The Elbow Reef Lighthouse, Elbow Cay, Abaco, Bahamas. Photo credit: Annie Potts
The Bahamas are home to a great number of cultural treasures. Counted among them are eleven imperial lightstations constructed to guide shipping interests safely through the archipelago during the nineteenth century. These stations were constructed between 1836 and 1887 by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service to curb the economic loss incurred from frequent wrecks on Bahamian reefs and sandbanks. Each was manned by two or more keepers who would keep the light shining for those navigating the waterways at night.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse is one such light that has guided generations of ship captains and yachtsmen in and around Elbow Cay in the Abacos since 1864. References to this particular light can be found in World War I correspondences and logs of submarine captains, who frequented The Bahamas, as well as in travel logs of visitors to the cays throughout the years.
Following Bahamian independence in 1973, oversight of the Bahamian lighthouses passed from the British Imperial Lighthouse Service (ILS) to the Bahamas Port Department. The Cay Sal and Gun Cay lighthouses had been decommissioned in the 1930s and between 1973 and 2012, all but two of the lighthouses were automated as technological advancements allowed for conversion and reduced manpower. Lighthouses in their manual form have become increasingly rare as governments around the world have been financially unable to maintain them.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse, however, has stood the test of time. It not only remains an active aid to navigation, but is recognized as the last remaining hand-wound and kerosene fueled lighthouse in the world. Its machinery must be wound every two hours in order to keep the lens turning throughout the night. This means that each night, numerous times, a keeper climbs 101 steps up to the lantern room and ensures the light is adequately wound and fueled to illuminate the night sea for mariners. Due to its unique character and significance, this candy-striped lighthouse has become an icon of Abaconian and Bahamian heritage. Its image may be found on everything from paintings and jewelry to the Bahamian ten-dollar bill.
The successful preservation of this iconic lighthouse is presently due in large part to the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society (ERLS), a largely volunteer group of Hope Town. The Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society was formed out of the now dissolved Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society to preserve the historical integrity of the Elbow Reef Lightstation and maintain its traditional hand-powered machinery. The ERLS is a non-profit organization that garners support from Hope Town residents, second-home owners and individuals across The Bahamas and the United States. The Society is also greatly aided in fulfilling its mission through partnerships with government agencies including the Bahamas Port Department, the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation and the Ministry of Tourism.
“Saving a lighthouse is definitely a labour of love, determination and a team effort. I cannot thank the community, our donors, all of our partner agencies and most importantly the ERLS team of volunteers for giving us this amazing opportunity to save the very last lighthouse of its kind in the world! Our top-down restoration efforts include major rust removal and treatment of the canopy roof, gallery walkways and lantern that protects the historic burner and Fresnel lens that is the ‘soul’ of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse, as well as the restoration and preservation of the Keeper’s Quarters and other out-buildings that complete a true working lightstation. Painting of the red and white tower is the goal for 2017/2018!,” said Lory Kenyon, Executive Director of the ERLS.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society is a consistent community voice championing the preservation of the Elbow Reef Lightstation, restoration of elements which have fallen into disrepair and general upkeep of the grounds. They also work hard to support the lightkeepers. These aims are met through a broad range of activities including educational outreach programs, fundraising campaigns, production of written material about the historical details of the lightstation, and building their new Lightstation Gift Shoppe.
The current “Diamonds are Forever” campaign aims to raise funds for the Diamond Weatherglass Replacement Project. Forty-eight diamond and thirty-two half diamond glass panes encircle the lantern room and each needs replacement.
Jackson Blatch removing astragals from the lantern. Photo credit: Annie Potts.
Interested donors may donate to purchase a full diamond for $2000 or a half diamond pane for $1000. Donations go towards purchase and installation of the new panes. All donors will be recognized on a plaque at the lighthouse.
Information on how to donate may be found on the ERLS website: elbowreeflighthousesociety.com.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society held its first “Diamonds are Forever” Barefoot/Black tie event on February 10th, 2017 on Elbow Cay. This is the first in what is expected to be a series of Barefoot/Black tie fundraising events.
All materials necessary to begin the labour of replacing the weatherglass have been ordered and shipped from the United States. They are expected to arrive in Hope Town the last week of February.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society is an example of how one community is working to preserve its own history and heritage for present and future generations to enjoy. It provides a model for other Bahamian communities to follow in preserving that which is important to them. The Society’s initiatives to date have been met with much success and this is expected to keep growing through continued support, collaboration and cooperation.
At dawn Jeffery Forbes rehangs curtains, which protect the Fresnel lens during daylight hours. Photo credit: Susan Roberts
For more information and to continue to help save the Elbow Reef Lighthouse, please visit the ERLS web site at elbowreeflighthousesociety.com.
Written by: Kelly Delancy