The history of French Pass Lighthouse
French Pass separates the mainland from D’Urville Island. Before the lighthouse was built the channel was used by small boats. During the 1870s, with the growing settlements in Wellington and Nelson, passenger and mail steamers also began to use French Pass. It was a quicker and more comfortable trip, provided the ship avoided the reef between the mainland and D’Urville Island.
During the 1860s a stone beacon had been placed on the outer edge of the reef, but at night this was difficult to see. By 1880 the Wellington to Nelson mail steamer was using the pass regularly at night, to the horror of the Secretary of Marine who wrote:
“Some serious casualty will arise if a light is not put up.”
Despite this, it was 2 years before a light was fitted to the beacon. Then, as soon as it was finished, the beacon was struck by a steamer, causing considerable damage to both the beacon and the boat.
In 1884 the French Pass Lighthouse was built on the mainland, facing out to the repaired beacon. The lighthouse was first lit on 1 October 1884.
Operation of the French Pass light
In 1961 the acetylene-powered lighthouse became one of the first to be automated. A keeper remained as caretaker for another 6 years. In 1967 the light was replaced and the keeper was withdrawn. The light was converted to mains electricity in 1971.
The light was later upgraded to a tungsten halogen bulb. This was powered by mains electricity and backed up by battery in the event of a mains failure.
Life at French Pass light station
A single keeper was stationed at the French Pass Lighthouse, with responsibility also for the channel beacon. A local family helped by ferrying the keeper out to the beacon whenever the light went out, which happened frequently.
The first few years of daily journal entries contain many reports of the light going out. Several times the wind was so strong that it could not be relit. In one week during bad weather, the keeper had to relight the beacon three times. After 7 years of this irritation the keeper plucked up the courage to complain to the Marine Department, stating that the small retainer he was being paid wasn't worth risking his life to go out to the beacon in gale force winds, and rough seas. By all accounts it worked; the following year the keeper reported with great satisfaction:
“The French Pass light has not blown out this year.”