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The struggle to build Bermuda's big light

Jan 1, 2003

For the ocean voyager bound for Bermuda, the loom of Gibbs Hill light, visible from about 26 nautical miles out to sea, can have a great calming effect. The flashing white light of Gibbs Hill is usually the first sight that the mariner has of the low-lying islands.

The history of this well-known light goes back to the 1830s. Trade to Bermuda was increasing, and the need for navigational aids to mark the surrounding reefs was literally becoming a matter of life or death. Bermuda is surrounded by coral reefsat about 32° N, it is actually the farthest north that coral will grow. These reefs presented a very real menace to ships. What was required was a means for approaching ships to get a land bearing to accompany their daily noon sight. In those days most skippers used their noon latitude position to get their position. Even though Bermuda was discovered by Sir George Somers when his ship, Sea Venture, bound for Virginia from England, ran aground and was wrecked in 1609, it was deemed that this was a poor way of finding the islands. A better system needed to be developed.

The first light to be placed on what is now known as Gibbs Hill, formerly known as Mount Hill-Prince of Wales redoubt, was a beacon placed there when England and Spain were at war. It was an alarm for the islanders and was set ablaze when Spanish ships were spotted. This first use of a beacon at that location as an aid to navigation occurred in 1651 when a ship bound from England had to stand off Bermuda for eight days. The fires at the beacon on the hill were kept burning according to contemporary accounts "so that she might see the isle as well by night as by day." In the 17th century an average of two ships a year wrecked on the islands.

This haphazard method of lighting beacon fires continued until the late 1700s when the British Navy established a depot on the islands. In 1795 Vice-Admiral Murry suggested that two lighthouses be erected to protect the naval ships as they approached the islands, one on Wreck Island in Somerset, to the west, and the other at Secretary's Point in St. George, to the east. The Bermuda legislature passed an act okaying the concept, but nothing was done to implement construction for the next 30 years. Finally, in 1830, after many more wrecks, the Bermuda legislature decided to persuade the British government to finance a lighthouse at Gibbs Hill. Given the nature of this particular bureaucracy, it would be another 10 years before things actually began to get going.

First an experiment had to be tried, so on the night of April 21, 1830, tar barrels were lit atop Gibbs Hill in order to establish whether ships at sea could see the lights. A Capt. Jones of the HMS Hussar stood off Bermuda and reported that the light appeared "like a star of the first magnitude, but reddish in color" and was visible at 12 miles.

Despite this success it wasn't until June 1839 when merchant shipowners met to decide on the best method of securing a lighthouse at Gibbs Hill. The major concern for Bermudans was that taxes would have to be levied on Bermuda shipping in order to pay for a light. These concerns about taxes kept the project from moving ahead for nine more years, at the cost of thousands of pounds in lost revenues from continued shipwrecks. At the lighthouse meeting of 1839 it was established that "much traffic was approaching Bermuda from the south-west bound in a northerly direction and that in the previous 10 years more than 50 ships had been wrecked or disabled." Of those numbers only four were bound for Bermuda and only one vessel was locally owned. As more than half the groundings had occurred during daylight, it was argued that better navigational aids be placed at North Rock and Long Bar on the western reefs in addition to the long-debated lighthouse at Gibbs Hill. The colony of Bermuda didn't have the funds to undertake these projects, and it was decided that "unless the British government undertake the building of them (the lighthouses) and place the collection of dues for their maintenance on such a footing as to be payable by vessels passing the neighborhood of Bermuda, that however humane and beneficial the object, then it couldn't be carried into effect." Thus the Bermudans, still concerned about taking money from their own pockets, passed the problem back to the British government, basically washing their hands of the whole affair.

Bermuda's governor at the time, William Reid, petitioned Lord John Russell, Britain's Secretary for War and the Colonies, in an effort to convince him that the expense of mounting the lighthouse would be to Britain's advantage, even stating that should the British Government fail to act that "her conduct would be unfavorably contrasted with that of the United States now actively engaged in improving the lighthouses along their whole coast." It was this chauvinistic appeal that won the day, and it was agreed that the British government would finance the construction of a lighthouse at Gibbs Hill with the understanding that "the local government and legislature make provision for maintaining the light." There was a precedent for this in the case of a recently constructed light in Nova Scotia. Trinity HouseBritain's lighthouse authoritydecided that only one light was necessary and it should be located "on the high land called Gibbs Hill, at the south-western extremity of the island with a revolving light of the most powerful description." It was determined that the annual expense of maintaining such a light "would be about 400 pounds." The navigational aids at North Rock and Long Bar were shelved until the future.

Now to the drawing board. The first idea was to use Bermuda block (sandstone) locally quarried. This material had been used for constructing smaller structures but it would prove impossible for the tall structure planned at Gibbs Hill. A contemporary account of the attempt to use this material at Gibbs Hill has this to say of the effort:

"Since the home Government decided upon creating a lighthouse on the islands and in the expectations that the tower might be built of stone found on the islands, a lantern and one of Fresnel's Dioptric apparatus of the first order were prepared by the Trinity Corporation, but after some progress had been made in quarrying and dressing the stone for a lofty tower on which to place the light it was ascertained to be too friable a character for the purpose." In other words, the stone was not strong enough for the job.

Lighthouse construction up to that time had been primarily out of wood or stone, but the use of a new material, cast iron, was becoming favored given steady improvements in the foundry process. Cast iron had already been used for shipbuilding. The first cast iron ship, Great Britain, had been built in 1843 and was very successful. It seemed logical that the material could also be used for lighthouses.

England at the time was on the cutting edge of this technology, and one man in particular, Alexander Gordon, had already designed a lighthouse of cast iron plates that was successfully erected in Jamaica in 1841, The advantages of the material for lighthouse construction were noted in the Journal of Civil Engineers ". ..iron when not in contact with sea water possesses over stone a much larger internal capacity for dwellings...the plates being cast in large surfaces have fewer joints and consequently greater solidity...the time required for construction being less than that required for the preparation of one of stone...The expenses of the construction, the transmission to its destination and the final erection will not exceed one third the cost of a stone building of equal dimensions."

Gordon was hired by the Lords of her Majesty's Treasury to design a lighthouse similar to the one he had designed in Jamaica "...but on a still larger scale for the top of Gibbs Hill, where numerous engineering difficulties have hitherto prevented the erection of lighthouse in masonry." The agreed-upon price for such a light was set at 7,000 pounds.

The work began, and in England the plates and lantern were fabricated, while in Bermuda the Royal Engineers, with a gang of convict labor dug a 26-foot foundation, filling it with pig iron and concrete.

In 1844, the Bermudans passed an "Act to Maintain the Lighthouse." This provided for the appointment of the keepers, with salaries not exceeding 100 pounds yearly. The Act also provided for the purchase of oil, candles and other necessary items for the maintenance of the light. These monies were collected from a tax levied on "every ship or vessel coming to or arriving at any port or place on these islands...the sum of 4 pence per ton for each and every ton of the burthen of such ship or vessel."

Meanwhile in England the lighthouse was being built at the foundry of Cottam and Hallam in London. The following is an excerpt from an article written in April 1844 from the Illustrated London News concerning the building of the lighthouse:

"The tower is constructed of cast iron concentric plates and it is intended, when permanently fixed for a lighthouse on the seashore of the islands of Bermuda in the West Indies. The extreme height of the whole from base to ball on the top of the lantern will be when completed about 130 feet. The outside diameter at the base is 24 feet, tapering upwards to 14 feet and then springing out to a diameter of 20 feet, so as to form the platform round the edge of which is fastened a palisade railing. On this platform will be placed the lamp room, a polygon of 16 sides and about 15 feet in diameter.

"The tower is divided into 7 floors, exclusive of the platform or gallery. The communication between the base and the first floor, about 20 feet from the ground is by spiral staircase winding round a column in the centre. The space between the staircase and the outer plates forming the tower will be a solid mass of brickwork and concrete.

"The tower is formed of 136 plates, the base plates have a surface of about 56 square feet each. The plates decrease in proportion to the cone, each plate has a flange or edge projecting inwards and is joined together by screws and nuts and the hollow space between the flanges is filled with iron cement and forms a perfectly air-water tight joint."

The lighthouse arrived in pieces from England in November 1844 aboard the ship John Renwick. Also aboard was George Grove, who had previously supervised the erection of the iron lighthouse in Jamaica. Grove, who was later knighted for his work called Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which ultimately grew to four volumes and more than 3,000 pages, was at this point in life an assistant to Gordon the designer.

The first iron plate was placed in position on December 12, 1844. Seventeen months later, on May l, 1846 the lighthouse was commissioned. The characteristics of the light were at the time described as showing "a bright flash continuing for 6 to 8 seconds repeated once every minute." The light was visible from 21 to 24 miles out to sea. When it was completed the lighthouse stood an impressive 375 feet above sea level and consumed about two gallons of sperm oil per night to keep it lit.

The original light was destroyed by fire at the turn of the century, but existing records indicate that it was "one of Fresnel's dioptric apparatus of the first order."

The first revolving lens at Gibbs Hill had a 920-mm focal length, was six feet in diameter, and was turned by a weight-driven machine with the weight suspended through the central column of the lighthouse by a chain. The mechanism was wound up by the keepers every five hours and the lens rotated on a roller carriage once every eight minutes.

The lighthouse was administered by the Lighthouse Commissioners. They appointed a Mr. Joseph F. Darrell as the first principal keeper, and a Mr. Wingwood as his assistant. Their salaries were 100 and 50 pounds yearly. The duties of these keepers were not lightly undertaken, as this letter from one of the keepers indicates.

"The keeper in charge of the lamp at night cannot with safety be absent from it for more than 5 minutes and during the day all of their time after taking rest, is taken up in keeping the lighthouse free from dust, cleaning the lenses, mirrors etc. and preparing the apparatus for the coming night. It is the duty of the keeper who has the morning watch to clean the lamp and apparatus before taking any rest and it generally occupies him until 10 AM. Both keepers must be in the lantern one and one half hours before sunset. The interior of the lighthouse, containing 8 floors must be thoroughly cleaned once a week and the full attention of the keepers is required all day to do that."

This was obviously a great deal of work for two men to perform, so after 1849 another assistant was added.

As technology changed the light has been upgraded over the years. Some of this change was precipitated by disasterthe most notable being the fire of 1901, when the lantern room caught fire and the light was extinguished.

A new light was ordered from England and was installed the following year. The new light "is equal to 99,930 candle power, has a maximum visibility of 26 miles in clear weather as compared with 24 miles of the old light."

The new light cost 4,000 pounds and consisted of "five optical panels in a gun metal framework, with clockwork to revolve them and lamps and burners for mineral oil. The light provides a flash every 10 seconds instead of one minute given by the old light."

The mechanism still required hand-winding, but the new system floated in a bath of mercury and was so frictionless that it was said that one keeper could move the whole assembly with the touch of one finger.

When the light was next updated, in 1922, a petroleum vapor system was chosen over electrical power. This new unit consisted of a 75-mm petroleum "Hood" burner which along with the Fresnel lenses produced five beams of light each of 660,000 candle power. It was five times more powerful than the old light.

It wasn't until 1952 that Gibbs Hill finally went electric, though the petroleum system was used as a backup until 1964. It was in that year that the lighthouse became fully automated with the installation of two electric drives geared into the old drive shaft. Once the light was automated, the last of the old generation of lighthouse keepers retired in 1968, thus ending a way of life that had carried on at Gibbs Hill for 122 years. In 1983 a single 1,000-watt metal arc lamp was installed. The light is operated by a solar switch, and the bulb is changed every six months.

So, after more than 140 years, the cast iron plates are still doing their job, and the lighthouse at Gibbs Hill still provides succor for ocean-weary sailors looking to get safely into Bermuda.

It is most worthwhile to make the trip to the lighthouse. It is open to visitors, and if you're feeling light in the step and not too wheezy in the lungs you can climb the 185 steps to the top and get one of the most magnificent views of Bermuda.

The quoted material above is from a pamphlet, Bermuda Light, by Michael Dolding.


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