Hope Town Lighthouse History

In the Bahamas’ beautiful collection of islands and barrier cays known as the Abacos, sits a Bahamian treasure, Hope Town. This charming town is on 8-mile-long Elbow Cay and surrounds a protected harbor, home to its landmark red-and-white-striped 120-foot-tall Hope Town Lighthouse, officially named Elbow Reef Lighthouse.

Hope Town (Elbow Reef) Lighthouse

Today, it is revered and its frequent visitors generate local revenue for its residents. But when built in the 1860s, about one ship a month met its demise on the shallow coral reef east of Hope Town. Residents protested against lighthouse construction as their livelihoods as salvagers of the contents of ship wrecks. Some locals at the time even sabotaged the lighthouse construction by sinking a barge with its building materials.

The iconic beacon along with 2 keepers’ quarters and 6 other outbuildings was constructed from 1862 to 1864 as part of the British Imperial Lighthouse Service (BILS) that commissioned 11 manned light stations in the Bahamas. This unique lighthouse became operational in 1863 and remains the only one of its kind that remains hand-wound and kerosene-burning. It is one of only 3 hand-wound beacons in the world! Thanks to the efforts of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, this historical jewel was saved from automation and electrification remaining continuously hand-operated since 1863. This is no easy feat as its spring mechanism must hand-cranked every 2 hours at night to keep its Fresnel lens blinking five white flashes every 15 seconds. And parts for the kerosene-burning apparatus are no longer manufactured so it requires ingenuity to maintain this surviving relic.

How the Hope Town Lighthouse Works

The beacon’s signal is produced in a way that many lighthouses would have been designed 200 years ago. Atop the candy-cane colored tower inside a beautiful structure called the lantern, there is a real fire produced by a kerosene-fueled wick. Its light (an amazing 85% of it) is concentrated by an extremely heavy lens rotating at set intervals to produce a reliable pattern of flashes visible up to 23 nautical miles.

The first order (meaning “largest”) Fresnel lens of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse was actually state-of-the-art at the time it was installed and is and much lighter than most large lenses.

But the 8-1/2 foot by 6-1/2 foot glass lens still weighs 12,800 pounds.

It floats on a bed of mercury, a common practice in the 1800s to reduce friction so that hand-cranking can be done less often.

elbow reef lighthouse's fresnel lens and kerosene-fueled wicked lamp

Hurricanes & the Elbow Reef Lighthouse

In 1866, a powerful hurricane swept the entire island chain. From 1926-32, 3 destructive hurricanes and economic depression besieged the region. The hurricanes of 1926, 1929, and the 1932 Great Abaco Hurricane brought attic-high storm surges.

The 1932 Great Abaco Hurricane flattened the islands. Some parts of The Abacos were never re-inhabited as the Bahamian government encouraged people to settle in Dundas, Murphy Town, and other preferable areas by offering 5-acre land grants with a small stone home. Not a lot is recorded about this devastating storm as wind speed gauges of that era broke at 140 mph so mostly newspaper reports and photos as well as anecdotes of local residents that have been handed down have been used to tell the story of the strength of this hurricane that rivaled all known hurricanes in the area.

After these years of devastation, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1934.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy passed directly over the Hope Town and lasted for three days with 120 mph winds and rain.

Though a long time would pass before the next completely catastrophic wind event would arrive, may lower-grade hurricanes and tropical storms such as late season Hurricane Inez (1966), Tropical Storm Gilda (1973), Hurricane David (1979), and Hurricane Dennis with Hurricane Floyd only 4 days later (1999) dumped flooding waters.

On September 1, 2019, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian made catastrophic landfall on Elbow Cay with winds of 185 mph gusting to 225 mph. Dorian’s winds tied it with the Florida Keys’ 1935 Labor Day hurricane as the strongest sustained winds of any land-falling Atlantic hurricane of all time. Dorian dimmed the lighthouse for 12 long nights, but was temporarily re-illuminated by dedicated volunteers with an electric light bulb that was static (no flashing) on September 13, 2019. The lighthouse door flew open during the hurricane and it was feared saltwater may have damaged some components so relighting the kerosene wick awaited the keeper’s return to the island to inspect the lamp.

The lighthouse survives to save ships and invite your visit.

You Must Visit Elbow Reef Lighthouse

Though not wanted by the island’s residents when constructed, today the lighthouse is important to the Bahamians. Need proof? The structure is featured on the country’s $10 bill!

For those who can, the 101 steps required to scale the shady inside of the 89-foot tower is worth the view of the island and the turquoise Abaco Sea. If you can’t make it up the steps, you can while away your time in the gift shop that supports the upkeep of the lighthouse.

Or if you plan to forego going to the top of the lighthouse, you can opt to hang out in Hope Town while others in your party take the ferry over to the lighthouse. The charming town bursts with colors of tropical trees and flowers and beautifully restored pastel-tinted homes, many converted to shops offering delicious Bahamian treats, refreshing libations, and art and gifts by artists and artisans from across the islands. The shade of the trees and the 8-foot wide pedestrian-only streets will beckon you to explore.

You can rent golf carts in town to explore the island further, but keep in mind that during busy seasons, they often run out of rentals.

The lighthouse is open every day except Sundays.


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