Light on the Hill
Strolling across the grassy threshold of Pilot Hill towards the lighthouse you feel you are entering a timeless realm steeped in history and unspoilt natural beauty. The stark white tower is a spectacular sight up close, especially when you look up at it against a bright blue sky; it defies its humble beginning. When the Pilot Station was established in 1854 crossing the river bar was a major obstacle to navigation. In 1862 when the Department of Harbours and Rivers commenced the river mouth improvements a fixed signal to passing ships was created using a kerosene lamp attached to a pole near the signal staff on the most easterly part of Pilot Hill.
Sailing masters made a deputation in 1865 to the Colonial Treasurer for a better system. The Legislative Assembly then approved £120 ($240) for erection of a beacon in the same position as the lamp pole. Comprising a large fixed red kerosene light placed on a bench in a small wooden sentry box whose shutters could be opened at night to dispense the rays 10 to 13 kilometres out to sea.
One of the Pilot boatmen, William Walker supervised of the light. The pilot’s daughter Jane Freeburn also tended it as a child making her way through the brush on the headland with a bodyguard of Aborigines to protect her from possible predators.
In 1877 moves were made to construct a proper lighthouse, which lead to an inspection tour of the North Coast in the following year to identify potential sites. James Johnstone Barnet was Colonial Architect from 1862 until 1890. One of his briefs was the design, construction and supervision of lighthouses and he was commissioned with his assistants to design one at Clarence River Heads. The style was derived from that of Francis Greenway, designer of the first Macquarie Lighthouse at South Head, Sydney.
Tenders were called in April 1878. A Grafton building contractor, William Kinnear was awarded the contract for £1097 ($2194) and completed the structure in 1879.
William Walker was appointed first lighthouse keeper and held the position for 40 years. Quarters were constructed for him adjacent to the lighthouse in 1905. The keepers’ job was a demanding one as lives depended on the correct functioning of the light.
The construction of the Pacific Hotel in mid 1934 affected the ray viewing and a suggestion was made to rebuild the lighthouse on the extreme eastern point of the headland. Tenders were not called until late 1954 and Boulder Construction Company began work in late February 1955.
The new lighthouse was first lit on December 21, 1955. Standing 17 metres high it is supported by 5 metres of reinforced concrete foundation imbedded in bedrock.
The original lighthouse was demolished. Blocks from the lighthouse were used to construct a retaining wall, which still exists today along the lower side of Campbells Lane.
When you next see the lighthouse, standing firm against the battering of fierce winds and stormy weather remember how it epitomises the ‘mastery of man over nature’ to safely guide those at sea around the protruding headland, rocks and into the dangerous river entrance.
You can discover more about the lighthouse and other stories at the museum in River Street (next door to the golf club).