Photos by Bob and Sandra Shanklin, "The Lighthouse People"
My husband, Bob, and I, "The Lighthouse People" were in Puerto Rico in January of last year to photograph "Los Faros de Puerto Rico." We shot photos of every one of the lighthouses, some up close and some from a distance in a boat or airplane.
There are 17 lighthouses and ruins of lighthouses in Puerto Rico. About half the lighthouses are in good condition or fairly good condition or have funding to restore them. There are several of these that looked intact, but we have no idea of the structural condition.
The rest truly belong on the "DOOMSDAY LIST" of endangered lighthouses.
Culebrita is almost a ruin. It is at the top of the Island of Culebrita near
Culebra. It is on a National Wildlife Refuge. We stayed on Culebra and took a boat to Culebrita, where we had to hike to the top. The roof is falling in; the dome was blown off in Hurricane Georges a few years ago. (That was the same Hurricane Georges that demolished the lighthouse at Round Island, Mississippi.) It is truly in danger of falling into a pile of rubble. There are people who hope to save and restore it, but since it is so isolated, this may never happen.
Puerto Ferro, Vieques: This lighthouse is near the controversial bombing range on the U.S. Navy Base on the island of Vieques. We flew over it in a small chartered plane from Culebra. The pilot had never flown near the Vieques bombing range and I had to help find the lighthouse down below us. The lantern room is gone, and in our photos, it seems to be in very bad shape. We could see holes in the walls and roof. Whatever the outcome of the controversy, we hope someone takes it in their heart to protect this little historic structure.
Punta Figuras: In the town of Arroyo, its roof is gone but its walls remain and the tower stands in the middle of the structure. The lantern room is almost gone. The dome on the top and the window glass, the lens, has long since disappeared. There is much rubble surrounding it. Just clearing it out and stabilizing the walls, would protect what is left to preserve the heritage of old Spanish lighthouses in Puerto Rico. Since it is near homes, businesses and schools, this is one that could be viewed by many people and shown quite easily to school children.
There are Range Light ruins on the beach in front of Punta Figuras, which we found quite by accident. A local, coming up from the beach while we were photographing Punta Figuras, told us about it. Some Park Service officers on patrol confirmed that this had indeed been a range light. They told us that at one time it had been used as a gunnery target, which explained the many holes in it. When we got home, we called the Coast Guard in San Juan. Our contact also confirmed that this was a range light. We had never seen anything quite like it.
Caja de Muertos: We took a boat out of Ponce to Isla de Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island). The lighthouse was at the top of a hill. It looked like a mountain to us and was much higher than the climb to Culebrita Lighthouse. From the boat dock on the island, we had to hike a long trail through cactus and dry, desert-like plants. The day was very hot, and the cactus so tall, they cut out any breezes off the ocean. Captain Rafy Vega, of the "Island Ventures Water Excursions" boat, gave us bottles of water for the hike. Somehow, I thought Bob had our water, and Bob thought I had our water.
After the long hike on the flat trail, we came to the base of the large hill. The path went almost straight up! Over lava rocks, around boulders, it seemed like it went on and on. At times, I didn’t think I would make it, and was very surprised when I got to the top, and Bob had already gotten there. And that’s a story in itself. He got partway up the hill, and decided he couldn’t go on. He was going to turn around and go back down. Just then, he looked down by his feet and there was a long sturdy branch, shaped like a cane. He picked it up, and with its support, he made it to the top. (The Puerto Rican people he told the story to were convinced it was a miracle.) Who knows?
The lighthouse was beautiful and worth the climb. The Spanish architecture and ornate details were very special, as they are on several other Puerto Rican Lighthouses. The lantern room was rusty and in terrible shape, with no original lens, just a plastic optic. Although not in very good shape, Caja de Muertos Lighthouse was in the best condition of any we consider belonging on the "Doomsday List."
