If Maps Could Talk . . .

Visualizing the Grand Turk of yesteryear.

Story and Images Courtesy Marjorie Sadler

In the final pages of H.E. Sadler’s book, Turks Islands Landfall, the author (my father) gives some history of North Creek in Grand Turk which President Forth (served 1848–1854) believed was a huge asset to the island simply awaiting development. Forth was the Turks & Caicos Islands’ first President under the newly organized and quasi-self-governing Presidency following the Islands’ separation from the Bahamas in 1848. While Forth proved quite unpopular with the local bureaucracy because of his autocratic manner, he did have some innovative ideas to profit the Islands, although some were quite contentious at the time.

Foremost of these was his proposal to develop the North Creek as a “Harbour of Refuge” to provide shelter for small craft of the Islands, but also a safe harbour for larger trading vessels, particularly salt cargoes. North  Creek is a large, beautiful and calm expanse of water whose narrow entrance to the ocean was often blocked by past storms.

Forth presented his ideas to the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Charles Grey in November 1849, along with a Plan of the Island, drawn up by Major E.C. Soden of the 2nd West Indies Regiment, who had conducted a survey of Grand Turk with particular reference to the site of the new lighthouse. There was also a survey of the island’s reefs and soundings taken by Captain Owen of the Royal Navy.

The Harbour of Refuge envisioned by the president called for:

“A Civil Engineer of moderate ability . . . by a succession of ‘Blasts’ properly directed and the subsequent use of a diving bell, could in less than eighteen months . . . with the assistance of 600 convicts1 properly officered lower the reef in front of the entrance into the Harbour to a depth equal to the admission of the largest vessels . . . Within the same period a sufficient channel could be opened into the harbour . . .”

This map of Grand Turk from 1849 was part of a proposal to develop North Creek.

The resultant plan/map illustrating this project and the rest of Grand Turk was found in the UK National Archives and is shown here—first in its entirety, then in four sections for easier viewing.

It is really a remarkable depiction of the island showing in exquisite detail its elemental features. Forth’s proposed harbour appears in the map section on the next page. It illustrates that, once having opened up the channel, a proper wharf could be constructed at the southern end of the creek, and from that point a railway would link it to the center of town across from the large Town Salina, to its terminus at about where the old jail stood (Church Folly and Lighthouse Road). Presumably, its proximity to the largest salinas would facilitate the loading of salt cargoes for outbound vessels from the new harbour.

This image shows North Creek’s narrow entrance and large expanse of calm water.

It sounded like a grand, if ambitious project. Sadler writes that “the Hydrographer of the Navy advised the Crown against the proposed Harbour of Refuge as an expensive and impractical scheme which ‘could not for a moment be entertained.’” The plan was subsequently rejected by the Colonial Office.

Ultimately, President Forth didn’t realize this dream. But was it really so far-fetched? Traditionally, the loading of salt onto vessels took place in the town’s open roadstead2, a circumstance not without danger to vessels in stormy weather. It was extremely labour intensive in offloading cargo and loading salt, requiring the use of multiple small lighters and at times taking several days to complete a load. Against this, Forth’s harbour and rail line seems like it could have saved an immense amount of time, labour and expense. Forth’s successor, President Inglis, also saw the wisdom of the Harbour of Refuge and ten years later in 1859, was pushing a proposal from an American investor:

“This project . . . is proposed to be effected by means of a ship canal, entering into the creek to be combined with marine and other railways, for the repairs of shipping and conveyance of salt, would prove the means of rendering the Turks Islands, from the central position they occupy as regards the West Indies . . . An important commercial depot and coaling station for steamers.   . . . Where a fleet could lie moored as in a dock, which it is, of nature’s handiwork—containing  sufficient water for any class of merchant vessels and most men of war . . .”

The project favoured by Inglis did not come to fruition due to the American Civil War and the investor’s inability to secure financing. But it had the potential of making Grand Turk a hub for West Indies shipping and who knows, may even have recaptured its status as the Caribbean coaling station for steamers which was lost to the island of St. Thomas after the fateful wreck of the RM Medina in 1842. North Creek languished thereafter until the 1980s when another project for its development as a yachting haven for Caribbean cruising vessels was begun but terminated after a few years due to differences between the developers and the local government. The corroding remains of that project’s machinery and elaborate equipment remain part of the landscape at North Creek even to this day.

The Grand Turk lighthouse of today is quite different from the original “old lantern mounted on a pole.”

Returning to President Forth and this remarkable map—his other important objective in completing this survey was to finally secure British approval and funding for a modern, functional lighthouse for the northeast end of Grand Turk. It’s no secret that many ships met their demise on the island’s treacherous Northeast Reef, due largely to the inefficiency of the antiquated lighthouse then, described by Forth as “a miserable weather boarded structure—30′ high.”3 He was quick to blame the disastrous loss of the important mail steamer, RM Medina, on the lack of a proper lighthouse. (Many of these shipwrecks on the Northeast Reef are documented in the Turks Islands Landfall chapter on shipwrecks.)

