Elbow Reef Lighthouse

IALA Heritage Lighthouse of the Year 2023 Nominee

Location: BAHAMAS - Abaco. Elbow Cay. Hope Town.

Lighthouse Operator: Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, on behalf of, The Bahamas Port Department

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Source: (photos as submitted to accompany nomination form by Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, on behalf of, The Bahamas Port Department 2023; credit Heather Forde-Prosa)

Lighthouse Description and History

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, on behalf of, The Bahamas Port Department 2023)

Between 1836 and 1887, the British Imperial Lighthouse Service (ILS) commissioned 11 manned lightstations to be designed by Trinity House and built as remote outposts in the Bahama Islands. The Elbow Reef Lighthouse at Hope Town began construction in 1862.

Manned and hand-operated continuously since 1863, Elbow Reef is now the only active Bahamian lighthouse to remain hand-wound and kerosene burning. It is the only lighthouse of this kind in the world.

In 1973, oversight of the 11 Bahamian lighthouses passed from the British Imperial Lighthouse Service to The Bahamas Port Department (by which time, two of these Imperial lights had already been decommissioned). Between 1973 and 2012, seven lighthouses were automated leaving only Elbow Reef at Hope Town and San Salvador with keepers and lantern-turning apparatus.

Elbow Reef Lighthouse was saved from automation by the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society (BLPS), which was formed in 1992. By promising the Bahamas Government to take over the maintenance needs of the Lightstation they were able to stop the automation plans.

Under the two decade oversight by BLPS, Elbow Reef was kept in good condition. In August 2005, the Central Bank of the Bahamas introduced the new $10 Banknote, which featured the Elbow Reef Lighthouse on the back of the note as symbol of pride.

In 2013, BLPS reorganized, added more community members, and changed their name to the Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society.

Between 2011-2017, the ERLS restored the lantern of the lighttower, replacing all of the 96 curved weatherglass panels. This project made the lighthouse watertight. Not even two years later, Hurricane Dorian in 2019, affected the area with near category-6 winds for two days. The newly installed weatherglass held firm against this catastrophic event, protecting the interior of the lighttower and its priceless first-order, five bulls-eye Fresnel lens and its lens-turning machinery. Although the tower sustained exterior damage, the hardest hit were the eight outbuildings, (including the two keepers quarters, circa 1863).

In February 2021, the ERLS met with the Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis to report that out of a nearly one million dollar restoration effort, the ERLS had already completed critical repairs to the lighstation from donations. At this time, over $305,452 in cash (plus $70,000 in-kind) had been used in restoration projects from October 2019 – January 2021. With no funds forthcoming from the Bahamas Government, the ERLS continued to fundraise and share their mission to garner financial support for the post-Hurricane Dorian restoration.

In October 2021, the ERLS applied for a U.S. federal grant through the U.S. Embassy in Nassau. During this application process, the ERLS gave the U.S. Embassy team a tour of the lightstation to see how the work had progressed post-Hurricane Dorian and to identify the work still to be completed.

On February 18, 2022, the U.S. Embassy Nassau held a ceremony at the Lightstation with the ERLS and heads of Government to announce that the 2021 Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation ($472,000) was awarded to the ERLS for repairs to the lighthouse.

Reason For Nomination

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society, on behalf of, The Bahamas Port Department 2023)

Intrinsic Heritage Interest of the Lighthouse

Designed and fabricated by Trinity House (the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and Gibraltar), Elbow Reef is the only of the 11 Imperial Lighthouse Service lightstations to have been continuously manned as an active aid to navigation, it has been so throughout its 160 years.

Elbow Reef features a well-preserved, working, first-order five-bullseye Fresnel Lens built by Chance Brothers, who were amongst the earliest glass works to carry out the cylinder process in Europe, and the company became known as “the greatest glass manufacturer in Britain.

Lighthouses are not only beautiful structures; they are timepieces designed as precision instruments. The specific rotating flash pattern of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse identifies the station’s individual position. The flash pattern its bullseyes generate is: “GP FL W 5 EV 15 Sec 120FT 15M” to warn mariners away from the dangerous Elbow Reef. The light is defined on nautical charts as a white light, which flashes five times every 15 seconds, and is 120 ft. above sea level. It can be seen at a distance of 15-20 miles.

At Elbow Reef, (every two hours through the night) the keeper must rewind the lens-turning mechanism by cranking the 700lb iron weights up the tower to enable the lens to turn. The weights are housed in the hollow cavity of the central column within the light tower.

As the last remaining hand-wound, kerosene-burning lighthouse in the world, Elbow Reef has wide ranging historical significance:

