Digest>Archives> June 2007

THE SALTY SIDE OF THE GRAND TURK LIGHTHOUSE

By Bobbie Hamilton

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Imagine, for a moment, a large ship being clutched into the jaws of a shallow reef covered in crashing waves, in the dark of night. The cargo is spilling out into the clear shallow waters and onto the pure white beaches. The residents of Grand Turk Island, one of the islands in the Caicos, are hurrying down carrying their sacks and tubs and carts. Plundering, (or looting, if you will) is their way of life, their livelihood.

During the colonial days, hundreds of shipwrecks happened off Grand Turk because of the shallow reefs. The wrecks were so common there, in the Northern side of the Atlantic that mariners started refusing to go to the island. They no longer picked up the salt cargos and the economy suffered drastically. Both shippers and the American government insisted that a lighthouse be built.

The Grand Turk Lighthouse was designed by Alexander Gordon and built in London in 1852. (The Caicos Islands got their independence from the British in the 1970s. They still drive on the wrong side.) The 60-foot-tall metal lighthouse (often hit by lightning) was shipped to Grand Turk and assembled there in hopes of saving the salt trade.

Originally the lighting apparatus was made up of 8 whale oil lamps with reflectors magnifying the light to 450 times its original intensity, in theory. It ran with clock-like machinery driven by weights.

In 1943 the lighting system was changed when the same company, the Chance brothers, installed a Fresnel lens and kerosene light. This was visible 15 miles out. The lens's prismatic glass was designed to extract every shimmer of light and concentrated them into a powerful beam. The lights run on kerosene. Nearby kerosene “room” was built to store the large quantities of kerosene needed to keep the lamps burning. (This building is now a gift shop.) As the residents supported themselves by “salvaging” from the many wrecks they didn't want the lighthouse lit. A man was hired to pour the kerosene in, get it lighted; but then he left until the morning. Who knows if it burned through the night?

Finally the government hired a full time lighthouse keeper. They even built a little house for him nearby. The government did make one small mistake in hiring a full time lighthouse keeper. He was a local. The lighthouse was lit but they shrouded the light with burlap or anything available so the light didn't do much for the ships.

During the lighthouse's first 40 years of use, wrecks continued along the northern coast. Ships' captains complained that the light was too dim or not lit at all. Some believe that the dimming of the light was done intentionally to cause shipwrecks in order to loot cargo aboard.

Finally, in 1972 the lamp was electrified and automated and the burner and clock mechanism were removed. Like the “train that could,” the lighthouse won out. The salt boxes lay idle but the Islanders are very happy. The Grand Turks are about to become the “newly” discovered Caribbean island. Carnival Cruise Line just completed a $40 million cruise terminal and the two thousand passenger cruise ships are bringing lots of tourist dollars. Grand Turk has a working lighthouse.

*Grand Turk and the Caicos Islands are named for a fez-like scarlet blossom of the cactus. It is a pristine place of simple pleasures. Crystal clear waters of the Atlantic and the world’s largest coral reef system.

This story appeared in the June 2007 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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