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Peggy's Cove Is a Beacon Along Lighthouse Route

August 24, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PEGGY'S COVE, Canada — "Many have trod the granite rocks and grassy plots, but few have watched the morning sun touch the steeple cross. . . ."

That is the first line from the ode to Peggy's Cove by artist and sculptor William E. deGarthe, who lived and worked here on the Lighthouse Route along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia for 35 years until his death three years ago.

The poem is titled "Many Have Passed." It goes on to add that "many have seen" Peggy's Cove but have been "blind to the heartbeats inside the open doors."

The words were written with a prayer they would be read by the many thousands of visitors who each year travel at least part of the 227-mile Lighthouse Route by car, RV, tour bus or bicycle.

We were fortunate to come upon the poem at the very beginning of the Lighthouse Route, scarcely an hour's drive out of Halifax.

Historic Landmark

The doors of DeGarthe's studio in Peggy's Cove, a historic landmark along the trail, were open, and his widow Agnes told us about their lives. The moments with her gave a deeper meaning to his monumental sculpture on the wall of glacial granite outside their summer home.

The DeGarthes always shared the hope of his poem, that travelers could linger just a bit longer to listen, in the words of his ode, to more than "the sea gull's cry."

To see and experience Peggy's Cove slowly, feeling "the breeze on sundrenched cheeks," while listening to the "pounding surf on windswept shore," opens the senses to all the other coves and storied villages along the Lighthouse Route.

The welcoming marker at the entrance to Peggy's Cove states that the village was founded in 1811 and that its present population is 60. Even the drive into the village, and then the walk along the pathway between granite boulders to the dramatic lighthouse location, can be a memorable experience.

It's easy to see why the cove has long been a fascination for artists and photographers from around the world. We stepped quietly around one boulder along the path so not to disturb a Japanese artist at work with his sketch pad.

The Story Unfolds

When we stopped at the Sou'Wester restaurant for a bowl of fish chowder, we picked up DeGarthe's small booklet, "This Is Peggy's Cove." It was first published in 1956, is in its 21st printing and begins with his "Many Have Passed" ode. This led us to the meeting with Agnes deGarthe, and to other writings about the cove by friends and fellow villagers.

The story unfolded for us. The Micmac Indians were likely the first settlers. It was their base for summertime fishing and had been shaped for them by the Ice Age, which cleaned off much of the topsoil and sculptured the forms of 415 million-year-old Devonian granite that create the landscape.

After a land grant of 800 acres around the cove was given to six families in 1811, the fishing industry boomed and the lighthouse was built to help safeguard shipping along this wildly rugged Atlantic Maritime coast.

The cove is an oval about 300 yards deep and 150 yards wide, narrowing at the entrance for protection against the waves that can thunder in from the Atlantic.

In the glory days of the fishing industry, the population of the cove grew to 300 and there was a lobster factory to help furnish employment. When a great storm rolled over the protection of the cove and destroyed many of the fish industry installations, artists and travelers began to discover this picturesque outpost community so close to Halifax.

'Pearl of the Atlantic'

To protect the heritage of this "Pearl of the Atlantic" the lands around the village were taken over by the Crown and closed to future development. In 1962 Peggy's Cove Commission was formed to regulate any building or building changes within the village.

The famous lighthouse has been preserved on its rocky cliff at the edge of the sea, and is best known as the only lighthouse post office in Canada. Collectors of postal memorabilia make a point to have their cards and letters stamped there. The Crooks family has run the post office for nearly a century. When Wesley Crooks retired at age 99 in 1934, he had been the oldest postmaster in Canada.

How did Peggy's Cove get its name? The most romantic story, and the one most generally accepted, is that in the early days of the village a schooner was wrecked on Halibut Rock off Lighthouse Point. Everyone on board was lost except a woman named Margaret who was washed ashore to become the bride of a handsome fisherman. She became legendary as Peggy of the Cove.

This was a story made to order for the imagination of William deGarthe. He used her charming figure and profile as a centerpiece of his monumental sculpture. Full-breasted, she has an animated swing to her hips even in stone as she looks back at the sea from which her life was spared.

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