The candy-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse is the centerpiece of the pretty, pastel, storybook Hope Town settlement.
The construction of the lighthouse, in 1864, was widely opposed, as it threatened to end the prosperous shipwrecking industry – and sink Abaco’s economy.
Ironically, over the decades the lighthouse became vital to Abaco’s economy… luring countless visitors with its unique charm and history.
But it’s more than a tourist attraction. It’s more than a lighthouse.
It is a symbol of Bahamian pride – of strength, resilience, and identity.
It is the heartbeat of Hope Town.
What makes it special?
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse is the last kerosene-burning, manually-operated lighthouse on the planet – a historical relic in a modern world. What truly makes it special, though, is the people behind it, who volunteer their time and efforts to maintain the tower and keep the light alive.
It was saved from automation by the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society, formed in 1992. In 2013, the group was restructured and renamed: Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society.
Currently, the society consists of five women, each with a deep-rooted love for the lighthouse, for the community, for the bond between the two and all that it represents.
Annie Potts – Historian / U.S. Liaison / Author of Last Lights
Kent Watts-LeBoutillier – Head of Restoration/ Head of Retail Operations
Heather Forde-Prosa – Brand Communications & Marketing
Marjorie Chapman – Finance & Legal
Deborah Patterson – Office Administrator & Port Department Liaison
The daily duty of lighting the burners at dusk has been passed down through the generations from his grandfather to his father, and from his father to him – Jeffrey Forbes Jr. – the keeper of the light, the heart of the heartbeat.
And the five ladies of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society are the soul that keeps it beating.
Let there be light.
As devastating as Hurricane Dorian was, it shone a light on the significance of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society’s work.
Hurricane Dorian decimated the landscape, destroyed lives, and plunged Hope Town into darkness – literally and metaphorically. The whole nation felt the darkness. Then, when the community needed it the most… when spirits were sunken and morale was on the rocks…the guiding light shone again, after eleven days of darkness.
This was, of course, not by spontaneous happenstance. It was the dedication, resilience, and hard work of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, that brought the light back as a beacon of hope. A mission spearheaded by the ever-industrious Kent LeBoutillier to bring comfort to a hurting community.
And it did.
The fact that the lighthouse remains an authentic, functioning aid to navigation, almost 160 years after it was built, is only marvelous when you realize and appreciate the energy, efforts, and love of these unstoppable women who make it happen.
Without them, it is just a beautiful old concrete building – one that would have been automated by now, or else left to decay, or perhaps dismantled, on display in a museum somewhere – a thought that makes these ladies cringe.
Instead, thanks to the devotion and perseverance of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society – thanks to Kent, Annie, Heather, Deborah, and Marjorie – the lighthouse is intact and has achieved a remarkable place in history – as the last authentic light station.
The Elbow Reef Lighthouse is a survivor, like the people of Hope Town, the people of Abaco. It is a reflection of the tenacious will and dedication of these ladies and a monument to the resilience, and strength of the people of The Bahamas.
Keeping the light on is what we do. It is important for a lot of reasons.
After Hurricane Dorian there was no light for ten days and thanks to Kent LeBoutillier and John Pinder the light came on, and the morale went up and there was hope.
Our society, which began with the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society, 25-26 years ago, was trying to save all the lights and then in 2014 we decided we’d focus on this one.
It’s been quite a journey. I’ve been involved directly for 8 years.
In the past five years we have become the last [manned lighthouse] out of 18,000.
It’s a tall order but it’s fun and important… It’s a real privilege to do this work.
If the light was automated then the soul of the light, the heartbeat of the light would be gone and it would just be a thing.
My dad was born here in Hope Town and as a young man, actually worked on the lighthouse… assisting the lighthouse keeper here.
So it’s all very personal to me.
It is sort of the meditative experience you get when you walk a maze.
A few years ago I was on vacation in Virginia… and ended up going to a marine museum… they had the complete lens [from a lighthouse that had been automated]. The whole lens was inside the museum and it just hit me that I really don’t want that to ever happen to ours.
I think of it as a sacred space because museums and monuments around the world are time capsules of exact history and ours is intact, as it was in the 1800s, so stepping in there is like stepping back in time and it’s really an experience that you don’t get unless you actually visit.
For everyone here at night, it’s so calming and soothing it’s like a lullaby at night, just watching the rays sweep. It’s like a heartbeat, it gets in you.
We do it for the next generation.
We want to be able to turn over the knowledge that we’ve gained… so that this is always taken care of, for the next 100 years and so on.
It creates a unique and authentic place here, like no other in the world… and that’s what we have – authenticity.
I like people to know what makes where they are important. I am not Bahamian so I can’t claim that but I can claim an enthusiasm for what I see is so important here.
People think “What’s so bad about a museum?”
A museum is not a living aid to navigation. This is an active aid to navigation. To us, that’s really important.
I like people to go up there and do more than just take a picture of their good friends. I like them to come down and go “WOW! That’s something we’ve never seen before and we’ll never see anywhere else”.
We have been all about keeping it this active place, so that people can learn about the history, the preservation.
I am in charge of making sure that the construction crew has what they need, I work with them to make sure we’re doing it the right way, or the old way, or the best way possible and sometimes that’s with different kinds of tools or different kinds of wood, or trying to figure out how to make it work because the way they did it back then, you can’t do it now.
It’s fun, it’s a project, it’s a challenge every day. The crew that we’ve got – Jackson, Andrew, Traeshoun, and Theodore are amazing. They come in the morning, they work nonstop and they go home in the afternoon. They talk about the lighthouse as if it were their second home and they take much pride in what they’re doing.
Our excursion to Hope Town, Abaco to photograph the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society was a unique, captivating experience – and we learned a few things too. Many thanks to Heather Forde-Prosa for expertly arranging all the details.
Thank you to Abaco Inn for beautiful accommodations with a magnificent view (pictured above) – this was a slice of pure paradise.
A very special thanks to Annie Potts for the treasured gift of her book: Last Lights – The Hand-Wound Lighthouses of The Bahama Islands.
This book is a wonderful collection of well-researched historical information and stunning photographs (available in the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society Gift Shoppe).
Finally, thank you to these five earnest, tenacious, dedicated women who keep this last light burning.
All photographs © The Bahamian Project. Not to be used without permission.