Hannah Solo and Neil Aberle
While sailors love lighthouses, at times in the past shore dwellers have not. And governments trying to save money often feel that automation of human tasks is an economical move. So the present status of lighthouses in the Bahamas as beloved historical monuments was not always assured. The struggles to build, maintain, restore and preserve them have been going on, in some cases, for more than a century.
The Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society, under the leadership of David Gale, has provided us with some insights into the colorful history of the fight to build and maintain lighthouses in the Bahamas.
Who could hate a lighthouse? Years ago Bahamians, especially Abaconians, felt a strong and guiltless enmity towards lighthouses. According to David Gale, "their animosity began in 1836 when the first two major lighthouses were built in the Bahamas, one on the southern tip of Great Abaco Island at Hole-in-the-Wall and the other at Gun Cay just south of Bimini. Concerned shipping interests had implored England to improve navigation aids in her colonies because of the increasing number of ships that were leaving their bones there.
"However, because many Abaconians made a good living from salvaging (then know as 'wracking') the unfortunate ships that ended their sailing days on the dangerous shoals of this low archipelago of reefs, rocks, cays and white beaches, navigation aids were no friends of the 'wrackers.'
"Merchant sail flourished between 1820 and 1880 and the Bahama Islands lay spread-out along its way. The Bahamian wracking fleet stood ready to help, with almost 300 vessels licensed to cruise the reefs in search of luckless ships to salvage, employing half of the able-bodied men in the country and accounting for about half of this British colony's revenue. The records for 1860 show an amazing average of one wreck per month at Abaco alone.
"Wracking was a lucrative business. The system required that the salvaged cargo, considered to be imported goods, be shipped to Nassau for auction with the government taking 15%, the agents 15% and 40 to 60% going back to the wrackers. The ship owners received the 10 - 30% that was left, which doesn't' seem like much, but had it not been for the wrackers and the system they would have received nothing.
"Since wrecks continued to abound in Abaco, north of the Hole-in-the-Wall Lightstation, England decided in 1863 to build a lighthouse at Hope Town to warn ships away from the extensive Elbow Reef, thus the original and correct name for the lighthouse is the Elbow Reef Lighthouse. Today however, many people erroneously refer to the light as the Hope Town Lighthouse, but it was built to send sailors away from Hope Town, not to guide them in.
"In fact, while the lighthouse was being constructed, an inspector from the Imperial Lighthouse Service remarked that it was the right place to build a lighthouse for he could see six wrecks on the reef. However, local hostility overflowed for this was right where the wrecking was best at Hope Town's front door.
"In order to build the Elbow Reef Lightstation, the Imperial Lighthouse Service, Trinity House, London, brought in some outside help but also employed many Hope Towners to unload supplies, quarry the limestone rock for building foundations and cisterns, to mix the cement and carry out the myriads of other chores can are a part of a construction job of such magnitude. The locals were glad for the jobs but at the same time they wished that they were not building a lighthouse. There were reports by the supervisors that some locals sank a supply barge one night and also withheld fresh water from the workers.
"Despite the wrecking community's protests, the light station was completed in 1864: a fixed (non-rotating), first-order (of brightness) light, warning ships away from the treacherous reef extending a considerable distance to seaward of Elbow Cay.
"All Imperial Lighthouse Service lightstations were issued a set of signal flags, which were kept at the ready in their curved wooden cubby-holed cabinets to be run up the flagpole in order to speak with passing ships.
"A ship sailing by a lighthouse was mighty glad that the light was there and she would willingly run up her signal flags to identify herself to the light-keepers. The guardians of the light would answer the ship's signals with their own flags and then keep a record so that The Board of Trade, Trinity House, London, could send the shipping company a bill for services rendered.
"Through the use of the signal flags medical assistance might be given by the ship or an important message might be delivered at the ship's next port of call. The lightstations would report their births or deaths and the ships would report any big news. Sometimes, out of loneliness, they simply made small talk by flags.
"Most of the Bahama lightstations were completely isolated, far from settlements and mailboat services and their flags were their only means of communication. They were considered 'hard-rock,' for the lighthouse tender brought supplies but once every six months. However, Elbow Reef Lightstation was not a hard-rock station, being situated only across Great Harbour (Hope Town Harbour's original name) from the settlement of Hope Town, so signal flags were probably not as important to the keepers as they were elsewhere.
"Lighthouses ever silent sentinels and angels to the sailor along with the advent of steam replacing sail and more accurate nautical charts, combined to finally put the wracking industry on the rocks.
"Another economic bubble had burst for the people of Hope Town.
"Abaconians, descendants of British Loyalists who had come to this Crown Colony after the American Revolution, had lived a life of boom and bust ever since they first arrived, so they simply waited about thirty years for another boom. It was rum-running in 1929 but it was 'bust' again with the repeal of U.S. Prohibition in '33.
"About six years into the quiet period which followed the demise of rum-running a particularly devastating hurricane swept through the northern cays. The kindly Sir Charles Dundas, then Governor of the Bahamas, made a special effort to voyage from Nassau by boat to the far-flung tiny fishing village of Hope Town to ask the people if there was anything that he could do for them.
"Old John Malone, whose forebearers had been wrackers, spoke up, still bitter 74 years after the Elbow Reef Lightstation had been built, and said, "Sir Charles, ye see that light'ouse hacross the 'arbour? Jus' strike hit hout hand 'Ope Town will be prosperous hagain.'
"That, apparently, was not what Governor Dundas had in mind for he didn't 'strike hit hout.'"
