This ancestor of a lighthouse keeper brought history alive for her wedding.
By Sherlin Williams ~ Wedding Photos By Sean Brady
Ever since Danielle Noyes was a little girl she dreamt of sharing her wedding with the widest possible family gathering. So it’s no surprise that she wanted to be the first to have this most special occasion at the Grand Turk lighthouse.
The Roberts family (Danielle’s mother Sarah’s side) shares a long history with the lighthouse, where the bride’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin (Ben) Henry Roberts was the second person to perform duties as keeper after its inauguration in 1852. Ben’s father, John Roberts, came from England, but he was born and raised on Grand Turk where he marred Cassandra Wynns, a lovely Grand Turk native who was just as beautiful as Danielle. Lloyd Roberts, Ben’s son, was also the lighthouse keeper. Danielle knew him when she was growing up and would visit him at the Roberts House and listen to his stories of the old days.
Operating the lighthouse in the mid-1800s required two keepers on site at night, and the assistant keeper was Danielle’s great-great-grand-uncle, Albert Wynns, brother of Cassandra. Most lighthouses are situated at remote locations; therefore, provisions are made for two families, but it was unnecessary at Grand Turk, because keepers were able to commute within a reasonable amount of time, so the keeper’s cabin consisted only of a kitchen and two bedrooms.
During Ben Roberts’s 44-year tenure, every passing vessel had to be logged. Using a Nelson’s telescope, he read the name of ships miles off and entered their position and the direction they were headed into the lighthouse logbook. When a ship with a port entry flag was sighted, Ben would hoist a flap on the lighthouse flagpole, signalling to the town that a ship bound for Grand Turk was approaching. The ship’s agent, harbour master and pilots would see the flag, and soon several fast pilot sloops would be racing towards the northeast, the direction from which ships usually approach in those days.
Piloting was strictly a private affair and a highly competitive business, with little or no government control. Any experienced seaman with a suitable vessel, who knew the roadstead, reefs, and anchorages, and paid a Pilot Licence fee, was eligible. Competition was fierce; even the approaching ship agent couldn’t guarantee his favourite pilot the job.
Pilot’s sloops usually did not keep a standard crew; one was picked up on the spot amongst seamen who slept on the beach in hopes of being one of the three or four selected whenever a job opportunity presented itself. Incoming ships were required to lay-to three miles out of port and let down their Jacob’s ladder/gangway, and the first pilot to get on deck got the job.
Competition was so combative that often there was more than one pilot on the gangway at the same time trying to be the first on deck. Any bitterness felt by the loser was short lived, as all played the same game and understood the rules. As soon as the pilots made their urgent calls for crewmen, several sloops would be off to the races —which resembled a regatta for a first-prize purse—in high hopes of a rewarding rendezvous.
The cash crop
The mere sighting of a schooner brought cheerfulness to the hearts of the island’s workforce. It meant cash for dozens of men and women, and as soon as an order for a large quantity of salt was anticipated, women would be measuring-out and bagging bushel bags, long before the ship dropped anchor. Simultaneously, mule carts would gather at salt heaps to transport the bags to the waterfront, where lighters were waiting to ferry the bags out to the waiting ship. Stevedore’s gangs would make their way to the shoreline to transport the bushel bags from the lighter to the ship, then throwing the bags at a man on a scaffold, to the man on the next scaffold—often three levels were necessary—to the man on deck, and finally into the cargo hold.
Loading a ship usually took anywhere from a week to a month or more, depending on the size of the ship, the availability of salt, and the weather. These factors were always a gamble for speculators who sometimes chartered a ship for a given period of time, hoping to make a fortune on a salt run. Once a group of Philadelphia businessmen had just such bad luck! They chartered a schooner, but upon arrival found there wasn’t enough salt available at any of the three salt producing islands (Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos), which meant they had to go island hopping and paying pilots’ fees each time. Weeks of inclement weather wasted a month and the ship had to return to beat its deadline, making the venture a total loss of time and money.
North American industries depended on the Turks Islands salt, especially New England fisheries which used large quantities to cure codfish that was exported back to the islands to feed slaves. During the peak years, nearly 400 schooners, 50 paddle-wheelers, and hundreds of island-built sloops from around the region called on Grand Turk annually for a cargo of salt. But this brisk trading atmosphere wasn’t always a happy experience for all salt rakers, as one complained:
“The New Englanders come here with sloops and schooners in great numbers to load salt for their fisheries; they buy it for 4d to 6d sterling the bushel, and they pay the poor Bermudians (Salt Rakers) a small part in money, the rest in stinking rum, rotten pork and musty biscuits; now and then throwing them a cast of sour water into the bargain.”