  • Lightstation land deed purchased by Queen Victoria
  • Independent of modern GPS technology, the lighthouse is an important operational navigational aid and was the only safety navigational aid seen for miles after Dorian (Sept 11, 2019).
  • The lightstation incentivizes heritage tourism and provides for a more diverse out island community and employment base.
  • The #1 most visited and photographed location in all of Abaco
  • Both the Lighthouse and the Keepers Quarters are original historic buildings. British Lighthouse Engineers built the Keeper’s Quarters. Architectural Plans were drawn pre-1861 and the Quarters were built to spec between 1862-1863
  • Oil Store stone outbuilding (battery) features a radial ceiling and beautifully designed holding tanks.
  • The first tower rebuild was between 1934-1938: The original lantern and lens for the tower, constructed by Wilkins and Co., London, were removed to be replaced with a new lantern by Chance Brothers, U.K. When the West Usk Lighthouse in Wales was decommissioned in 1922, its lantern’s metal pieces and parts were repurposed by the British glass and metal fabricators, Chance Brothers, who in 1927 reused them to construct a “new” 2 story lantern for Gun Cay, near Bimini and Cat Cay on the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Fewer than 10 years later, this new lantern at Gun Cay was removed to be repurposed and installed at Elbow Reef.
  • Other parts of the Gun Cay Lighthouse, were repurposed including the hand-fashioned, fine English Oak stair treads.
  • Victorian Era Metal Work: The safety rail system on the outer perimeter of the gallery deck comprises three steel-curved bars supported by cast-iron stanchions. The stanchions have Victorian decorative floral finials, which also serve as threaded nuts to secure the threaded knobs within the support rods, which attach the stanchion to the deck. There are twelve support stanchions.
  • Victorian ‘Fist and Scroll’ bronze door handle on exterior door upper gallery.
  • The British Empire weathervane on the top of Elbow Reef Lighttower’s metal dome is a beautiful piece of engineering and metalwork designed in the 1800’s and installed in the 1930’s.
  • Mantles for lighting (a hollow wick-like mesh of cloth that sits on the top of the burner) are no longer in production as lighthouses around the world have been electrified. A mantle is what glows brightly when the burner is lit, and the vaporized fuel passes through it. The Coleman Company of Wichita, Kansas has custom-made the mantles for the ERLS at no cost since 2012.


While museums worldwide showcase relics of the past for onlookers to admire and imagine how they worked or what impact they had back in their day, Elbow Reef keeps all of its integral parts moving, working, and shining out today and into the future. Parts do breakdown, and where original fabricators are lost to history, it is ERLS’s job to figure out how to get replacement parts made using modern technology. Among the hundreds of parts sourced, recreated, and fabricated through the ERLS and their partners, none have been more important than those that go into Elbow Reef’s 1910 designed Hood Petroleum Vapor Burners (also known as Incandescent Oil Vapor Lamps). These parts produce the candle power to light the burner to shine out through the five-bullseye lenses.

Past conservation and safety projects

When first built in 1863, the Elbow Reef Lighthouse had a fixed lens that did not turn and a burner that shone a steady white light. By 1936, when the Imperial Lighthouse Service saw the need for a light that ships could more easily identify quickly at sea, the Elbow Reef Lighthouse was given a significant refit using the lens and turning mechanism from the Gun Cay Lighthouse.

In 1953, the Imperial Lighthouse Service determined that the cracks caused by lightning to the brick tower threatened its integrity, and another significant rebuilding process began. Engineers from England’s Trinity House poured concentric concrete rings in steps around the previously smooth tapering brick tower, making it wider. The brick tower is 89 feet high, with 101 steps to the lantern room.

Major recent conservation projects

  • Replacement of weatherglass completed 2017.
  • Stripped interior tower masonry down to bare stucco. Repainted metal staircase, 2018.
  • Repaired metal works including weathervane, canopy, gutters, astragals, floor/walking grates, lantern walls, hand railings, gutter pipes, water buckets, staircase, and door handle, 2021 – 2022
  • Stripped paint off the tower by water-blasting, repaired masonry and repainted the lighthouse with mineral silicate paint to promote longevity in 2022.
  • Currently replacing the slate on two floors inside the tower and repairing the rust on the beams supporting the floors, 2023.

Public Access and Education

The community of Abaco relies on the draw of tourism for their economy. The Elbow Reef Lighthouse is the most visited attraction in Abaco and an asset to the maritime image of tourism for the entire archipelagic nation.

The ERLS preserves the history and integrity of the Elbow Reef Lightstation for the local community, visitors, students, the nation of The Bahamas and the world. They educate the public and hope to become a model, guide, and resource for other island communities in The Bahamas wishing to preserve their lightstations.

A few achievements of the ERLS

  • Convinced the Government not to automate Elbow Reef Lighthouse and became the approved custodians for its upkeep and preservation.
  • Preserve and maintain the lightstation true to historical importance.
  • Invested more than 1 million dollars in the property pre- Hurricane Dorian and invested a further over $700,000 in repairs post Hurricane Dorian which includes the U.S. Embassy, Nassau’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant of $472,000 which commenced in the 4th Quarter of 2022 through to 2023.

The ERLS set up an educational YouTube Channel to educate the public on the importance of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse. Visit link to view all videos. YouTube Channel: https://youtube.com/@elbowreeflighthousesociety8250

In October 2021, the Bahamian Project profiled the work of the ERLS. The Bahamian Project seeks to highlight and capture the character and legacy of Bahamians whose lifestyles and contributions to The Bahamas have helped shape the heart and soul of the nation.

Approximately 100 school children per year visit the lighthouse: 30-40% are local, from the surrounding cays. Visiting schools are given a copy of the 2015 UP Keep’s the Light On! children’s book which book resulted from an ERLS educational literature, art, and history program at Hope Town Primary School in Hope Town. The book was designed to teach children to love, value, understand, and respect their lighthouse as they are the next generation to care for the lightstation. This book which is all about the Elbow Reef Lighthouse was used internationally at the U.S.A.’s Jupiter Lighthouse to inspire a Children’s workshop.

Photos and Diagrams