“Sea islands, like ships at sea, are small worlds of their own, remote and romantic.” So pronounced an anonymous writer for Life magazine in an August 1941 article about the American “invasion” of Bermuda. One of those islands, he goes on to mention, few Bermudians today have even heard of, let alone seen. Only the abandoned bridge at the eastern end of the Causeway gives a clue: Long Bird Bridge named after Long Bird Island, some 62 acres of land that was indeed a small world of its own.
Today, you will not see it on any contemporary map: it has completely disappeared. And yet on maps created before 1941–42 it is clearly marked. When Sir George Somers was stranded here in 1609, he spent much of his time exploring the Bermuda archipelago and creating the first Bermuda map. Look at his work and there between Ferry Reach and Castle Harbour are three impressionistic blobs, one larger than the others, all being his rendition of Long Bird Island, though then unnamed. On later, more accurate maps, the blobs merge into a distinctive mass resembling somewhat a tadpole on the verge of becoming a frog and being given the Latin name “Oblongarum Avium Insula” or “The Island of the Long Birds.” By 1682, the English name Long Bird Island is clearly printed on John Seller’s “Bermudas al Summer Islands” map.
So what happened to this tiny island? Before America had officially entered the Second World War in December 1941, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States, had arranged the Lend-Lease agreement in 1940 which led to the building of the US bases in Bermuda in return for fifty destroyers being transferred to the British. It was a mutually advantageous deal since the Nazis appeared to be unstoppable, their victory an inevitability. For the Allies, an American base in Bermuda could not happen soon enough.
As the article in Life explains, it was decided “the main living base with barracks, hospital, et cetera” were to occupy “266 acres on the South Shore of primitive St David’s Island” while “80 odd acres of Coopers, Nonesuch, Castle and other islets” would be used for storage. And the Army Air Base itself? On Long Bird Island. However, there was insufficient land for the whole project, so the US Army and Navy set to work making some more. Soil levelled from island tops and sucked up from Castle Harbour created 200 extra acres. But that gain for Bermuda also meant for some Bermudians a grievous loss. Long Bird’s inhabitants, as well as those of Gracie’s Island and Carter’s Bay and other islands that once dotted the edge of Castle Harbour, must have been traumatised to watch their homes, their whole way of life, devastated by the roaring onslaught of US steam shovels, cranes and dredges. “In a mangrove swamp on Long Bird Island,” says a caption to a photo published in the article, “a huge dragline scoops trees and water into dump trucks preparatory to filling in swamp to make several acres of dry land for the Army base.” And in another caption: “Worse than a hurricane are bulldozers as they clear land for the Army Air Base. Bermudians especially deplore destruction of their famed, unique Bermuda Cedars.”
Long Bird Island soon disappeared for ever, crushed under the old Civil Air Terminal. In the subsequent decades, most living memories of what it looked like also disappeared. However, thanks to several books about Bermuda, some oral history, as well as records and photos held in the Bermuda Archives, we can retrieve something of its history and geography.
- Long Bird Island’s Earliest Inhabitants
- Before Bermuda was settled, Long Bird’s earliest inhabitants included many birds for which the island, like several others in the vicinity, was named. But what kind of birds? Today, the word “long bird” strongly suggests a longtail or white-tailed tropic bird. However, since hunting for food was of paramount importance to the earliest settlers, the birds that would inspire the name were most likely terns and cahows. “Long” would refer to the narrow, elongated western end of the island, rather than a specific bird. In Bermuda Journey, William Zuill explains: “To the early settlers, Long Bird Island was one of several sandy islands called Bird Islands because from May to October they were frequented by terns for breeding purposes. With the coming of autumn the tern disappeared and its place was taken by the cahow (which bred chiefly at Cooper’s Island). This bird nested in December and January—the darkest months of the year—and left in June. Thus, throughout the year these two species gave the Islanders a regular supply of eggs and so tame were the creatures, they were easily taken by hand for cooking. In 1612, three days after Governor Moore arrived in the colony, he visited one of the Bird Islands believed to be Long Bird where he relates, ‘using neither stick nor stone, bone or gun, we took the birds up on our hands so many as we would that everyone of the company would have three some four a peece.’”
It is possible Long Bird Island gained its name when crew and passengers of the Sea Venture were forced to stay in Bermuda for some time after their shipwreck in 1609. As William Strachey in his True Repository writes, “As occasions were offered so we gave titles and names to certain places.” He, too, explains how easy the birds were to catch. By 1615 cahows became almost extinct.
