Culebrita Lighthouse sits on a lonely island off the eastern end of Puerto Rico. It took over four years to construct under Spanish oversight. It first shone for mariners in February 1886.
A gentleman in Puerto Rico sent me this difficult but heartwarming story of the construction of Culebrita Lighthouse. It conveys how isolated the place is and how hard the lighthouse was to build. (I regret his name has been lost. The story was passed from person to person years ago and finally to me in the late 1990s.)
|In its day, the lighthouse was beautiful and well-kept. That would change after automation. (Photo from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's files.)|
At the time that some industrialists from the Capital were negotiating the purchase or lease of the island of Culebra, which at the time did not even had an official name, the Spanish Crown was in the process of approving the construction of a brick and stone lighthouse on top of a mountain in the small island east of the island of Culebra that, would serve as navigational aid to the boats and vessels in the area, and at the same time, serve as an observation post to all navigable waters between this island and the Danish island of St. Thomas.
By some documents that we have read and by the accounts of some of the people that in their youth worked in the construction of the lighthouse, we know that the lighthouse went into service 1874. Of the numerous incidents, many dramatic and others picturesque, that happened during the course of the project we shall mention a few of them. After the construction of a wooden dock in the south shore of island, the workers started right away to build a long and twisted trail up the steep hill with picks and shovels, in order to get to the top of the mountain where the lighthouse was to be built. All the materials as well as all the machinery had to be transported through the steep and rustic trail in hand borrows and in the shoulders of the workers, since it was not possible the use of carts in such a steep and pronounce slope. Soon after the transportation of materials had started, half of the working force had left.
There were not many of the workers that had been brought up from Vieques and the Capital, that did no have their shoulders peeled, theirs hands bruised, and many sores in their bodies caused by the many stings from the mosquitoes, that constantly attacked them day and night Alarmed by the situation, the engineer in charge of the project urgently requested from his superiors in the Capital, the shipment of mules and horses for transporting the material from the dock to the work site. The following week arrived from San Juan a galleon with five beautiful donkeys, male and females, with their corresponding food and outfits. Because the donkeys were of different sex, some imported from Spain, others raised in the Province, it was rare not see he baskets full of material on the ground, material rolling down the hill, and wholesale kicking and biting. Occasionally a peculiar situation used to come up, for a female donkey to work without resistance, it had to be paired with a male donkey at the beginning of the working day.
One rainy day, halfway the steep hillside a fiery scuffle began between two male donkeys imported from Spain and soon one them would careen of the cliff with the baskets full of bricks. It is sad to say that the accident was a total loss for the project. Because the terrain so rugged, nothing could save. At the start of the construction of the lighthouse tower the workers started to protest, threatening to walk out of the job if they were provided with shoes to protect themselves from the irritating effects of the hydraulic lime that in great quantities they had to used to plaster the bricks. The engineer in charge of the job, no sooner would he calmed exalted spirits of the protestant workers by promising a shipment of shoes suitable for the kind of work. A few days later, a shipment arrived in the same galleon that months before had brought the donkeys, and among other cargo, there were some wooden boxes containing the shoes.
Soon the happy and jubilant workers were mum in silence when they saw that instead of shoes they received sandals.
These were simple slippers made of white canvas with fiber soles; the cheapest shoeing made in Spain. If in those times, it was said to a person of certain social status that he could not have being very high class for having used sandals in his youth, that person would have been profoundly insulted and humiliated. This kind of shoeing was very popular in Spain and in the colonies of the new world.
In the end, among insults and laughter, and notwithstanding the improprieties made by the old engineer to his superiors in the Capital, because of those ridicule savings, all the workers willingly put on the cheap and plebeian sandals.
The cook of the project, known as el Gallego (from Galicia), used to buy fresh fish from the Danish fishing boats that frequently came to the island. Besides the fresh fish, the Danish would sell to the cook a variety of other European products imported through the neighboring island of St. Thomas, that as we have said, had been a free port for many years.
On a certain morning of a regular working day, all the workers on the project including the cook, had not shown to work because they were feeling sick. Fearing that it could be poisoning in mass because of food poison or contaminated water, the engineer was hastily investigating the source of such an alarming situation.
Shortly thereafter he discovered, that truly, these men were sick to work at daybreak, not because of what he had suspected, but because of a drunken feast the night before. During the night they had drunk a two- and one-half gallon
jug of Jamaican rum that they had bought the day before from one of the Danish boats.
Another one of this picturesque story or anecdote, told by some of the people that worked in the lighthouse, originated when the galleon that was engaged for the transportation of materials, water and food supplies from the Capital, was forced to stay in port for many days because of bad weather.
In the meantime, the food supply in the island was dwindling considerably. When one morning the cook announced that the only food left in the locker was a half bag of chickpeas and two gallons of olive oil, the alarmed man went running to the engineer’s tent to tell him the seriousness of the situation. With much aplomb, the old colonel assured the men that nobody would of hunger, because they still had the four donkeys that months before they received from the Capital. My God! Eat donkey meat! Everybody exclaimed in unison. When the group became more excited, the engineer trimming his bulky mustache, stepped forward and in a very grave tone, would exhorted the men to pray to God, that the day would not come that they would have to eat even the skin of four donkeys.
After hearing the admonition from the engineer, all would become mum in silence, some would cross themselves, they would mumble a prayer.
The next morning when the cook was making preparations to sacrifice the youngest and fattest of the donkeys, one of the masons working on a platform scream with all the force in his lungs that the expected galleon was remounting Soldier Point at that moment. It was such a happy moment among the workers to see the ship, that all emotional and jubilant embrace each other.
All the workers were there together, except the cook that when he saw the ship went in haste to the animal pen to caress and to apologize to the donkey he had decided to sacrifice that morning. Thank God! would later say the cook for not having to killed the poor animal to feed a bunch of lambs more stupid than the poor donkeys. At last, and after many disappointments the project had been finished by the end of 1874. (Editor: actually 1886) The majestic red building, with an imposing tower in the center, a cistern to collect rainwater from the roof, and two convenient apartments for two light keepers with their families, became enclaved [sic] at the top of the mountain for centuries to come.
In times of Spain, the lighthouse keepers were required to lookout with a high-power telescope, the surroundings around a rocky promontory known as El Bergantín. Many years before the lighthouse had been built, English warships started to use the rocky cliff for naval target practice. When Spain and Denmark protested such action before he International Tribunal at Le Hague, Britain immediately suspended the shelling practice.
(Note: I included my version this story in Lightkeepers Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses. Find it on Amazon.)
|This is Culebrita Lighthouse in 1951, when it still had resident lightkeepers. (Photo from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's files.)|
Today, Culebrita Lighthouse is a shambles and is in danger of being lost forever. Hurricanes have punished it year after year, especially hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn. Windows, doors, floors, and the cupola have been torn away by storms. With no one on site to care for it, slowly it deteriorates. It has not been in service since 1975. Efforts to restore and care for it have failed. This lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. It would be such a shame to lose it entirely.
Color photos are from Wikimedia Commons, Lighthouse Friends, and The Lighthouse People.