A Tour Back In Time:

In the Island That Time Forgot

Story and Photos by Michelle Wells

Proprietress, Salt Cay Sunset House

By now, the spectacular underwater adventures and the stunningly remote and pristine beaches of Salt Cay and Grand Turk are known and loved by scuba divers and water-friendly travelers worldwide. “Beautiful By Nature,” the Turks & Caicos Islands have indeed become the standard bearer–and the envy–of many other more developed Caribbean destinations.

Located 90 miles southeast of Providenciales, tiny, shark tooth-shaped Salt Cay is not only geographically separate from its Caicos counterparts, it is also worlds away in appearance, history and ambiance. Where Provo offers tropical glamour in the form of resort hotels, a casino and a cosmopolitan array of restaurants, Salt Cay is for those who cherish an unaffected small island lifestyle that fondly preserves the past and follows its own pace. It is where star gazing, swaying hammocks and peaceful solitude are served up with a sun baked smile.

Salt Cay is a blending of contradictions–old and new, mystery and simplicity, hardship and high hopes, solitude and solid community–that has conspired to create the magical patchwork quality of Salt Cay life. It is a reality onto itself, with isolated sugar-sand beaches, rugged ironshore coastlines and unique pockets of local island history and traditions which add depth and dimension to its island flavor.

It is the topside, historical element of Salt Cay that I’d like to present as a complement to the traditional–and more familiar–treasures that lie underwater. For ultimately, one doesn’t have to get wet to experience Salt Cay’s wonders!

dunscSalt Cay is virtually undeveloped and is a peace-seeker’s delight. Many are surprised to learn that less than 100 years ago, this island boasted over 1,100 residents and was considered the economic hub of the Turks & Caicos’ salt industry. Today, it is a remnant of a life and a tradition not quite forgotten. If at one time Salt Cay proudly shouted its world-wide acclaim as the producers of the finest salt in the Western Hemisphere, it now whispers a haunting and wistful sonata of solitude among the abandoned ruins and relics of the past. There are now about 65 remaining year-round residents who maintain a simple and unassuming lifestyle against the rustic backdrop of quaint stucco cottages, enigmatic stone ruins and weathered wooden windmills standing sentry in the abandoned salinas.

These salinas form the centerpiece of the island. Surrounding the shallow, man-made saltwater lake is a trio of self-described villages–Northtown, Balfourtown and Southtown. The homes are clustered together and made of stone and stucco, with well-worn wooden half doors and rough-hewn timber beams resting beneath rusty tin roofs. The yards are surrounded by thick stone walls in various states of repair. Gnarly, windswept, but carefully tended trees and tiny garden plots adorn each yard. The dusty pathways and rocky dirt roads glitter with pink crystalline sparkles from the salt that is used to patch them. In the shimmering heat of an August or September day, the salt glaze creates the surreal illusion of ice forming on the salina waters.

Embracing all of this are the vine-covered sand dunes, which crest into rocky outcropping ledges and bluffs and encircle the groves of buttonwood and mangroves gathered among the tidal flats and rocky shorelines. The dunes are linked together by winding footpaths engraved by horses, cows and wild burros as they meander through cactus and acacia brush patiently seeking new grazing spots and water.
The ruins of stone buildings and salinas from the island’s heyday are the heart and soul of Salt Cay’s legacy. One can feel the timeless and weathered scope of its enduring struggles just by walking around and gazing at the stone and timber remnants. Though silent and undisturbed, they speak eloquently of the past.

Many of the old salt industry and village buildings are gone now, but recent efforts are creating a new awareness and appreciation for what history remains. One of Salt Cay District Commissioner Lorleen Malcolm’s primary goals has been to create a landmark trail. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated sponsors and volunteers, Salt Cay’s most notable historical sites will soon be recognized and identified with signs. These will be posted on or near each site of interest and provide a permanent description of each landmark for the benefit of the community and visitors’ increased awareness and appreciation of Salt Cay’s history.

It is appropriate that our tour by golf cart (a popular means of transportation here) begins at the Salt Cay Sunset House. Built in 1832 by shipwright-turned-salt baron, “Skipper” Alexander Harriott, the Salt Cay Sunset House is the oldest–and one of the grandest–historic salt plantation homes on Salt Cay. Lovingly restored and reopened in 1997 as a four bedroom, historic bed & breakfast and oceanfront cafe by Michele Wells and Paul Dinsmore, it is a rare example of mortise- and tenon-joined, rough-hewn yellow cypress planking construction which has miraculously defied almost two centuries of hurricanes, termites and several decades of neglect. It sits in the center of Balfourtown.

