When was the last time you saw an operating manual lighthouse? It’s not easy. There aren’t very many of them left in the world.
One of the last is in the Bahamas, on Hope Town in Abaco. It’s the Elbow Reef Lighthouse and, oh, what a beautiful landmark!
I was in Abaco for my annual role at the Island Roots Heritage Festival on nearby Green Turtle Cay. For the past 10 years I’ve flown to the islands and gone straight to Green Turtle, but this year I had one extra day and decided to see something new. Hope Town was a great choice!
It also helped that we had a great tour guide, Timothy Roberts. Timothy is a reporter with The Abaconian, and also a good friend to this group of living historians. I appreciate that he took the time out of his busy schedule to show us around.
Truth be told, he’s a bit of a historian, himself, a descendant of the pirate Bart Roberts, but that’s a topic for another blog.
When you look up Hope Town online, you’re likely going to see a variation of the same picture. – what the island looks like as you approach it by boat, boasting of it’s trademark lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built by England in 1864 in response to ships piling up after wrecking on the very difficult to navigate Elbow Reef. The whole goal of this beacon, was to warn ships to stay away. This was much to the displeasure of the wreckers, who were making a fortune off all those wrecks.
Of course we had to take a closer look.
As you may see, the lighthouse has layers, not just the painted stripes, but was constructed in widening layers.
We were told it’s also a bit thicker than it was originally, another layer of outer walls being built to help reinforce the building when it weakened over time.
Once inside, it was time to hit the stairs…
There were lots of tight steps, but it was worth it to get to the top.
What a beautiful view from the windows.
But why stop there? By stepping through a fist-handled door….
We had the best view of the island. Here’s a look at my video ‘walk around the top’
Then, we stopped for a few quick photos… I liked the island backdrop…
Lawrence liked more of the industrial look to his picture….
Now let’s take a closer look at the operations of this historic structure. (Some text courtesy the Bahamas Tourism Website)
The lamp burns pressurized Kerosene oil with a wick and mantle.
The Fresnel lenses concentrate the mantle’s light into a beam directed straight towards the horizon.
The lenses and burner equipment, weighing 8,000 lbs, float in a circular lubricated tub. This reduces friction so that the 700lbs of weight, when wound up to the top of the tower by hand, smoothly rotates the 4-ton apparatus once every 15 seconds.
The lighthouse was off when we were there, but you could use just your fingers to turn that 8,000 lbs quite easily.
Here’s a closer look at the mechanism….
A little more info –
The lighthouse keeper on duty must wind up the 700lbs of weights every 2 hours in order for the lighthouse to be seen from 17 miles away.
Now, it’s good to mention here that the top of the lighthouse we’re seeing is not the original top.
In 1936, approximately 73 years after it was built, the Imperial Lighthouse Service closed the Lighthouse at Gun Cay (south of Bimini), and realized that the lighthouse at Hope Town was in need of a beacon for easier identification by ships. The Gun Cay lighthouse was then decapitated, and the iron lantern room with its dome, petroleum burner equipment, turning mechanism, and the rotating Fresnel lenticular panels were brought to Hope Town to replace its standing wick-type light.
What a beautiful piece of working history! And what a lovely view.
But all good things must come to an end.
Hey, those steps sure didn’t look so steep going up…
A post script about the lighthouse.
The only reason it’s still manually operated is because the Lighthouse Preservation Society fought to keep it that way.
In 1996, for economic reasons, the Port Department was prompted to automate the hand-wound kerosene–burning lighthouse in the Bahamas. The Lighthouse Preservation Society (the non-profit historical and educational society dedicated to the preservation of Bahamian lighthouses) convinced the government to reconsider, as long as the Society would provide the Port Department with the parts they needed that were longer available through their previous supplier. Since then, the Society has been using mantles from the Coleman Company (manufacturer of Outdoor Equipment). Today, the Elbow Reef Lighthouse is still sending out light, rated at 325,000 candlepower, with the same light source it acquired in 1936.
And we’re thankful for what they do, so we could have the opportunity to see this magnificent structure!
When you go, do what we did. Make sure to drop some dough in the donation box so they can keep it going!