Salt Cay is a tiny, flat, triangular island measuring about two miles on a side and given over mostly to salinas was once home to several hundred people, all supported by the salt industry.
It is known that the Spanish explorer Ponce de León came to the Islands in 1512, when they were inhabited by Arawak Indians. The Spanish took away the Arawaks to use for slave labour and left the islands uninhabited. Bermudians came to the islands in the 17th century and established what was to become the principal industry for the next 300 years - the production of salt from brine. The islands came under British rule in 1766. It was Turks & Caicos salt that George Washington needed to preserve the food for his army during the Revolutionary War and that the Canadian and American fishing fleets used to salt down their catches.
As late as the 1920s and 1930s, before a combination of competition, costs, mismanagement, and the lack of a deep-water harbor brought the salt industry in the Turks & Caicos to an end, as many as half a dozen sailing ships at a time would be anchored off Salt Cay awaiting cargo. The salt had to be ferried out to them over shallow water.
Among the sailing ship captains was a man named James Buffett. The skipper of the five-masted barkentine Chicamauga, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, was the grandfather of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. In his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, Buffett quotes his father, who spent much of his child-hood aboard the Chicamauga and remembered Salt Cay as the place he had some of the best times of his life. While salt was being loaded onto the ship, bound for New Orleans, the six-year-old boy who would grow up to be Jimmy’s father, would "take off with a group of local kids and…chase flamingos and catch lobsters from the beach."
One can still visit the imposing White House, built by Alexander Harriott, on Victoria Street. It is of Bermudian style influence, constructed of stone and stucco and sports an ancient Bermudian stone roof. Amidst a complex of single story stone and stucco utility buildings with ancient faded signs painted on them, and a weathered gray, wooden ruin known as the "Payroll house/store" alongside it, the White House stands symbolically next to the last remaining boat house and salt shed on Salt Cay. Built half in and half out of the water, several handbuilt boats still shelter here after a day of fishing. The slanted loft above this boat house was intentionally built to allow dripping burlap bags of salt to drain down through the slatted floor. Remnants of old, hand hewn wooden paddles and salt raking paraphernalia can still be spotted in its corners. Though built by the same man and of approximately the same size, the White House varies greatly in style from the Brown House.
A short walk directly behind this imposing landmark provides a glimpse at what used to be one of the central salt ports of its day. The remains of a canal and jetty which were once used as a dock are crumbling into the sea, but still speak of a bustling past when schooners and their "lighter" boats landed here.
The Brown House, also built by shipwright-turned-salt baron, Alexander Harriott, in 1832, is another of the historic salt plantation homes on Salt Cay. It is a rare example of mortise- and tenon-joined, rough-hewn yellow cypress planking construction which has miraculously defied almost two centuries of hurricanes, termites and several decades of neglect. It sits in the center of Balfourtown.
The Dunscombe Point Millworks is located on lovely, treed lot is where the remains of an old stone mill still stand. There is a small man-made lagoon and a tiny sandy beach here, as well as the scattered remains of a water wheel and jetty.
Taylor Hill, where during the mid to late 1800s, a whale hunting company operated. From the crest of this hill--which is 59 feet above sea level--is the most breathtaking view of the entire island and its surrounding seas. There are mounds of rocks up here that many call "mysterious." As a matter of fact, a local islander named Oswaldo, who was born and raised on Salt Cay and prides himself as a local historian, notes with a chuckle that there is "nothing at all mysterious about them!" He claims that these are merely the result of previous landowners' efforts to clear the property for plantings and to make more stone walls.
Less than 200 years ago, the main Salinas were a plot of land where corn, cotton and tobacco were grown! The size of this waterway is impressive--especially when one considers the effort put into laying all the stone works and irrigation canals, called "lollies". The salinas are dotted with the remains of nine original windmills, which were used to push saltwater into the drying pans. Although decades of storms and neglect have rendered them inoperable, they now provide roosting spots for ospreys and egrets.
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