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The Time-Traveling Beachcomber

Stroll Grand Turk’s beaches with this native historian.

By Sherlin Williams

Beachcombing is a common practice on islands like these. Some folks look for shells, driftwood, sea-glass and the like. Others enjoy the simple tranquillity and intimacy with nature. But for a time-traveling beachcomber like me, who grew up on Grand Turk, strolling the beach offers glimpses into the island’s past. Let me take you on a guided tour from Duke Street all the way around the entire southern half of the island, ending at Materson’s Point. As we go along, looking at the sights and landscape around us, there is a natural tendency to think it has always been like this, and always will be. Historians and archaeologists know this is an illusion and see the past in the tiny clues that remain, clues that most people don’t notice. But you have to look sharp, and it helps if you’ve lived here as long as I have.

Historic beach sights in Grand Turk


Duke Street beach
If we start our walk on the Duke Street beach just opposite the Cable & Wireless compound, one of the first things we encounter is a heavily corroded, nondescript clump usually visible only at low tide. The casual observer might take this sight as just another piece of detritus thoughtlessly cast away. In reality, it is evidence of Grand Turk’s former importance as a regional communications center. Grand Turk’s involvement with Cable & Wireless began in 1897, with the laying of the first submarine telegraph cable linking London and Canada with the West Indies. With the opening of a full time telegraph relay station in 1924, the island became an important node in the Caribbean telegraph network. Now the cable stump is all that is left of this once-important technological achievement. It’s not always visible or easily seen, but whether I’m beginning or ending my time-travel at this spot, I always visualize the cable-laying ship Faraday just offshore, her crew straining to pull the cable ashore, and I wonder how long it will be before it disappears into the water forever.

Beach erosion
Heading south from the cable down the Duke Street beachfront we see evidence of the monumental effort made over the years to prevent the splendid old salt merchant homes from falling into the sea. I cannot help but marvel at how all the homes and structures are less than a stone’s throw from the beach. Sometime in the past massive quarry stones cut from a hillside a mile away were used to build a series of seawalls to defend against the onslaught of hurricanes and seasonal nor’westers that gnaw away at the beach. Seven feet high in some places, the walls run the length of five properties, but it’s obvious that they are five separate constructions, probably built over several decades, as were the various groins projecting into the sea.

Duke Street Beach seawall

Grand Turk seawall made from massive quarry stones

Is it really possible that the buildings could have stood so close to the sea for more than a century despite scores of hurricanes, some of horrific proportions? Or are we looking at buildings that used to be safely inland, but are now at the water’s edge following one or more episodes of massive erosion? I was here in 2008 when Hurricane Ike, packing the strongest winds in living memory, called on Grand Turk. Fortunately, the sparsely populated eastern side of the island took the brunt of the 200 MPH winds. But if Ike had hit from the west would any of the buildings between Duke Street and the sea still be standing?
There is little documented evidence for the effects of beach erosion here, but plenty of clues suggesting that it has been severe over the last century. One of the most convincing pieces of evidence that houses once existed west of the present beach line is a cistern that is sitting smack in the middle of the beach near the Osprey Beach Hotel. Other evidence can be seen at low tide during seasons when the sand moves off the beach, exposing the hardpan in this area. Embedded in these large slabs of ancient reef are old chains, cannonballs, iron spikes, oddly-shaped fasteners and rocks of many different types. These items might lead one to jump to the conclusion that they are all evidence of Grand Turk’s seafaring past—shipwrecks, jettisoned cargo, and ballast. But I think it is just as likely that they are what’s left of homes or other structures that eroded into the sea so long ago that no one remembers them.
In 2007, a huge iron cannon 11 feet long and weighing on the order of 3 tons, was uncovered on the beach just above the high water mark during construction of the Columbus Landing development. Its discovery was a total surprise to all. There were no indications of how it got there or what purpose it served. It bore no markings that would identify it, but its characteristics were suggestive of a date around 1800. It is unlikely that there was ever a fortification here. My theory is that it was a decoration in the yard of a residence that no longer exists.

Close-Haul stretch
The south end of this area is also frequented by nesting sea turtles. Once I met a turtle coming up the beach to lay her eggs just as her ancestors did for thousands of years. She seemed to be very particular about where she made her nest, because her tell-tale tracks led to and from several false nests, making it difficult to tell which was the real one. During the laying process, she seemed to be in a trance, gasping for breath and oblivious to my presence. Nowadays it is rare to see signs of nesting turtles and they have to be protected by legislation to prevent them from becoming extinct, but I can imagine that centuries ago they would have been as common as land crabs on this beach.