Right next door on the central thoroughfare known as Victoria Street, there is Irene Been’s historic Halfway House–a former “shipwrecker’s” stucco and wooden home trimmed in green, where original ship’s knees from various wrecks were used throughout the ceilings. This lovely, four bedroom homestead still harbors many of the unique features that were originally built in the mid-1850s, such as a wood burning hearth and bread oven in the kitchen and beamed ceilings. Irene is one of the island’s grand-matriarchs and a gracious hostess who serves simple island fare family style on the breezy porch overlooking the salinas, or in her lace covered dining room, along with a constant smile and tidbits of local wisdom and folklore. She offers meals by reservation–as she has done for over 15 years. (She also makes some of the best bread and sea foam candy on the island.)

As we travel south, our next stop is the Dunscombe Point Millworks site. Located immediately past the school yard, this lovely, treed lot is where the remains of an old stone mill still stand. There is a small man-made lagoon and a tiny sandy beach here, as well as the scattered remains of a water wheel and jetty. It is a favorite spot for picnicking and swimming.

Farther south, the imposing white stone building known as the “White House” looms ahead on the edge of Victoria Street. Amidst a complex of single story stone and stucco utility buildings with ancient faded signs painted on them, and a ghost town-style, weathered gray, wooden ruin known as the “Payroll house/store” alongside it, the White House stands symbolically next to the last remaining boat house and salt shed on Salt Cay. Built half in and half out of the water, several handbuilt boats still shelter here after a day of fishing. The slanted loft above this boat house was intentionally built to allow dripping burlap bags of salt to drain down through the slatted floor. Remnants of old, hand hewn wooden paddles and salt raking paraphernalia can still be spotted in its corners. Though built by the same man and of approximately the same size, the White House varies greatly in style from the Salt Cay Sunset House. It is of Bermudian style influence, constructed of stone and stucco and sports an ancient Bermudian stone roof.

A short walk directly behind this imposing landmark provides a glimpse at what used to be one of the central salt ports of its day. The remains of a canal and jetty which were once used as a dock are crumbling into the sea, but still speak of a bustling past when schooners and their “lighter” boats landed here. The rusting hulks of salt raking and loading machinery are scattered like forlorn brown skeletons along the property.

Further south on Victoria Street, we reach a mysterious open pit–overlooking the ocean and fronted by a newly renovated white gatehouse cottage. Presiding in the center of what once was the cellar of the old Morgan House salt plantation ruins is a sooty, semi-petrified mountain of genuine Salt Cay salt! Ms. Jackie Ross, formerly of Provo, purchased the property a few years ago and has restored the gatehouse cottage as her residence. At one time, the Morgan House was a wooden homestead where families congregated in the summer and children slept in hammocks on the wrap-around verandah. After lying vacant for many years, it succumbed to termites and dry rot.

wmillWe backtrack a bit and turn left directly across from the White House, which takes us across the Balfourtown salinas. Less than 200 years ago, they were a plot of land where corn, cotton and tobacco were grown! The size of this waterway is impressive–especially when one considers the effort put into laying all the stone works and irrigation canals, called “lollies”. The salinas are dotted with the remains of nine original windmills, which were used to push saltwater into the drying pans. Although decades of storms and neglect have rendered them inoperable, they now provide roosting spots for ospreys and egrets.

As we cross over the Salina Road, we head across Southtown and come to a stop near the edge of this tiny village. Here is an imposing stone gate entrance to a weather-beaten building known as the Government House. This large, wooden two story building was once the home of our busy Customs officers and government officials. Its gabled tin roof, motley stone, brick and slate walkways, and large stone Bahamian-style kitchen are signatures of the island’s architectural heritage. The massive stone gateway and garden walls only hint at its past grandeur and beauty.

We now travel back to the Salina Road and, before we cross the Salt Pond, we turn left again, onto what looks like (and is!) a rocky road disguised as a cow path. Known as “Peckman’s Highway,” we follow this slowly and carefully up to a crossing where we pass over an old stone canal that feeds the salt ponds. At the foot of a large hill and heading east, we stop, for this is as far as the golf cart can take us. We walk up through the brush to the crest of the hill where a white stone ruin stands watch over the entire island. This is Taylor Hill, where during the mid to late 1800s, a whale hunting company operated. From the crest of this hill–which is 59 feet above sea level–is the most breathtaking view of the entire island and its surrounding seas! On a clear day, you can see Grand Turk, Cotton Cay, Whale Cay, Sand Cay and many tiny isles. A trek up to this point right before sunset is a special treat, as one can witness the incredible vista as the setting sun turns the salinas and the western shoreline golden and multi-hued. Many of the houses on the shore “light up” with the glowing sun as a backdrop.