After we got to the top of the hill, Bob asked me for water and that’s when we discovered that neither of us had carried the water. There WAS a cistern where we drew up water in a bucket and poured it over our heads, but we didn’t dare drink it. Capt. Rafy, who had hiked with us, shared his water with me. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t, as I was sick with the heat when I got back down to the long path leading to the boat dock. The return hike seemed to stretch on and on in the hot afternoon sun. I, for one, was very glad to see the boat.
Several days later, we were talking to helicopter flight crews at the Coast Guard Base at Aquadilla. I mentioned to one of the pilots that we had climbed to the lighthouse on Caja De Muertos. His mouth fell open. "We never climb that hill." he said. "We always let our men down from the helicopter with their equipment, then go back and get them when they are done." (And these were fellows much younger than we are.)
Guanica: We have been told that this is the first thing the American invaders saw when they came into Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War. We were told a rumor that could be taken two different ways. One of the rumors was that it was lit to guide the Americans into Guanica. The other, that it was lit to warn the Spanish that the Americans were coming. Who knows? It is in terrible shape, much the same as Culebrita and Point Figuras. Walls standing and the tower, with piles of rubble inside, and only a part of the lantern room remaining. Unlike Culebrita, and like Point Figuras, it is near civilization, and should be stabilized and cleaned up, if not restored, just to save a part of Puerto Rican heritage.
Isla Mona: We had planned a boat trip out to Mona Island, but it didn’t work out, and with the high seas in the Straits of Mona, we were glad we didn’t take the boat. It would have been quite dangerous. (And I probably would have gotten seasick.) Then, we would have had to hike a long way from the dock to the lighthouse. Someone told us not to wear yellow shoes on Mona, as the divers and fisherman had been feeding bananas to the giant iguanas, and they would attack you if you were wearing yellow shoes, thinking they were bananas. YOU be the judge of that story.
We ended up chartering a small plane owned by a Coast Guard pilot. He flew us out over Mona Island and circled the lighthouse for us. It was great although we still would rather have been there, right on the ground with the giant iguanas.
The lighthouse on Mona Island is abandoned, and there are several modern beacons to take its place. This lighthouse is the only metal tower lighthouse in Puerto Rico. We have heard that the man who built the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel himself, designed it. It is in terrible shape, and most likely will not be restored or stabilized due to its remote location.
We had heard there might be the ruins of a lighthouse on the beach near Aquadilla. Locals called it "Las Ruinas," although no one we talked to realized it had been a lighthouse. It was the first Point Borinquen Lighthouse, built in 1889, wiped out by a tidal wave around 1920, about the same time as the first Point Jiguero lighthouse was damaged severely. It was very interesting to explore. It looked like there had been a two-family keeper’s house with the tower in the center of the building. When we flew right over it, we could see that was true. Partial walls remain, and small areas of brick and stone that show where the tower was, right in the middle.
Five of the lighthouses (Los Faros de Puerto Rico), were in really good shape: El Morro in San Juan, Cabezas de San Juan at Fajardo, Point Jiguero at Rincon the lighthouse at Arecibo, which has just been beautifully restored and Punta Mulas on the Island of Vieques, which is being lovingly restored.
Point Tuna is in Coast Guard hands, and seems to be in good shape, and at least being cared for. The lantern room was in good shape also, although the Fresnel lens had a bulls-eye missing. It looked to us that the Coast Guard was doing some restoration and repairs.
Isla de Cardona also seems to be in good shape, although we only saw that lighthouse from our boat. We got pretty pictures, but no true idea of its condition.
The last one in really bad shape was Cabo Rojo. It is a beautiful lighthouse in a truly spectacular spot, on high cliffs. The door was open, and holes were knocked into the walls. I do not include it on the Doomsday List, as I heard that there was funding to restore and take care of it.
Puerto Rico is beautiful, with many old buildings built by the Spanish, which take much effort to restore and maintain. Old San Juan is a model to show what can be done. However, a high percentage of the lighthouses of Puerto Rico are in terrible shape, and maybe it is even too late for some of them. Once they are gone, Puerto Ricans, and all Americans, will lose an important piece of their history and heritage.
This story appeared in the
February 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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