Gunflints on Close-Haul Beach

Gunflints used in flintlock muskets from the 1700s

A little further south there is a stretch of beach that used to be littered with hundreds of little, uniformly square, white stones. If you broke a corner off one of them you would be surprised to discover that it was dark grey inside. These are gunflints, part of the ignition system of old-fashioned flintlock muskets commonly used in the 1700s and early 1800s. Collectors have picked up most of them now, but you can still find the odd one. When I do, I can’t help but wonder where they came from and why there are so many in one place. In my mind’s eye I see a bag or barrel bursting while being unloaded from a boat. The men scramble to recover as many as they can, but many quickly sink into the sand and are lost. Over the years the waves move them up on the beach where the combination of seawater and sun turns them white.

Riding Ground
There is no better place on the island to collect sea shells than English Point, the area where Close-Haul turns into Governor’s Beach. Here you can find tritons, true tulips, reticulated cowries, helmets, common doves, trivias and many others. It’s also a place where stingrays bury themselves in the sand to sleep, or wait for prey to wander by. Back in the late 1950s whilst collecting shells to sell I stepped on one of them in about a foot of water. He was as frightened and surprised as I was and went flying out to sea while I went hopping, skipping, and jumping to shore.
Governor’s Beach, so-called because it is adjacent to Waterloo, the Governor’s residence, is known as the best stretch of beach on the island. The earliest maps of Grand Turk show “the town” being located just inland from this area, probably near the South Wells where fresh water still accumulates near the surface. As the salt industry expanded around the Town Salina the population moved there to support it, abandoning the earlier location. I try to imagine what the original settlement was like, but there has been so much development and disturbance that there isn’t a trace of it any more.
During the days of the early settlers the whole area was known as Riding Ground. Perhaps it was so named because nor’westers made it impossible to stay at anchor in the roadstead and ships were able to find safe anchorage here, where the seas were rideable, or perhaps it’s in reference to its location, the shoreline Riding Place, the first settled town on the island.
Booby Rock marks the southern tip of Grand Turk, where Leeward turns into Windward and the effects of strong currents are evident, especially during the winter months when things can change right before your eyes, when there is a nor’wester and at times there is little or no beach. A most astonishing sight to behold is when nor’westers create a huge blanket of white sand near the point with a pool in the middle of it.

Hawkes Nest anchorage
When I was a boy, Haitian sloops would come to Hawkes Nest to discharge their produce when there was a nor’wester and boats couldn’t anchor in front of the town. The boat captain would deliver his goods just to the head of the beach and the shopkeepers had to transport it from there. My mother and other shopkeepers would then have to get their cargo through the soft beach to the solid ground about 200 feet away. Getting a donkey and cart through soft ground without a load was difficult, so one can imagine what it was like with a load. One man would be at each wheel turning it as the animal strained, and two or three other men would be pushing from behind. The cart driver would be in front of the donkey guiding and encouraging him.
Hawkes Nest anchorage and beach are peaceful and tranquil today, but it was a pretty lively place in March, 1783. After a contingent of French soldiers “captured” Grand Turk a few weeks earlier, a British squadron commanded by no less than Horatio Nelson arrived to dislodge them. After exchanging fire and attempting a landing, he decided that the French garrison had the advantage of entrenched gun emplacements atop Fire Hill and elsewhere overlooking Hawkes Nest beach. Nelson withdrew the squadron and went on to other more famous exploits. Similarly, the victorious French soon packed up and retreated to Haiti, from whence they had come, and everything returned to normal. Every time I pass through South Base and see the cannons lining the road I wonder if some of them might have witnessed those events.
Moving north from Hawkes Nest anchorage, we have to leave the beach to visit a hilltop about 20 feet above sea level. Called Gun Hill for as long as anyone can remember, this small site may once have been part of the French defenses that repelled Nelson. All that remains is three courses of cut native stone surrounding a small platform large enough for one or two artillery field pieces. There really isn’t any convincing evidence to connect Gun Hill with the “French Invasion” of 1783, but it would have been a good location to defend the mouth of South Creek, and an old map shows another fortification called “Ft. Castries” on the highest part of Gibbs Cay, located about half a mile offshore directly east of Gun Hill. Sure enough, there are similar ruins there, too. The South Creek has always been a strategically important place. In 2001, a six-inch cast iron cannon ball was found there.