We can’t leave Taylor Hill without addressing–and correcting–an old piece of folklore. There are mounds of rocks up here that many call “mysterious.” As a matter of fact, a local islander named Oswaldo, who was born and raised on Salt Cay and prides himself as a local historian, notes with a chuckle that there is “nothing at all mysterious about them!” He claims that these are merely the result of previous landowners’ efforts to clear the property for plantings and to make more stone walls.

As we descend back down the hill, we take the golf cart further north on the rocky cow path “highway” towards the northeastern side of the island, then set out on foot and walk east again. It is rugged and rocky terrain with meadows of heather, acacia, laurel and sea grasses and the shoreline is a dramatic ledge of ironshore rock. We come to another ruin cut into boulders that are half buried in the ground. We follow this out to a canal lined with ancient blackened stone blocks which travels out into the sea. We are also overlooking a small rocky island that appears directly off the shoreline, so close to the shore that you can wade over to it during low tide. We have reached Whale Bay, from which a whaling company operated in the mid-1800s.

We venture down from this spot and drive past the small airport runway and beyond. We soon come to another smaller set of salinas known as the Northeast salt ponds. These ponds are filled by their own ocean-fed stone irrigation canal, and are a favorite spot for wading birds of many species. Secluded and pristine, this is a favorite bird-watching spot where flamingos have been spotted.

As we return heading west, we pass the old freshwater quarry and a stone well that still holds fresh water. During the early 1990s, a National Geographic writer visited Salt Cay and claimed to have spotted evidence in this region of what appeared to be very old burial mounds. Further research is pending.

We travel due west and enter Northtown. Here, we pass an imposing stucco church with huge shuttered windows. This is the Methodist Church and is the second oldest church on Salt Cay. It is enjoying a face lift–thanks to the persistent efforts of the community–and the restoration will include a new roof.

As we reach the intersection of Victoria Street, we turn left and come to Mount Pleasant Guest House, a gabled, two story former salt plantation home built about 1859, which Bryan Sheedy owns and operates as a guesthouse and bar. It was formerly owned by the Morgan family and Mr. Sheedy opened it as a dive resort in the early 1990s. His gazebo bar overlooks a cut stone cistern pit which has been converted into a palm-laden grove for hammocks. Bryan is almost a landmark himself here, and will entertain you with stories and lore while keeping your cold cocktails coming! His home is filled with memorabilia and artifacts that he’s gleaned over the years. It was Bryan and a diving guest who discovered and restored one of the cannons on the Lookout Hill of Little Bluff.

We take the golf cart farther north to the base of Little Bluff Lookout. Here it is said that during the late 1700s, the Bermudian Militia had a battery stationed to protect the salt industry from the French. The view is just as gorgeous as from Taylor Hill, as the bluff is just a few feet shy of its height. The north shore, coral reefs and Grand Turk can be seen from here.

graveOur tour wraps up as we return to the Salt Cay Sunset House. Just alongside it is a gray stucco, cedar roofed church in a bucolic setting of old Casuarina pines and sea oats, where some of the oldest grave sites in the country are nestled. Built in the 1790s, the Anglican Church in the heart of Balfourtown is one of the oldest churches in the country.
Today, as more visitors discover our tiny island gem, more efforts are being made to accommodate them. There are several small, privately operated establishments that cater to lodging and feeding these guests and this has become the mainstay of Salt Cay’s new island economy. Although time may have forgotten Salt Cay, our visitors never forget their memorable stay.

Web: www.seaone.org
E-mail: seaone@tciway.tc

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Keith McKee
May 26, 2014 15:29

Hello: I went to school in Canada with Jackie Ross who is mentioned in this article. We lost track after her move from Provo. I was wondering if you had a way to give her a message that Rev. Keith McKee would like to get in touch. My address is 126 Honeysuckle Cres. London, Ontario N5Y4P4 or my email is keithmckee@rogers.com I have tried other methods of finding her in Salt Cay listings. It is possible she is no longer living. Thank you, Keith McKee

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