- John Henry Lefroy’s invaluable Memorials of Bermuda reveals that one of Bermuda’s early governors had an interest in leasing Long Bird Island. Included are letters between the Bermuda Company and Governor Captain Woodhouse in which the company asked that the house he wished to build there be constructed in stone rather than timber. Objecting to using stone, arguing it would be too difficult, in 1625 the governor wrote back: “It pleased the honorable company to graunt me a lease of Long Biurd Island upon the conditions mentioned in your letter all of which I accept and need not be bounde to (the house of stone excepted) wich I will not medle with. My intent is to bestowe 3 or 400 lbs. of tobacco in buildinge a convenient house and to manure and plant the Island with such roots and fruits as the contrye yeillds, or as I can otherwise procure, and leaue my labor for posteritye, ….”
The Bermuda Company agreed to this. Perhaps subsequently they wished they had not since Governor Woodhouse proved to be autocratic. At one point, he overturned a jury’s verdict of innocence for Margaret Hayling, a woman accused of stealing a turkey. A second jury found her guilty, while the first was fined and imprisoned. A year later the company declared her guilty verdict unjust, ordering the governor to pay her one hundred pounds of tobacco in compensation. Eventually, Captain Woodhouse was imprisoned by his successor, Captain Philip Bell, after he faced attack from the House of Assembly.
Lefroy also mentions two weavers, James Stirrop and Ralph Wright, who by 1655 were living and growing flax on Long Bird Island and who had a more successful career than Governor Woodhouse. Surveyor Richard Norwood recorded in 1662–63 that the island was in “ye tenure and occupation of James Stirrup and Ralph Wright weavers which they hold of the company, containing 46 acres, 2 roods, 6 perches.” Interestingly, according to E.A. McCallan in Life on Old St. David’s, “In 1675 Elizabeth Jordan of Hamilton Tribe with her parents’ consent, found herself ‘an apprentice to Ralph Wright and his wife Elizabeth, both of Long Bird for 16 years and they agreed to instruct me in housewifery et cetera.’” Perhaps weaving would have been part of her apprenticeship. McCallan also mentions pieces of cloth donated by his family to the St. George’s Historical Society which were possibly woven by Stirrup and Wright. Woven with a floral pattern in two shades of blue against a white background, the cloth can still be seen in the society’s museum today.
But the governor of their time had his own sinister ideas for Long Bird Island, as revealed in a letter of 1655 from the Bermuda Company to Governor Forster, appointed in 1652. “We have taken into what is propounded by you for removing into Long Bird Island the Colony negros when through age are growne past labor and unserviceable. We approve your care to prevent any charge that is like to upon the company.” Perhaps Forster thought Long Bird’s isolation from St. George’s and from the Main made it the ideal dumping ground for frail elderly slaves. True, the company added, “But wee do not thinke that any such negroes should be compelled to remove to Long Bird Island that shall not freely desire the same. But if any among them shall be voluntary minded to go thither wee charge the Governor they should be permitted.” It also offered to “defraye all reasonable charges that shall be incurred thereabouts” for their subsistence. Given the governor’s character, revealed by his zealous persecution of witches, it is likely he had little regard for the slaves’ well-being. Whether any did end their days on Long Bird Island is unclear.
During the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, Long Bird Island continued to be isolated. Terry Tucker mentions in The Islands of Bermuda a “valuable farm containing 24 acres of arable land, dwelling house and out houses with a large area of a collection of seaweed as fertilizer.” Susette Harriet Lloyd describes Long Bird as “merely verdant plateau,” while a drawing by Dr Johnson Savage of St. George’s seen from Long Bird Island has stubby, possibly cedar trees in the foreground. Occasionally, ships visiting St. George’s would stop at Long Bird Island to receive water, as happened in 1794 when Captain Thomas’s ship the Scorpio helped Thomas Hurd with his Bermuda Survey.
However, with the opening of the Swing Bridge and the Causeway in 1871, Long Bird Island instantly became a stepping-stone between the Main and St. George’s. After the Causeway ended at Long Bird, a public road skirting the island led directly onto the Swing Bridge and the road into St. George’s. Long Bird Island’s main road was so level it became popular for cycle and horse racing. Though the Causeway was temporarily out of action after the 1899 hurricane, the days of splendid isolation were over.
Families who lived on Long Bird Island during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included the Burch, Trott, Hayward, