Gibbs Hill Lighthouse is one of Bermuda’s leading tourist attractions, offering the opportunity for around 80,000 visitors each year to enjoy a panoramic vista from a vantage point 354 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. There’s also a popular tearoom and a gift shop adjacent to the tower. The 1846 tower, one of the oldest cast-iron lighthouses in the world, also still serves as an important aid to navigation, warning mariners of dangerous reefs extending to 16 miles.
In keeping with the light’s vital role in navigation, a powerful first-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1904. The lens served faithfully for nearly a century, revolving on a mercury float system, until it was rudely disrupted by Hurricane Fabian in September 2003.
Fabian, Bermuda’s worst storm in 50 years, belted the island with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour, toppling trees, tearing roofs off homes, and knocking down a large radio tower. At Gibbs Hill, the sturdily-built 133-foot lighthouse weathered the storm with no major damage, but the vibration of the tower caused two gallons of liquid mercury to spill from the lens’s float system.
In Fabian’s aftermath, officials of the Bermuda Department of Marine and Ports determined that the potentially hazardous mercury float system would be replaced by a new bearing system. After three weeks of darkness following the hurricane, four auxiliary lights mounted on the gallery at the top of the tower were put into operation.
Removing the old mercury float system meant that the huge lens had to be temporarily removed from the tower. Lampist Jim Woodward — whose company name is
“The Lighthouse Consultant” — was called in to carry out the bearing project, and he had the assistance of fellow lens experts Jim Dunlap, Kurt Fosburg, and Frank Blaha.
After an initial inspection by Woodward in December 2003, the team went to Bermuda in February 2004 to disassemble and remove the lens. During the two-week operation, the men estimated they covered about three miles during their constant trips up and down the 185 stairs of the lighthouse.
Woodward contracted the Timken Company, a world leader in the field of bearings, to build a new bearing assembly to turn the lens. The huge thrust bearing, weighing 578 pounds with a diameter of nearly five feet, was installed in the bowl that formerly held the mercury. Upper and lower steel rings — custom made for Timken in Indiana — were added to position and support the bearing, and a system to keep the assembly properly lubricated was installed along with a new motor. The lens was then reassembled above the new rotation system.
The extremely complicated and challenging project had some delays, but the lens is now rotating and displaying its white flash every 10 seconds. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2005, repairs were completed to the gallery railings on the tower. This made it again possible for visitors to go outside on the gallery, which had been closed since the 2003 hurricane.
Heidi Cowan owns the popular Lighthouse Tearoom right next to the tower. Three generations of her family served as keepers of the light. When some recent work was being carried out on the lighthouse, an old matchbook and a canister of film were found under a step. Heidi believes the matches belonged to her grandfather, who was never without a pipe in his mouth. So far, she hasn’t figured out how to get the old film developed.
Heidi’s father, W. A. “Toppy” Cowan, is proud of his family’s lighthouse legacy. “After Sir Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman visited the lighthouse,” he recently told the Royal Gazette, “my father kept the signatures and proudly displayed them in our home along with his smoking pipes and a letter from the Speaker of Bermuda’s House of Assembly that commended him for his long and faithful service.”
Toppy also remembers a hurricane when he was a boy that caused the lighthouse to sway. Some of the mercury from the lens float spilled, and Toppy recalls playing with it in his hands — quite a contrast with today’s workers who must wear protective clothing when dealing with the toxic substance.
Visitors to the lighthouse today can learn much about its history from a series of displays inside the tower. For more information on Gibbs Hill Light and the tearoom, see the web site www.bermudalighthouse.com.
This story appeared in the
July 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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