Happily, the president achieved that objective and Sadler states that:

“President Forth must be given credit for securing the erection of the first modern lighthouse at Grand Turk in the year 1852 . . . This action saved the salt trade since, because of the perils of navigation, vessels had been refusing to call for salt cargoes.”

Detail in the map on the opposite page shows the artist’s rendition of the proposed lighthouse, in the location where it stands today. Just northeast of the proposed structure is shown the location of several shipwrecks which had been found by the Royal Navy’s Captain Owen and his crew while surveying the reefs; these were some of the most noteworthy wrecks in 1849 and earlier. Looking closely, or using a magnifier, one can see: the RM Medina (1842), Sturdy Oak (1849), Susan Currier (1849), Columbus (1847), Schooner Banner (1849), General Coffin (1842) and others un-named or indecipherable. Owen would naturally have found only a smattering of the wrecks which had transpired on that reef—those whose remains were still visible at the time of the survey. But these findings and local knowledge of many others were sufficient to bolster President Forth’s case that the time had come for a modern lighthouse.

What of the other areas on the island depicted in Forth’s Plan? See the smart grid layout of Cockburn Town on the following page. There one can see Queen Square (as it was then called) running from Pond Street to the Front Street Waterfront, with a building marked —the original jail, which was destroyed in the 1866 hurricane, but rebuilt later in more or less the same location. The Victoria Public Library was later to be placed at this Square in 1889, so is not shown on the plan. The Customs House on the waterfront is noted, so is the town wharf, the streets and buildings in the north, south and east suburbs, the saltwater canals feeding the salina reservoirs (which are all still there today) and the vast areas of salt ponds.

Built around 1845-6, Mathew Tank remains the largest water catchment on Grand Turk.

You can see the large Town Salina, in the center of which is the little island called the old Burial Ground, where paupers, sick and the contagious were buried. Crossing Church Folly led to St. Thomas’ Church, built of Bermuda stone in 1822, the island’s oldest church, still standing and in use; next is the Mathew Tank, built around 1845–6 and named after Governor Mathew of the Bahamas, who visited the Islands prior to their divorce from the Bahamas and eventually sympathized with the Islanders’ pleas for the political separation. The tank remains the largest water catchment on the island.  Depicted also are the Baptist Church, the original Methodist Chapel on Red Salina, and the Parade Ground —all of which remain exactly where they are today.

Looking up towards the southeastern side of Grand Turk sits South Creek and at its mouth Columbus Island—directly facing Gibb’s Cay. (See map at top of opposite page.) At left is the high ground at Matherson’s Point. It was here, Sadler writes, where Columbus approached in his longboat after anchoring the fleet in the nearby sheltered harbour of Hawkes’ Nest. Little Columbus Island, Gibb’s Cay, Matherson’s Point and land beyond on that high ridge overlooking the eastern shore were part of George Gibbs’ landholdings. Gibbs was an important figure in the island’s legislature. He was also a noted historian, and vocal proponent of Columbus’s landfall at Grand Turk.

This map pinpoints the Gun Hill fortification built in 1791, when there was tension over a feared French invasion from Hispaniola. Notice also the old plantation near the Hawk’s Nest Salina. The bottom map on the opposite page (SW Detail) shows the Hawes Salina; also, the plantation of James Misick and his house “Waterloo” built around 1815 to commemorate the famous battle. The property was later acquired by the government as the official residence for the president and sits facing the famous anchorage of “Riding Ground,” location of Governor’s Beach. 

Many more historic landmarks and areas are depicted here for those who have the eyes and patience to peruse. It’s a marvelous work of art, of utmost historic interest, but more vitally, a unique pictorial record of Grand Turk as it was nearly 200 years ago. The modern-day similarities are fascinating.

1 Forth’s proposal to use convicts for this and other development schemes was due to the lack of sufficient labour in Grand Turk to carry out large projects, but the controversial plan incurred the anger of many establishment figures and the general population who refused to countenance the idea of imported criminals living amongst them. 

2The perils encountered by several vessels in the Roadstead are described in the book’s “Open Roadstead” section.

3This was lit by 12 ordinary tallow candles without any reflectors. Before this structure there had only been an old lantern mounted on a pole.

As a postcript, I am indebted to the late Terry Richardson, a friend from Grand Turk and Providenciales, retired surveyor and avid follower of Turks Islands history, who discovered this invaluable relic in the UK National Archives years ago, and kindly brought it to my attention while I was editing this latest edition of my father’s book. The UK National Archives have granted permission for its publication in the book Turks Islands Landfall.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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