Local pilots had often been accused of deliberately running ships on reefs, and even before the ship was declared a loss, sloops, sensing blood in the water, would swarm around the stricken vessel like a school of sharks. In his book, The Silent Sentinel, Commander Langton Jones described the scene on the Salt Islands:
“ . . . these men would absent themselves in a body, while they went to see what loot could be obtained from some unfortunate vessel lying helpless on an adjacent reef. The same applied to the eight hundred labourers at one time employed in the local salt industry; not a man of whom would remain at work the minute a vessel in distress was reported! At such times even the teamsters would abandon their horses and carts on the road, leaving the animal to find his way home. It was generally a week or ten days before these men would return to their normal work after having reaped fruits of their sea-harvest.”
Hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling in shipping was lost in the waters around the Salt Islands annually. World newspapers complained about the need for a lighthouse and New England’s underwriters threatened court action, all to no avail until April 1842 when a British packet out of Southampton (whose passenger list included the governor of Jamaica) struck Grand Turk’s northeast reef. Shortly afterwards the lighthouse was placed on order; however, it did not arrive until 1852, and by this time the Salt Islands had severed away from the Bahamas by a Royal Charter creating a separate colony—the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Today, the lighthouse is the best reminder that the two countries which share an archipelago—the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos—were once a single country. It was placed on order whilst the two countries were united but arrived after the separation, thus a bronze plate on the inside of its door reads: “. . . erected 1852, Grand Turk, Bahamas.”
A lamp-house could be described as lamps within a lamp, because like all kerosene lamps, it has an opening at the top to allow smoke to escape. Also like kerosene lamps in which soot builds up on the lampshade, the same holds for the lamp-house, and in both cases, next- day cleaning was essential for either to be effective. The Fresnel lens created a lot more “candlepower”—the proper word when referring to the intensity of a light source—and utilized kerosene under pressure and a metal wick, from which the beam is projected over a 20+ mile radius.
A Fresnel lens is really a prism. A prism is a medium that controls and manages light. It can be designed to gather and spread light, or gather and condense light into a narrow beam, as in a lighthouse. But how could a mere 50 pound weight turn such a cumbersome object? Another ingenious part of lighthouse design was a “mercury bearing.” Mercury is a liquid metal commonly found in air-conditioner thermostats. Since mercury is heaver than iron, iron floats when placed in a pool of it; therefore, by placing the Fresnel lens mounted on a half-inch thick iron base on a mercury bearing (a pool of mercury), the whole apparatus easily rotates by a slight push of a finger.
But mercury poisoning could be deadly; therefore, Ben had to use the utmost caution when working in the lamp-house during daytime and work as little as possible at night whilst lamps were burning, for fear of being cooked! Another important service provided by lighthouse keepers was maintaining a rain gauge and logging the amounts of rainfall. Upkeep of the lighthouse grounds was also the keeper’s job and with bushwhacking tools, Ben cleared away thorn bush, prickly pear cactus and briar, and did whatever other odd jobs needed to be done.
Calls for a second lighthouse
“A very perilous reef extends north-eastward from the most northerly point of Grand Turk, for a distance of about two and a half miles seaward, and although there are navigable passages, it is courting disaster to attempt to pass through them.”
But not all such disaster at sea was of a natural source; therefore, the installation of the lighthouse had limited effect on business as usual, as ships in the area continued to meet with disaster. In November 1852, just a month after the Grand Turk lighthouse became operational, another mysterious occurrence took place. When the captain of the local schooner Palestine discovered a derelict vessel aground on the Caicos Bank, it was completely striped of its cargo, mast, spares, sails; everything portable was gone and the vessel name had been rubbed off, but the words “Liverpool, N.S.” were quite legible. Apparently her cargo was dried fish and foodstuff; she was towed to Sapodilla Bay; the privateer’s rendezvous at Providenciales, where she lay at her mooring awaiting claimers and after a year such derelicts were sold at auction.
Situated at the north end of Grand Turk, the new lighthouse served shipping approaching from the north— usually out of North America, going to the Caribbean, Central and South America. The south-western approach to Grand Turk must be made through a narrow passage separating Great Sand Cay from the Caicos Bank, and like the wreck-strewn northeastern approach, this approach too reaped its full harvest of shipwrecks. Calls were made for a second lighthouse to be placed on Great Sand Cay to aid navigating in the area that claimed such famous ships as the 44 gun British Man-O-War H.M.S. Endymion.
