South of Grand Turk are several small islands, or Cays, as they are called here. 'Cay' is pronounced the same as 'Key'. I have also heard the word 'quay' pronounced the same as 'key'. The country is the Turks and Caicos, so I guess Salt Cay is a 'Turks' island since its on that side of the Columbus Passage. Anyhow, we spent a few days on Salt Cay earlier this year staying with Jim and Sharon Schaeffer at their Windmills Plantation. I have posted a bunch of photos of their place in here earlier.
Salt Cay is the least inhabited island in the TCI. I think it's also the smallest one with any discernible population. There's not much there. A small sort of town spread out along a road where the old Bermudian salt merchants kept facilities back in the 1900s. I read that salt was basically the only real export from the TCI from the late 1600s until the early 1960s. This is more or less the "main drag" of Salt Cay. The old salt merchants houses were on the left side of the road with their own little docks. On the right side are the salt drying pens or salinas:
The salinas are still there in several areas on the island. Back in the day they would let the tide flood them then close gates to trap the water in while the tide fell. They had windmills that pumped the water from one pen to another so that the first one was ready to take on another load of seawater when the tide rose again. They would keep pumping the seawater into pens to let the sun evaporate the water out of it.
The old trails are still there running along the walls between the pens. Some of the older ones were built by slaves the Bermudians brought with them.
There was a famous story written by one slave woman who was shipped here to work in the salt pens separating her from her family back in the mid-1800s, I think. Her story was used by the abolitionists in the UK to demonstrate how bad slavery could be.
(I am adding a link to a more modern article that goes into a lot more detail about Salt Cay here).
There are ruins scattered here and there on the island. Some of them are from around 1700. There are no bronze plaques, no tour guides, no historical markers. Things just slowly fall down and become overgrown. We were told that the population of the island is now down to 57 people. I think we met most of them. They get together at a little place on the beach called the Green Flash cafe in the evenings to eat fried chicken and drink beer. Its outdoor tables on the water by the little harbor. The Salt Cay dive operation is there. Those are good guys, too.
We were told this was the government center back when the island was busy making salt. The fenced yard was to hold cattle they raised for food to supplement the fish. I almost fell through the floor of this place walking around inside it. Some of the craftsmanship is superb. Mortise and tenon joints, pegs hammered into holes in huge beams. The low structure to the right is a cistern to store rain water. The front yard of the place is fallen to ruin, like everything else, but it's not hard to imagine what it was like during its heyday back when salt was rare and valuable to Europe:
You see scrawny cattle and mules descended from the imported animals from long ago. They are roaming loose here and there on the island. If you look at the photos of Windmills posted earlier you can see that the walkways around the little hotel are surrounded by fences. They are not to keep visitors in; the fences are to keep the cattle and mules out of the rooms. They will roam inside an open door for water or to munch on a book.
One of the old salt family's houses is being restored, slowly. Mostly funded by private donations. The cellars of these were once filled with salt, waiting to be loaded on ships. The White House (this one) was owned by one family for generations. They built the original structure from the timbers from the boat that they sailed here. Again, some of the old craftsmanship is pretty amazingly good. Next time, I will take more photos. I promise. I know there are some fellow woodworkers out there besides me. Boat people are like that. At least some of you who are as ancient as I am must appreciate proper joinery. Especially made in the days before power tools. It still amazes me to see these hand hewn and cut joints still holding together after over 200 years of tropical exposure and hurricanes.
Here's another view of the salt storage area of that old house. The fresh cinder blocks and square lumber are new - part of the restoration. The original cellar walls are native limestone blocks cut by hand from an old quarry on the island. The old rounded horizontal beam is original one of the masts from the ship that brought the family from Bermuda. It's been scraped and gashed by generations of black men with shovels moving tons of sea salt from the salinas into the storage through those doors in the wall, then out again when a ship was tied up outside, just a few yards from here. They would have been done offloading food and supplies and then would load up with salt for the long trip back to Europe under sail.
One shovel at a time, one mule cart at a time, one day at a time..one hard life at a time.
Long way from a relaxing Pina Colada at the beach at Club Med,huh?
Not much is left of the old windmills that pumped the increasingly salty water from salina to salina. Eventually the brine would end up in a very shallow one, all the water evaporated by the sun, and eventually become just a solid layer of salt crystals. The workers would scoop them up with shovels, load them into carts, and the donkeys would pull the carts along those narrow paths to the salt cellars.
These days ospreys nest on the old windmills:
And while the currently occupied houses on Salt Cay are still home to families that have been here for generations, they're having a problem keeping the young here. There's just nothing to do on Salt Cay. Basically, no future other than for a very, very few tourist oriented places like Windmills, the diving operations and some similar establishments. The streets are pretty quiet these days.
I think our borrowed golf cart ( thanks Jim) was the only thing moving.
Well, that and the donkey.