In Hope Town on Elbow Cay in the Abacos, a 19th century lighthouse still performs its functions the old-fashioned way. In the early afternoon, on a perfect crystal-clear day, we found keeper Jeffrey Forbes applying bottom paint to a skiff. He told us to come back between 1730 and 1800 and suggested that a small donation would be much appreciated. No problem.
During the 101-step climb to the top, Forbes told us a bit about the lighthouse, its history, and its operation. The British built the original lighthouse in 1863. Later, the addition of concrete reinforcing was added, widening the outside. The lighthouse became the property of the Bahamian government when they gained their independence in 1973. The Fresnel lens, the geared turning mechanism, and the kerosene pressure lamp are all original equipment. Much to our surprise, Jeffrey told us the maintenance is minimal. All that is required is regular cleaning, greasing and polishing, he said.
We stopped at the kerosene tanks to make sure they were pressurized (the lighthouse only uses two gallons of fuel per night – very efficient for the amount of light it puts out!) and checked that the weights used to rotate the lens were in place. The kerosene is hoisted in five-gallon jerry cans using a block and tackle. At the top, Forbes took a protective wrap from around the lens. Our first thought was that this curtain served to protect the lens. It’s really to protect the interior of the lighthouse from the sun. As children, we learn that you could start a fire using a small magnifying glass and the sun. Well, imagine the heat that could be generated from the magnifying power of a Fresnel lens, left open to the rays of the Bahamian sun.
Now we were ready to light the wick. Just like when lighting a kerosene stove, you first put some alcohol in a priming cup. During the 10 minutes it took to prime the light, we were encouraged to climb around and take pictures through the lens. The keeper told us that the previous night, 12 people were up there with him for the lighting. We felt lucky that it was just the two of us this time. Finally, he lit what appeared to be a regular old camping lantern, only bigger. But the amount of light that came alive was magical. Next, he set the lens into its rotating motion – fascinating, as the whole thing just floats around in a massive container of mercury.
The keeper told us that he feels the Hope Town light has a "soul," communicated in the blinking effect created by the five bulls-eye patterns set into the lens. The light is constant, but the rotating lens casts a bright flash each time it passes one of the bulls-eye patterns. The lens rotation is driven by a set of gears and weights, not unlike a grandfather clock. This mechanism will keep the lens in motion for two hours. Therefore, the keeper has to climb up the 101 steps every two hours all night long and "wind the clock." Of course, this goes on every two hours, every night in good weather and bad. Even through the devastation of Hurricane Floyd, Forbes told us he kept the lighthouse going. I tried to imagine what the view would have been like with 60 to 70 knots of wind.
Later that evening, sitting in our boat Kotchka’s cockpit, we gazed up at the Hope Town lighthouse and realized we’d never look at a lighthouse the same way again.