sovereignty is currently contested between Canada and the United States. I’m working on a piece of writing for a Canadian Coastal Histories workshop on the role of the Canadian lighthouse on the island in diplomatic debates and disagreements that have emerged in the last two centuries.
“As we confront the colonial past and present of this country, considering the complicity of built spaces and infrastructures from street signs to railway lines will lead to new and, possibly, hopeful conclusions about where we are going in the future.”
Coastal history offers an interesting opportunity to look at how states and political bodies have related to territory, both terrestrial and aquatic, throughout history. In this case, the perpetual maintenance of a Canadian lighthouse since the 1830s is tied directly to the Canadian state’s ability to exercise jurisdiction over lobster fishing in the water around the island. The paper asks questions about the work lighthouses and other coastal infrastructures do for the processes of territory- and border-making in watery environments. Hopefully, some of these themes might help us think through some of the big questions that no doubt will arise in the coming years as sea levels rise and to challenge and confront our ideas about the fixity of coastlines and borders.
What do you think is the future of the study of the built environment in Canada? How do you think it could expand or change?
I’ll never forget what my supervisor Steve Penfold told me after I joined the program and explained my dissertation topic to him—his initial impression was that lighthouses were sort of quaint that he didn’t initially see where my research would lead me. But in the intervening years, he has become more and more convinced of their significance to so many other aspects of Canadian history. I foresee a similar realization for other structures, spaces and built environments in Canada. As we confront the colonial past and present of this country, considering the complicity of built spaces and infrastructures from street signs to railway lines will lead to new and, possibly, hopeful conclusions about where we are going in the future.
What is your favourite space in Canada and why?
This is a really tricky question! During the pandemic, I’ve been spending a lot of time biking to the end of the Leslie Street Spit in Tommy Thompson Park here in Toronto. It’s a man-made peninsula formed from decades of dredging and digging to build Toronto’s subways and high-rise buildings, but has since become a conservation area. Jutting out from the desolate-feeling Port Lands and Ashbridge’s Bay, on sunny days it can feel easy to forget you are a stone’s throw from the downtown of the biggest city in the country.
We’ve come across foxes, snakes, and rabbits on early morning bike rides; there’s something almost surreal about biking along a verdant, overgrown road, buzzing with crickets, and look up to see the CN tower looming overhead. There’s even a small lighthouse on the end of the spit (to add to its personal appeal). As a resident of East Toronto, it gives me hope for the future of Toronto’s coastal spaces and waterways.
Thank you for sharing your research with us, Kate!
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