Wrecking was accepted as an industry and licensed as business. During the first decade of the Grand Turk lighthouse, the value of goods salvaged from wrecks amounted to around two-fifths of the island’s annual imports. The US Consul accused local salvagers of carrying on a system of wrecking akin to piracy. The American Underwriters Association complained that the number of shipwrecks had doubled during the past ten years; there were also complaints from American captains, as published in a New York Herald in June 1866:
“My object in writing to you at this time is to expose a piece of villainy equal to highway robbery. On the night of June 10th, my vessel hove to on the N.W. end of Caicos, awaiting daylight to enter the Caicos Passage. About 11 pm someone on the island exhibited a light contrived to represent the Grand Turk revolving light. Vessels steering southward for the Grand Turk light with the intention of entering the Turks Islands passage would be misled thereby on the reef. The current sweeps across these reefs on the Great Caicos bank which tenders it very difficult for a vessel that gets near the reef to keep from going ashore. I consider it my duty to warn all mariners navigating the Grand Turk or Caicos passages to use the utmost caution to avoid being deceived by any light that may be shown from the Caicos Islands.”
Charles E. Coker
Master of Brig Isis of Newbury
An American schooner ran aground near the same North Caicos reef in 1864. When salvagers tried to board, the captain promptly withdrew to his quarterdeck and was obliged to use the force of arms to prevent them from taking charge of his ship. However, all too often, captains only pretend to be tricked and were actually in collusion with the wreckers.
The years of the US Civil War were woefully dull in the Salt Islands, but problems of shortages were often overcome by frequent shipwrecks, and there was keen anticipation on the morning of 18th September 1865, when “the brig Loanna, from Boston ran aground at Hawks Nest with a large cargo of foodstuff. A potion of the vessel’s cargo was, somehow, jettisoned by the crew, and the ship was soon afloat and able to make her way to the roadstead anchorage, much to the chagrin of the townsfolk.”
The underwriter’s representative requested a survey and divers reported there was no damage to the hull. However, a number of the crew were reluctant to continue on the voyage and accordingly signed off. The captain demanded another examination, where divers again gave a seaworthy report and the ship left for Haiti.
“A few days afterward, the captain was reported to have taken on a local pilot, and the ship was said to be at White Cay . . . the Captain justified his deviation by allegedly pretending that his vessel had sprung a leak and that he had been obliged to unload all the cargo and beach the brig on a small sandy shoal.”
It was impossible to disprove the captain’s pretensions; the vessel was declared a wreck and sold at auction. However, persistent rumors of misdeeds soon reach the authorities and a warrant was issued for his arrest on grounds he unlawfully wrecked his vessel. The captain was granted bail at $240, which he paid, but the usual sureties were relaxed, allowing him to abscond.
Another unusual find was made in September 1850, when the American brig Betsy, of Pittston, Maine, was found stranded at Ambergris Cay, just west of Grand Turk; loaded with provisions and lumber. The vessel was deserted and the cargo undisturbed which aroused speculations, but the mystery was solved when it was discovered that the vessel capsized during a hurricane and drifted to the cay.
According to H.E. Sadler’s book, Turks Islands Landfall, piracy had been condoned by some of the Bermudian salt rakers, which the Bermudian Government acknowledged, “ . . . the complaints, as proved by the facts, are in a great measure well grounded.” Bermuda’s Governor once lamented:
“ . . . the Caicos islands trade did not fail to make their devotees somewhat ferocious, for the opportunities were in pickling, plundering and wrecking. In it the negroes learned to be public as well as private thieves . . . because even in peace time, some of them sail to the Caicos Islands, and there anchor in shallow water to watch and wait for any English or foreign vessel which might go, or be lured on a rock.”
One official told the governor: “Sir you will have business enough upon your hands if you go about to rectify that, for there is not a man that sails from hence, but will trade with a pirate.”
The Alice Stetson arrived from Philadelphia on 5th December 1878, heavily laden with foodstuff bound for Jamaica. During the night a north-wester rolled in and her anchor chain broke. The pilot immediately took the vessel out to sea, but when attempting to enter the Hawks Nest anchorage next morning, he appeared to have missed the channel and steered the ship on the reef. Every effort was made to save the fine, newly built schooner, but it was discovered that her hull had bilged and a decision was made to salvage the cargo and abandon the ship to her watery grave.
Indignant by the pilot’s conduct, the captain accused him of gross incompetence and filed charges with the Commissioner of Pillage, who convened a hearing. The pilot admitted he was having trouble with his eyes and attributed his negligence to that. Having been found guilty, the judgement was that he be “suspended from his duties for a year, and his licence not be renewed until he had thereafter produced a satisfactory medical certificate as to the conduction of his eyesight.” The Alice Stetson and her excellent assortment of foodstuff was sacrificed at auction for only $7,800, of which 30% was awarded to the salvers.
Near the end of the US Civil War, Turks Islands salt sold for a record high at $4 per bushel; however, immediately after the war, the Federal Government implemented a policy to become salt self-sufficient, which brought the Islands’ salt price to an all-time low. Needless to say, in light of the extended depression following the civil war, the abundance of goods off the Alice Stetson brought cheerfulness to faces on Grand Turk during the Christmas holidays.
In 1893, the Pilgrim, a barque, got stranded on a reef near Great Sand Cay. Boats from Salt Cay came to render assistance, but after all attempts to free her failed, the captain handed the vessel over to the Receiver of Wrecks to conduct salvage. Stores, sails and riggings were landed on Sand Cay and the remainder to Salt Cay and onto Grand Turk the next morning. By direction of the Receiver, the cabin furniture was not disturbed. Around daylight the next morning, boats from Grand Turk boarded the vessel, loaded the furniture and took it to Grand Turk. Proceeds from the Pilgrim’s cargo and hull fetched $1,872, of which 37% was awarded to the salvers.
During 1865 and 1866, serious proposals were made to erect a lighthouse at Great Sand Cay, but all attempts ran into stiff opposition from business interests and pilots, claiming, as always, shortages of funds. Similar efforts were again made in 1881, when the administration wanted to introduce steamship service between the Islands and Jamaica, which would have necessitated the use of the southwestern cut. Cunard Lines was prepared to place a ship on the route, but once again applications were turned down on economic grounds. It was not until 1948, when the Grand Turk lighthouse was upgraded to the advanced Fresnel lens beam, that an automatic light was also installed on Great Sand Cay.
A series of unusual wrecks during the 1880s occasioned some adverse comments on the efficiency of the lighthouse. “In March of 1878, Captain Kuehl of the S.S. Tybee reported that on approaching the Grand Turk Lighthouse at 2 a.m., he found himself in white water off the Northeast Reef and yet saw no light burning.” The captain’s accusations had hardly died down, when in May, the brig Linda Coles, out of New York and bound to Cuba, struck the Northeast Reef and became a total loss, after her valuable cargo was salvaged.
The hurricane of 1866 is on record as one of the worst ever. Lives were lost both on land and sea, salt ponds destroyed and salt heaps washed away, business houses and dwelling homes were demolished, and a tidal surge eroded large chunks of Grand Turk’s shoreline. At Sapodilla Bay where they “anchor in shallow water to watch and wait for vessels which might go, or be lured on a rock” four schooners met their fate, including the Palestine, its captain and crew. These home-grown “privateers” carved their names and that of their ships as badges of honour on stones atop a hill overlooking their favourite hunting ground. Replicas of these stones are mounted on a wall at the Providenciales International Airport, where the Palestine’s stone is among the largest.
The light beam
As the rotating light source passes briefly between the reflector and the lens, ships at sea would see a flash. The light source is so spaced as to form a pattern of flashes that identifies the lighthouse, thereby enabling the captain to determine his exact location, even when he cannot see any land. But when we say a lighthouse can be seen 20 miles away, it is really a reference to the human eye and not the light source. The phrase 20/20 vision relates to someone with perfect vision, capable of sighting an object 20 miles away, which is said to be the furthest distance a human can see with the naked eye. In order to ensure an efficient light beam, it was essential that Ben Roberts cleaned and polished the reflectors and lens daily.
During Danielle’s great-great-grandfather’s tenure as lighthouse keeper, the first telephone came to Grand Turk, and for a while there were only three on the whole island: one at the lighthouse, one at the governor’s house, and another at the lighthouse keeper’s residence; the switchboard was kept at the prison. This new device seems to have brought about some animosity amongst pilots and agents, because the lighthouse keeper now had the means of informing the ship’s agent in advance of raising the flag. This allowed the agent to tip-off his favourite pilot to get a jump on the others, which brought cries of favouritism and not playing by the rules. The pilot’s response was building faster sloops and staying at sea when a ship was expected. This competition continued at a high level up to World War II, when ship piloting was taken over by the government.
