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WELCOME BAHAMAS - GRAND BAHAMA - 2005
The Real Grand Bahama
We suggest how you can look past the standard tourist fare
Originally published WELCOME BAHAMAS - GRAND BAHAMA - 2005 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd
The glamourous parts of Grand Bahama are highly touted, well known and sometimes too busy to fully enjoy.
However, there are many other places on the island that only the curious ever get to savour and appreciate. Most don't possess the pizazz of the hot spots, but they offer a close look at the real Bahamas.
Starting at the western tip of the island, the community of West End has had a yo-yo existence. Today's tranquillity masks its often ribald past. Still the official capital of Grand Bahama, despite its small population, it lays claim to the island's most colourful past.
Fountain of Youth
The Lucayans were on the islands of The Bahamas when Christopher Columbus first arrived in 1492. Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spaniard who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to America the following year, is believed to have later explored the western portion of Grand Bahama and Bimini in search of his elusive fountain of youth.
In 1806, 500 acres of land at the west end of the island were granted to Joseph Smith, and the first official settlement was established.
In 1836 the population of the entire island of Grand Bahama was recorded as 370; most of those people are presumed to have lived around West End. By 1861 the population had grown to 858, and was probably spread between West End, Eight Mile Rock and Freetown.
After 300 years of tranquillity, West End became a port of call for pirates, a centre for ship wreckers, a gun-runners haven during the American Civil War, and a den of bootleggers during Prohibition which began in 1919 in the US.
When Prohibition ended, West End returned to its original quietude, disturbed only briefly in 1948 when Sir Billy Butlin attempted to replicate his successful Blackpool enterprise, Butlin's Holiday Camp, with a Butlin's Vacation Village at West End.
That lasted a couple of years and then the property sat dormant for almost a decade before reopening as the Jack Tar Village and later the Grand Bahama Country Club. The resort had its own 27-hole golf course and an airstrip into which Eastern Airlines would bring vacationers.
" West End was booming then with the Jack Tar. People came from all over the islands to spend the weekend there. The Blue Marlin nightclub on the waterfront was flourishing," says Henderson Smith, who grew up in West End.
" The Star Hotel was going strong. It's still operating today under the third generation of Grants. Austin Grant Sr started it, I think, and then his son Austin Jr, who later became Senator Austin Grant, and his wife Ann ran it. Now the third generation, Robert, runs it."
Smith served as a customs officer from 1956 to 1994 when he retired. "That was the only port of entry on the island at the time," he recalls. "We had three officers there at the time. All the stuff they were bringing in for Freeport came through there, until Freeport got big enough to become a port of entry. Actually the goods came in to Freeport and we had to come from West End to check the boats in. We had an old Land Rover that we'd (use to) travel to and from. After a while they made Freeport a port. I remember the first plane that came in to Freeport landing on a dirt road.
" In those days smuggling was a natural and normal thing. We had to watch the merchants. They were the big smugglers. They'd bring in boats in the middle of the night and call in the morning - after they unloaded some of the stuff.
" The one I most remember is the Bimini Joy. She would come in at 4am and call Customs. By the time we got in from West End the stuff was gone.
" Sometimes we'd get a tip and be on hand. It was sort of a game to see who could outsmart each other.
" Now they have 100 customs officers," says Smith.
Old Bahama Bay, now emerging as the fourth incarnation of the property at West End, is a residential resort development with luxurious ocean and canalfront homes, a 72-slip full service marina, restaurant and a
24-unit boutique hotel (with an additional 25 units to be built) and beach residences that can be included in the resort's rental programme.
Bootle Bay, a relatively new community, is perhaps named after "a man named Mr Bootle," according to Vida Hepburn, who with his mother, Estella, established a bonefishing camp in the little community along the southwest tip of the island, about four miles east of Old Bahama Bay.
Historian, author and town planner Peter Barratt confirms that in 1816, "a man named Bootle was granted 960 acres near the settlement at West End." Others of earlier vintage claim the name had more to do with bootlegging, and that the protected area of Bootle Bay was a refuge for rum runners and blockade runners of earlier days.
Still further east, Deadman's Reef was another protected refuge for the nebulous nautical set who plied the liquor trade routes between The Bahamas and mainland US during Prohibition. No one seems to know who the dead man was.
Meanwhile archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of evidence indicating Lucayans, the original inhabitants of The Bahamas, lived in the area of Deadman's Reef long before Columbus and Ponce de
Leon visited the islands. The excavations have led scientists working the area to the conclusion that the Lucayans lived behind the sand dunes that rim the shore. The excavations have been continuing each summer, revealing more and more archaeological information.