"In 1936 the Imperial Lighthouse Service realized that the light at Gun Cay was being 'used less and less . . . and so it was closed. At the same time the Service realized Elbow Reef's need for a beacon which could be more easily identified by ships at sea. The Gun Cay Lighthouse was decapitated. The iron lantern room with its dome, the petroleum burner equipment, the turning mechanism and the rotating Fresnel lenticualr panels with five bull's-eyes which had been going around at Gun Cay since 1929 (and may have been elsewhere before that) were brought to Hope Town to replace the 1864 standing wick-type light.
"The 'new' light source for Elbow Cay was built by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England and is till sending out the light today from the top of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse. The hood petroleum burner is rated at 325,000 candlepower, a first order light. A hand pump is used to pressurize the kerosene in heavy iron containers in the service room, directly below the lantern room and travels up a tube to an atomizer which sprays into a mantle (a hood of network fabric) having been pre-heated before lighting. Some camping lanterns operate similarly.
"The beautiful Fresnel lenses concentrate the mantle's light into a piercing beam straight out towards the horizon. The eight thousand pound lenses and burner equipment float in a circular tub of lubricant thereby reducing friction so that seven hundred pounds of weight, when wound up to the top of the tower by a hand winch and using a series of bronze gears, rotate the four ton apparatus once around every 15 seconds and very smoothly at that. The keeper on duty has to wind up the weights every two hours. The smooth sweep of the turning lenses with their five swords of light cutting the darkness over the sea, while the light constantly glows between those beams, is know as the 'soul' of a lighthouse. Once seen and compared to an electric flashing light, it is not soon forgotten and the use of the word 'soul' is more easily understood."
In August of 1996 the Port Department, under the Ministry of Transport, was prompted by economics to automate the last three hand-wound kerosene-burning Bahama lighthouses, these included Elbow Reef, San Salvador and Great Inagua. The Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society got the government to reconsider automation IF the Society could furnish the Department with the parts that were no longer available to them through their long-standing suppliers.
Since April of 1996 the Society has been successfully using mantles from the Coleman Company of Wichita, Kansas -- the well-known manufacturer of outdoor equipment. Coleman would send tubes of mantle material. Members of the Society would cut it to length, sew one end into a bunch, like a cheap sock and stitch a non-burnable draw-cord in the other end. An engineer for M.I.T. in Boston was found who could make burner and vaporizer hardware.
All of this effort went into simply keeping the light burning. Other parts of the Lighthouse demand maintenance too. As of November, 1997 Jeffrey Forbes, senior Principle Keeper, returned to Elbow Reef Lighthouse. He brought the brass up to shine standard, cleaned and sorted parts and organized them in the lovely curved teak parts cabinet. The parts cabinet has been repaired and the original locks and keys have been restored. The exterior of the cabinet will be taken down to bare wood and re varnished. All the hurricane shutters of the tower had to be repaired, scraped and painted. Many of the hinges were pulled loose and all of the barrel bolts were either missing, frozen in place by years of careless painting or otherwise unusable. Some shutters were completely off and none could have been secured in the event of a storm. Tower windows had glass replaced, were scraped, painted and had related hardware repaired.
The BLPS will soon be able to provide, from their inventory, whatever parts may be needed at all of the three remaining hand-wound lighthouses. However, the funds are not currently available to pay for some of these critical parts, which are now being produced. The BLPS has vowed to pay for the parts even if the money has to be borrowed. Automation could still happen if the inventory cannot be built and maintained.
The BLPS is a non-profit historical and educational society dedicated to the preservation of our lighthouses, the old hand-wound and kerosene-burning technology and the unique keeper's dwellings. They deserve nothing short of museum quality display and the BLPS is committed to their historically correct restoration and maintenance. Their value as symbols of our national maritime heritage and as a tourist attraction cannot be overstated.
A few of the projects that lie ahead for the Elbow Reef Lighthouse: more signs are needed, the steel lantern door opening outside onto the apron needs repair, and shutter and window repairs are needed to prevent water entry from further interior deterioration and to protect future restorations, a main tower door lock (of early 1900's design) that can be operated from inside our outside a massive brass thing with a big simple keyneeds repairs, repairs are needed to the dock, the old boat shed, the outside ladder on the gallery, the old generator room (a gift shop or reception center someday?) the drinking water tubs on the apron, the fuel pump for the kerosene to the old room and up the tower, lighting in the tower, one slab of the massive slate floor in the tower has cracked and one has cocked up.
Under the threat of automation the Society was founded in 1995 to draw attention to the historical and economic importance of these silent sentinels. Through the efforts of the BLPS, as of late 1997 all the lighthouse towers of the Bahamas (not the keeper's quarters) are being repainted and upgraded by the Port Department.
Hole-in-the-Wall, the first Imperial Lighthouse Service light to be built in the Bahamas, and automated in May, 1995, is inhabited for six months each year by the Bahamas Naturalist Expeditions and Dolphin Research under the direction of Ken and Diane Balcomb who have been refurbishing the keeper's quarters with and for their Earthwatch groups.
Those interested in the BLPS are invited to share ideas, volunteer services, donations and membership checks which will help to keep these symbols of our national maritime heritage turning smoothly and proudly. Checks made out to the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society can be mailed (BLPS, General Delivery, Hope Town, Abaco, Bahamas), or accepted at Lighthouse Marina, Vernon's Store, Harbour View Grocery and Island Marine, all in Hope Town.