On this day: Tragic lighthouse first lit

By Naomi Russo 29 June 2015
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At Bustard Head lighthouse – the site of suicide, drowning, tragic accidents and murder – the light has not been enough to stop endless waves of misfortune.

ON 29 JUNE 1868 the Bustard Head Lighthouse in northern Queendland was lit for the first time. Intended as a beacon of safety on Queensland’s treacherous shores, the lighthouse’s construction was nonetheless marred by tragedy. A workman was struck on the head and died whilst working on the remote building. It was to be the first of many deaths.

In 1887 Kate Gibson, the wife of the Bustard Head lighthouse keeper, disappeared. Her children found her with a slashed throat not far from the lighthouse. Her death was ruled a suicide and she was buried on the Bustard Head grounds. At the time her heartbroken children wrote a devastating epitaph for the Gladstone Observer:

“We cooeed our best at dead of night
The dread it could not hear us
The children cry ‘Oh Mother dear’
What keeps you from us
With weary anxious eyes we search
O’er sand, ridge, scrub and bush
But the warm heart was cold in death
Of her who gave us birth”

Ongoing lighthouse tragedies

Just two years after Kate’s death, tragedy struck the Gibson family and the lighthouse once more. The keeper Nils and his 20 year old daughter Mary left Bustard Head in a sailboat, with two others. The boat capsized in the treacherous waters and only Nils survived.

This was almost the turn of the century. Less than a decade later Milly Waye, who was born at the lighthouse, died at home. The two year old was burnt by boiling water and the injuries, after nine hours of agony, proved fatal.

It seems hard to believe, but in 1912 tragedy struck again, this time in the form of a still unsolved crime. The daughter of the lighthouse keeper was abducted whilst returning home and the man with her shot.

With his dying breaths he identified the attacker as a local boy, but neither the daughter nor the accused were ever found. It was alleged that the attacker, the dead escort and the girl had all been caught up in a twisted love triangle. The search for the two became the most expensive police search Queensland had ever seen.

These tragedies and others have been documented by Stuart Buchanan, a lighthouse keeper at Bustard Head during the ’70s. His book, Lighthouse of Tragedy, recounts the disasters that befell the Gibson family and that continued to dim the light in keepers’ lives for decades.

The story is one where truth is stranger than fiction and tragedies strike more consistently than would be believed if it weren’t all documented.

Lighthouse ruins resurrected

In 1986, more than a century after the light was first lit, the light at Bustard Head was automated and keepers decommissioned. Empty of people, hardship befell the building. Despite heritage listing, for the following decade and a half the lighthouse was vandalised, damaged and looted.

Former keeper Stuart Buchanan was devastated by the damages and when the chance came to submit an expression of interest to restore the lighthouse, he formed the Bustard Head Lighthouse Association Inc.

The only problem – the association fell far short of the $472,000 needed to restore the lighthouse and surrounds. But with the help of a federal grant, a 20 year lease and an interest free loan of $120,000 from Buchanan’s wife, Shirley, the restorations eventually began.

Sadly, tragedy struck Mr Buchanan himself when Shirley passed away in 2012, just 12 months before the lighthouse complex was re-opened.