Over the years, the Grand Turk lighthouse has had its ups and downs. A year after it began operating, the president of the new colony, who was instrumental in bringing it into existence, proudly took credit for saving the salt industry “because of the perils of navigation, ships were refusing to call on the island for cargos,” but members of the Honourable Legislature body included licensed wreckers who resisted outside pressure to amend the Wrecking Ordinance. As steamships increasingly displaced schooners, outside pressure began to have effect which forced the government’s hand and in 1894, “confidence in the efficiency of the Grand Turk lighthouse reached such a low ebb, that the local government applied to Trinity Imperial Lighthouse Service . . . to take it over.”
Some lighthouses are much taller then others but, except for variations in manufacture designs, all are generally the same. The Grand Turk lighthouse is only 60 feet tall, while Abaco’s, in the northern Bahamas, is 120 feet. However, both lights would have the same candle power, as Grand Turk’s is perched on an 80-foot cliff, while Abaco’s is at sea level.
The clockwork mechanism
The light that ships saw revolving miles away were powered by a 50 pound weight. One end was attached to a cable and the other end to the clockwork mechanism that turned the carousel with the eight lamps or Fresnel lens. The weight is racketed up 40 feet, then released to the force of gravity, but its fall is controlled by a subassembly in the mechanism called an “escapement” or ”governor,” which controls how fast the light can rotate and the rate at which the weight falls. The Grand Turk lighthouse Fresnel used a governor, but since escapements are found in a wristwatch that’s on just about everyone’s arm, it may be easier to follow.
There are many moving parts in a watch, but basically the main spring is connected to one end of the escapement and the other end of the escapement is connected to the hands that tell the time. One has to wind up the main spring to power the escapement, which makes a tick, tick, tick sound and the hands move. As long as there is tension on the spring the escapement will tick, tick, tick. Placing more or less tension on the spring will not make the escapement tick any faster or slower, nor would it have any effect on the hands’ movement. The same principle is applied to turning the light in a lighthouse. If a second 50 pounds is added, the lights would rotate at the same speed.
Therefore, a lighthouse is not merely a huge lamp, but also a huge watch using the weight of gravity to do the same thing the spring does in a watch. The weight in the Grand Turk lighthouse took four hours to reach the end of its cycle, but in a lighthouse 120 feet tall—since it has to move against the same amount of inertia—it will take eight hours before it has to be ratcheted up again.
Let’s suppose that after a tiresome day doing the many chores needed to be done around the lighthouse both keepers dozed off. Lighthouse manufacturers anticipated just such an occurrence, and built a warning system into the design; when the weight reached the end of its cycle, it tripped a lever connected to a cable that ran into the keeper’s cabin, which tripped another lever causing a bell to ring, thereby reminding the keeper that it was time to the ratchet-up the weight again. We can only wonder if Ben, or any of the keepers for that matter, ever suddenly woke up wishing the lighthouse was taller.
A dream come true
Originally built circa late 1800s, by Jonathon Glass, a popular Bermudian shipwright who designed and built other mansion homes on the island, the Turks Head mansion was home to some of the Island’s most important officials, including the United States Consul. During the latter part of the 19th century, the mansion served as home to government doctors, the last being Dr. O’Reilly, who was also the first man to own a motor car on the island. The mansion featured large, airy, high-ceilinged rooms with louvered windows, a fireplace, cedar shingled roof, and a spacious balcony overlooking a lush tropical garden.
After the demise of the salt industry, the Islands were without suitable accommodation for visitors, and in 1965, the goverment bought the mansion and ran it as a hotel. Three years later it was decided that government should not be in private business and sold it. The Roberts’s family home is just a minute’s walk from the mansion where the bride chose to begin her new life, creating a grand, old-style wedding reception in Danielle’s great-great-grandfather’s grand old neighbourhood in grand fashion.
Research for this story was gathered from:
Turks & Caicos Landfall, by H. E. Sadler, edited by Marjorie Sadler and Karen Collins.
Victoria Public Library, Grand Turk.
Turks & Caicos National Museum, Grand Turk.
Mr. Noel Roberts, Grand Turk.
Mr. Dessie Williams, Grand Turk.
Mr. Oswald (King Oz) Francis, former Lighthouse Keeper, Grand Turk.
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