Hints of the Past: Where Those Stairs Lead

As I recently wrote, you’ll spot hints of Green Turtle Cay’s history all around. One glimpse into the past can be found right in the center of town. Across from the basketball court is a small pink building, with stone stairs that seem to lead nowhere. It’s the old New Plymouth gaol.

Hints of Green Turtle Cay's Past: Ye Olde Gaol

The story behind the steps? Aylin Zafer, a volunteer at Green Turtle Cay’s public library (more on the library in an upcoming post) recently shared with me the results of some of her research into the history of the gaol building. It was originally built in the 1880s, she says, as the seat of the government for North Abaco, and it housed the commissioner’s office, the police station and of course, the gaol.

Hints of Green Turtle Cay's Past: Ye Olde Gaol

The view of New Plymouth taken from the hill east of town. The government building is the dark-coloured structure at top left. Photo courtesy of the Albert Lowe Museum.

When the government building was constructed, New Plymouth was a bustling metropolis, relatively speaking. It was the fourth largest Bahamian settlement, behind only Nassau, Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Nearly 2,000 people, many involved with wrecking, blockade running, pineapple farming, sponging and turtle fishing, lived in the tiny, prosperous settlement. (For comparison, only 450 or so people live on the cay today.)

By the time the 20th century dawned, however, modern vessels and navigational aids had sunk the lucrative wrecking industry and the demand for Bahamian pineapples had dropped dramatically. Many of the cay’s large and elegant homes sat empty, their occupants having left to find work in Nassau or the U.S.

Then, on September 5, 1932, Green Turtle Cay suffered the full fury of the first recorded Category 5 hurricane in the Bahamas.

Hints of Green Turtle Cay's Past: Ye Olde Gaol

New Plymouth, after the 1932 hurricane. Photo by Jack Mertland Malone, courtesy of his granddaughter, Marysa Malone.

Six New Plymouth residents lost their lives. Most homes and buildings were damaged beyond repair, or leveled all together. The upper floor of the government building was destroyed. All that remained was the two-room gaol, and a set of stairs that now went nowhere.

Hints of Green Turtle Cay's Past: Ye Olde Gaol

All that remained of New Plymouth’s government building — the gaol — can be seen in the background of this photograph by Jack Mertland Malone. Image courtesy of his granddaughter Marysa Malone.

Aylin says that subsequent archaeological digs revealed that the building’s original footprint was much more expansive than the current gaol structure would suggest. And in case you’re wondering, she says the last time a prisoner was held in the gaol was in the 1980s.

Hints of Green Turtle Cay's Past: Ye Olde Gaol

For more about Green Turtle Cay’s hidden history, see my coffee table book, Those Who Stayed.

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