Keeping House

Elbow Reef Lighthouse at dusk.

Elbow Reef Lighthouse at dusk.

While waiting for a laundry dryer cycle to finish earlier this week, I decided to head up to the Elbow Reef Lighthouse, just across the harbor from Hope Town. Early in the history of the Abacos, the local population had supplemented their livelihoods by salvaging ships that wrecked on the Atlantic side of Elbow Cay, often the first landfall after a transatlantic crossing. There are even allegations that ships were lured onto the reefs with false lights by “wreckers” in order to increase their salvage yields. To help reduce the number of wrecks, the British Imperial Lighthouse Service began building lighthouses throughout the Bahamas and, after repeated construction delays due to vandalism by locals interested in continuing their “wrecking” salvage, the Elbow Reef lighthouse was completed in 1864. It is now the last hand-cranked, kerosene-powered lighthouse in the world.

The view from the top of the 120-foot tower is…not bad.

The view from the top of the 120-foot tower is…not bad.

On the way back down the hill, I stopped by of one of the octagonal keeper’s houses and, thinking he might be one of the keepers, struck up a conversation with and older man named Henry, who was out on the porch practicing guitar. I asked about the possibility of returning with Linda, Soren, and Elsa to see the lamp being lighted, after sunset (and after regular visiting hours). Turns out he was just an uncle, visiting from Great Inagua, but introduced me to his nephew, lighthouse keeper Elvis Parker. Elvis and I chatted for a bit (including some politics: I admitted to being embarrassed by this US election cycle, he was concerned with immigration from Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba) and he invited us back on Friday night at around 19:30.

Keeper’s houses.

Keeper’s houses.

After meeting Elvis on Friday might, we climbed the 101 steps up to the top of the tower, emerging just below the lens and lamp. The turning mechanism and first-order Fresnel lens — not a Stars Wars reference but instead a measure of size and focal length, in this case 2590mm (8.5 feet) high with a focal length of 920mm (36 inches) — were both relocated from Gun Cay in 1936, and were originally constructed in Birmingham, England in the early 1900s. Like a grandfather clock, the turning mechanism uses a weight on a long cable that has to be hand-cranked every two hours. The lens and its iron frame weigh more than three tons, and are able to be turned by the lightweight clockwork mechanism only because they’re floating on a doughnut-shaped basin of over 1200 pounds of mercury. (Pretty sure that this entire setup would not be OSHA-approved.)

White-knuckle door handle to the outside walkway.

White-knuckle door handle to the outside walkway.

Elvis lit a ring-shaped basin of rubbing alcohol underneath the kerosene jets — like a camping stove, the jets need to be preheated in order to vaporize the escaping fuel — and then removed white curtains from the circular windows of the house. I thought they might have been there to prevent sun damage to the mechanism and lenses, but he said that they were needed to protect from sun shining through the Fresnel lenses and incinerating whatever was on the other side, like a giant magnifying glass on the sidewalk. After about 10 minutes, kerosene began to hiss out of the top of the pipe.

Keeper Elvis Parker adjusting the flame on kerosene mantle.

Keeper Elvis Parker adjusting the flame on kerosene mantle.

He lit and adjusted the flame for several minutes and then asked Soren to give the lens a push to start it rotating. Elsa, Soren, and I took turns cranking the weight up.

All of Elsa’s bosun-chair winch cranking is paying off.

All of Elsa’s bosun-chair winch cranking is paying off.

Elvis invited us up a short ladder inside the spinning lens to see the mantle and the interior of the lens. It was amazing to be able to see this light, visible for 23 miles out to sea, up close and with our naked eyes.

…and now, your moment of Zen:

5 Comments

  1. Brooklyn Bob

    May 22, 2016 at 11:12

    That is crazy cool. I have a lighthouse story, but it’s lame compared to yours. I’ll have to work on rewriting mine…

  2. Eugene Carlson

    May 22, 2016 at 20:50

    That’s one beautiful lighthouse. Excellent piece of enterprise to see this up close and personal. Pt. Robinson on Vashon totally automated. Where’s the romance?

  3. that is amazing!

  4. Williams David

    May 23, 2016 at 13:58

    Enjoyed your post. Excellent educational side trip.

  5. Awesome! Is it really visible out 23 miles? That sucker is tall!

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