In the mid-1800s, when The Bahamas was a British Colony, increasing maritime traffic necessitated an aid to navigation for mariners hoping to enter the Sea of Abaco by way of Elbow Cay Channel. At the time, numerous ships had run aground on the Elbow Reef. For the local population, salvage was a vital income source. For everyone else, it was a menacing nuisance.
In antiquity, before natural harbors were reinforced and built up for commerce and traffic, fires were lit on hills to provide a light source to guide mariners. Platforms had to be built at low elevations to make the fires visible from a distance. Over time, permanent towers were constructed to guide ships into harbors and warn of dangers such as submerged rocks and shallow reefs.
While lighthouses and light towers have been around for over two thousand years (Pharos of Alexandria, ~250 BCE), the first one in the Americas was built about 200 years ago (Boston Lighthouse, 1716).
Lights in the Abaco Islands
The first lighthouse built in the Abacos was the Hole-in-the-Wall Lighthouse (Fl W 10s) at Little Harbour in 1836. Elbow Reef Lighthouse was second, built in 1864 in Hope Town on Elbow Cay. While lighthouses generally guide mariners to safe harbor, Elbow Reef Lighthouse’s sole purpose was to warn them away.
The Early Elbow Cay Economy
In the 1800s, commerce between Europe and the Americas increased exponentially, and the Bahamas posed, in the words of the Spanish, “A massive obstacle to navigation.”.
Indeed, the many shallow seas surrounding the Bahamas made reaching final ports in America difficult. Elbow Cay Reef in the Abacos became a boneyard as too many ships ran aground. The Brits realized the need for a warning beacon and started plans to construct a lighthouse in Hope Town without consideration of its effects on the local economy.
At the time, many Abaconians subsisted on salvaging or “wracking,” so the idea of navigational aids did not find much support among the locals. Salvage was perhaps the biggest economy of the Bahamas. Also, it was government-sanctioned and controlled. A fleet of about 300 vessels stood ready to help those unlucky mariners who didn’t make it.
Once salvaged, all cargo had to be shipped to Nassau, where it was auctioned off. Half of the profits went to the wrackers. The other half was more or less evenly split between the government, salvage agents, and the original owners.
When the British Lighthouse Inspector decided Hope Town would be the perfect spot for a lighthouse (perhaps because he could easily spot at least a half dozen wrecks from there), the locals were livid. After all, Hope Town, at the entrance to the Elbow Cay Channel, had been the premier wracking site in the area.
The British Prevail
The locals occasionally conceived ways to sabotage progress, so building the lighthouse did not always proceed smoothly. Rumor has it locals variously sank a supply barge, poured salt into concrete, and ‘accidentally’ spilled the drinking water meant for the British workers.
No matter, a lighthouse was built, and the local wracking bubble burst. There wouldn’t be another boom until the Great Prohibition, which the Abaconians quickly took advantage of. But that is another story.
The Original Elbow Cay Lighthouse
The lighthouse was built from local limestone, and the door and window arches were constructed with dark red Bristol brick. The inside staircase and guts came from England. When the lighthouse was finally put into service in 1864, a first-order, fixed, wick-type light finally warned any unwary mariners away from the dangers of Elbow Reef.
The Fresnel Upgrade
In 1936, the British Imperial Lighthouse Service took the Gun Cay Light out of commission and transferred the innards to Elbow Reef Lighthouse. The complete iron lantern room, including the petroleum burner, the turning mechanism, and all Fresnel-panel lenses, were installed to improve the light signal.
Five bulls-eye panels and a horizontal section focus the light beams. The navigational symbol is Fl (5) W 15s 23.
- “Fl” means ‘flashing’
- “(5)” means ‘five times’
- “W” means ‘white light’
- “15s” means ‘for 15 seconds’
- “23” means ‘visible from a distance of up to 23 nautical miles’
In other words, Elboy Reef Light flashes a white light 5 times for 15 seconds and is visible from 23 nautical miles away.
View from the top
When Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Abaco Islands in 2019, Hope Town was decimated, and even the lighthouse didn’t escape unharmed. The Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society has been instrumental in restoring the damage and returning the lighthouse to its former glory.
Visitors can climb the 101 steps to the balcony level every day from 9 am until 5 pm except on Sundays. In the mornings, a small gift shop and restaurant on the grounds provide nourishment and supply souvenirs to those in need. Another Lighthouse Society gift shop, located across the harbor in town, is open from 10 am to 4:30 pm. All purchases support the restoration and maintenance of the historic structure.
View of Hope Town and the Harbour from one of the lighthouse windows.The Fresnel Lens Panels
Inside the lantern room …
[This post is still developing. Come back for more photos.]