Paradise Cove is a paradoxical day trip of adventurous tranquillity. Just 50 yards off the beach is Deadman's Reef, unspoiled home of hundreds of species of tropical and reef fish and other marine life. Ashore, nature has been equally generous with a large assortment of bird life, egrets, blue herons, snipes and rich foliage at Duck Pond, just behind the dunes.
The Paradise Cove Beach Resort offers boat trips to the reef snorkelling, swimming, kayaking, sunbathing, volleyball or just enjoying doing nothing at all. Its friendly Red Bar offers drinks and snacks. There's a sunset bonfire and beachfront accommodation in two fully equipped air conditioned cottages for visitors who want to linger longer.
Holmes Rock, billing itself as "the home of togetherness," is an ill-defined village of wooden homes and concrete block buildings dominated by Mount Olivet Baptist Church. It falls within the Deadman's Reef census enumeration area and according to Barratt's book, Grand Bahama, had a population of "less than fifty people" in 1970. The community got its "togetherness" handle, according to Henderson Smith, because everybody was related, most having descended from one of the early settlers "Papa Squito" Rolle. Before the development of Freeport most of the people worked at West End, according to Smith.
Eight Mile Rock
Eight Mile Rock is one of the island's oldest communities, inhabited mainly by descendants of settlers from the Turks and Caicos who came to work at a lumbering operation at Pine Ridge and to farm and fish. It encompasses, from east to west, sometimes-forgotten communities of Hepburn Town, Bartlett Hill or Basset Hill, Hannah Hill, Wildgoose, Hepburn, Pinedale, Martin Town, Russell Town, Brady Point, Jones Town and Seagrape.
" This is a growing and thriving community of residential and business development," says Lindy Russell, MP, who represents the area in the House of Assembly. "It's the largest settlement in The Bahamas outside New Providence, with a population of about 14,000." The total population of Grand Bahama is about 50,000.
In 1812 Joseph Hunter, a British government official and member of the Governor's Council in Nassau, was granted 800 acres along the "eight miles of rock" that spanned Hawksbill Creek.
Williams Town is tucked away down a little road in the middle of Freeport off the end of Beachway Drive. Turn right after passing the sprawling Island Seas Resort and run west along the ocean for a little over a mile. The first mile is paved, followed by a dirt road which peters out at a quaint little stone-walled cemetery where lie the remains of the victims of a sea disaster.
A metal plaque on a tiled tombstone outside the 60- by 75-ft compound tells the story:
" IN LOVING MEMORY OF
OUR TWENTY ONE HAITIAN
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
WHO DIED AT SEA
ON 19TH JULY 1978
KE POSE YI"
The last line translates roughly from Creole into "your heart lies here," "they rest here" or the equivalent of "rest in peace."
The tranquil beach belies the chaos that must have surrounded the wooden boat tragedy 26 years ago.
To the east of Freeport and Lucaya lie some other historical reminders of the island's beginnings.
Old Freetown, about 13 miles east of the Grand Lucayan Waterway, dates back to 1807. It is believed the first freed slaves were placed there and fishing villages sprang up.
Barratt places the settling of the area a little later. "After the Emancipation Act of 1834, freed slaves settled the southern coastline (of Grand Bahama); the community of Freetown, for instance, was almost certainly named because of the abolition of slavery in The Bahamas which predated that of the United States by nearly 30 years. By statute the ex-slaves could purchase tracts of a minimum of 20 acres for a fixed price of 12 shillings an acre."
The island, according to Barratt, experienced rapid population expansion from the 1870s until early in the 20th century. The main source of income was the sponging industry. An 1871 map of the island produced by an American visitor showed communities at McLean's Town, Golden Grove, Freetown and Eight Mile Rock. There was no community recorded on the map at West End or Settlement Point.
The original Freetown is referred to now as Old Freetown, and the new one as Freetown or New Freetown. Little remains of the original community except some ruins and an overgrown seaside graveyard that's difficult to find. The original town developed at the back of the sand dunes that guard the beach. Many of the residents were direct descendants of the early settlers. Some still live in the new community of Freetown, built in the late 1960s when Freeport founder Wallace Groves bought all the property and beachfront at what then became known as Old Free Town.
There were an estimated 500 people living in the original community at its peak. They worked mostly in the lumber industry at Pine Ridge. The lumber camp was about four miles west along the beach. Later, a lot of the residents worked at the USAF missile tracking base, beside the New Freetown.