South Creek
As a boy this was one of the favorite places I and my two buddies, Doggy and Stinky, liked to go. Until the mouth of the North Creek was dredged in the 1970s, the South Creek was the only safe place on Grand Turk to keep a boat. When the tide was flowing into the sound, we would “borrow” someone’s dingy, walk it up to the mouth of the creek, and let the current in the channel sweep us back to where we started. One day we were confronted by the dingy’s owner on our way back. Panicked, we jumped in the water and swam across to the other side of the creek. He was an elderly man who couldn’t catch us or the boat, and the boat went into the sound. For days we worried and waited for the whipping we expected from our parents, but nothing happened. It was a great relief to find, some days later, that the boat was back in its usual place.
My father was a tailor but he also owned a Caicos sloop. When I was about three years old he took it to the South Creek for protection against a hurricane. It never left. When I was ten it was still there, resting on the bottom. My buddies and I caught lots of dog-snappers, grunts and shades in and around it. These memories came rushing back one day in 1992 whilst I was doing some work at the Museum. Dr. Keith showed me some old aerial photos taken in the late 1960s and I was delightfully surprised to see the outline of my father’s boat in the South Creek, still right where he left it.
Now it’s time for us to cross the channel. If there is a current we have to pick our starting place carefully because depending on which way the tide is flowing you could end up a hundred feet up or down the other side—or in the ocean or inside the sound!
I always stop at Josie Keel Cay before beginning the last leg of my shoreline time-travel. I don’t know why; it’s only a rock on the creek’s bank with mangroves around most of it. I suppose it has something to do with when I was a boy. Back then the creek bank was loaded with red and green octopus (we called them “scuttles”). There were so many you had to pick your steps so you wouldn’t step on one. When we would pass near one, even in a foot or less of water, they would squirt out their purple ink. They were beautiful creatures but now they’re all gone. No one on the island eats them, so there must have been an ecological change, because I haven’t seen a single one for many years.

Materson’s Point
The stretch of beach on the north side of the creek mouth seems to collect all of the debris in the sea, and is always loaded with seaweed. Back in the 1980s, tankers used to flush out their holds at sea and the residue would end up here. Fresh tar would arrive on a regular basis, and the white sand took on a rusty metallic brown look. No one ever cleaned up the beach. But the seaweed, turtle grass and the rest played an important part in the recovery process. Through natural processes the tar got caught up in the ever-present weeds, and washed to the back of the beach by flood tides and high winds. Eventually Mother Nature cleaned the mess up herself so that nowadays the beach is back to normal.
At the other end of this beach, we have to climb up the southern end of a ridge about 80 feet high. On top of the ridge you have a panoramic view of the southern end of Grand Turk including the peaceful-looking South Creek Sound and the lush mangroves surrounding it. Rather than continuing north along the ridge, we turn inland here for the journey home. It is easiest to pass along the northern part of the creek where the mangroves are thinnest.
Home is still 20 minutes away so I have plenty of time to reminisce as we pass by the old Crisson Plantation. I recall how my friends and I used to fill our bellies with Mr. Crisson’s sweet potatoes whenever we went catching and riding donkeys in the bush and got hungry. Passing by the Great Salina’s northern ponds I chuckle at the memory of how Doggy, Stinky and I used to hide in the bushes and wait for the windmill keeper to shut down the windmill for the day. Then, when he had gone out of sight, we would dash over and release the brake so the blades would begin turning again, and jump back in the bushes to hide. Cussing furiously, the keeper would have to return and shut it down all over again. We never knew if he had any idea who the boys were that played this dirty trick on him so many times, but we sure had fun doing it! Yes, I feel sorry about it now, but those were the good old days and we were certainly good boys, just enjoying our boyhood in Grand Turk!
So there you have it, at least for the present. But you never can tell what other vestiges of the past, buried in the earth or in an archive somewhere, await discovery. The imprint of history is wide and deep on this little island, and that’s what makes Grand Turk special.



2 Comments

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Torben Bjarke Ballin
Jul 27, 2014 14:24

Dear Sherlin Williams,

I am presently writing a paper on gunflints from shipwrecks, and I was wondering whether you might have more pictures of gunflints from your shores? I would be grateful for any pictures you might be willing to send me.

Some of my papers on the topic are freely available on https://independent.academia.edu/TorbenBjarkeBallin.

Thanks.

All best wishes

Torben

Torben Bjarke Ballin
Dec 7, 2016 9:41

Dear Sherlin Williams,

I was just wondering why you have this section, as you clearly don’t intend to reply to anybody. Maybe just get rid of the comments section all together?

Best

TB

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