November 5, 2011
Better late than never . . . In southeast Australia, a lighthouse at Cape Wickham on King Island in the state of Tasmania was officially opened 150 years after first going into the service. This ceremony finally took place in 2011 because, during preparations to commemorate the lighthouse’s sesquicentennial, it was discovered that no such inauguration had yet been held.
The Cape Wickham Lighthouse was built on the northernmost point of King Island (known as King’s Island at the time) in what was then the British colony of Tasmania to help guide and protect vessels sailing through the Bass Strait in that region of Australia. This strait is located between Tasmania and the state (and one-time colony) of Victoria. Throughout the 19th century, many mariners coming from Europe and seeking to reduce travel time to Sydney on Australia’s east coast would try to make their way through the notoriously turbulent waters of the Strait.
In the first several decades of the century, the Strait became the graveyard for quite a few ships and a large number of their passengers nearing the end of long voyages from Europe. One of the most famous of these deadly incidents occurred in 1845 when the Melbourne-bound British ship Cararaqui was slammed by a westerly gale while sailing through the Strait and then run aground on King Island. Only nine of the 408 people on board the vessel survived the calamity; this shipwreck remains Australia’s worst-ever maritime disaster.
This tragedy and others resulting in the significant loss of lives ultimately led government officials to have lighthouses installed along the Strait to serve as greatly needed navigational aids. The first of these was a lighthouse built at Cape Otway in Victoria in 1848. On the other side of the strait 13 years later, the Cape Wickham Lighthouse was constructed from locally quarried granite. Along with playing a major lifesaving role in the region, the Lighthouse also eventually became one of Tasmania’s treasured landmarks.
In 1918, the Lighthouse’s original single wick oil burner with an acetylene flasher was replaced with an automated light that generated notably more candlepower. Not long after this change in the method of illumination, the employment of keepers to help oversee and maintain the Lighthouse was discontinued altogether.
The official opening of the Lighthouse in 2011 was not only an overdue formality but also an opportunity to celebrate this structure’s longtime legacy. Those on hand for the Saturday evening ceremony included Quentin Bryce, Australia’s governor-general from 2008 to 2014. In addition to addressing those in attendance, Bryce cut a red ribbon just outside the lighthouse as a key part of the festivities.
Measuring 157 feet (49 meters) in height, the Lighthouse is Australia’s tallest. It also has the distinction of being the tallest granite lighthouse in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
The program for the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Cape Wickham Lighthouse is available at http://www.multimediaevents.com.au/manage/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/WIKI150Program.pdf.
A video of the official opening of the lighthouse can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqSHyrhB5Ls.