A rough bush pathway that was once the main thoroughfare from Old Freetown to the rest of the island takes you past the scant remains of Old Freetown's walls and cemetery and passes an inland ocean hole, the Owl Hole, where owls reputedly roost.
The hole is connected underground to the vast Lucayan Cave system, the most extensively explored and mapped cave system in the Caribbean. Limited and controlled diving is permitted in the cave system.
Stop and enjoy one of the island's most spectacular beaches, then as you return to the main road you pass Ben's Cavern, the central point of the Lucayan Cave system and Lucayan National Park, about seven miles from the Owl Hole.
The disused USAF missile base at Gold Rock Creek is undergoing a $26-million transformation into Bahamas Film Studios, a state-of-the-art movie studio complex and theme park. (See Grand Bahama on a Roll, pg 64.)
Phase I of the film project is under way with a massive environmental cleanup, building restructuring and landscaping.
The base included an 8,000-ft runway, a dock along the Port Authority area boundary and installations of tracking and communications devices along the coast for about five miles.
The base was built in 1951, a few years before Freeport was being developed, and was part of the range used to track missiles fired from Cape Canaveral in central Florida.
Gold Rock is the reincarnation of Golden Grove, settled in the mid eighteenth century and the residence of the first Out Island commissioner. "The function of the commissioner in the colonial civil service made him the most important administrative officer of government at the local level," says historian Barratt. "Generally a justice of the peace, the commissioner was in charge of the police, education and health, as well as the dispensation of justice." Gold Rock, or Golden Grove, situated between Old Freetown and Freetown, was about the geographical centre of the island, hence its choice as administrative seat.
High Rock, another three miles or so to the east, is now dominated by a candy-striped lighthouse, built by Rev Cecil Kemp. The town got its name from the 20-ft high rocky bluff between the coast road and the ocean. Rev Kemp's colourful beacon stands in a little park across the road from his Lighthouse Chapel. The chapel was built in the early 1960s, and Rev Kemp began his lighthouse project in 1994. He completed it with the help of his two sons and some friends in 1998 and he says it serves as a "guiding light" for seamen and "lost and drifting souls."
Not far down the road is the old Burma Oil refinery. Its massive tanks have a 51?4-million-barrel storage capacity. The operation, now under the ownership of South Riding Point Holdings, is a transshipment facility serving the world's largest crude oil tankers. Its deep berths and proximity to the eastern seaboard of the US, Gulf of Mexico, South American ports and the Panama Canal make it a strategic cog in the wheel of international oil transport.
Fishing and sponging occupied most of the villagers here until the missile base, Burma Oil and Freeport emerged. The spongers had to walk a five-mile path through the pine barrens to the north shore because all the sponging grounds were on the Little Bahama Bank.
Pelican Point is a small seaside community of about 65 people on one of the island's prettiest beaches with several cottages. It bills itself as the "home of beautiful beaches" and is also home to the Breezer Bar & Grill and an annual coconut festival in April. The little community is dominated by St Matthew's Baptist Church and a seaside cemetery just to the east of the town.
West End and adjacent Settlement Point were named for geographical and historical reasons respectively.
McLean's Town has another story. The late Rev Joseph Pinder, eldest statesman in the community, who was "born and growed" at the East End tells this story of how the town was named.
" The town got its name from a first grade school teacher. When he asked the children where they were from each replied with a different answer - McLean's Town, Carrion Crow Harbour, Self Town, Carey Cut, Pinder Town, Rocky Creek, Thomas Town, Crabbing Bay. They'd call it whatever they had a mind to call it. So the teacher, William Bethel, just put down McLean's Town for all of them and the whole area got to be known as McLean's Town."
Rev Pinder retired as pastor of the New Emanuel Baptist Church and died in March, 2003 at 89.
Today McLean's Town is an expanding bonefishing centre and has a lobster processing plant capable of handling 65,000 pounds of lobster a day in season. It also lays claim to being the conch cracking capital of the World, (and who can argue?) and home of an annual conch cracking contest during which participants crack, skin and clean a conch in the blink of an eye.
From the dock at McLean's Town a sometimes bumpy five-mile rental or charter boat ride will take you to Sweeting's Cay where you might see an expert demonstration of conch cracking at the Seaside Fig Tree bar and restaurant. Then the boat can take you past the posh bonefishing lodge and complex of Deep Water Cay ($1,000 a day) and beyond, to the delightful and almost deserted Lightbourne Cay. That's the end of the line, and the ultimate in tranquillity.
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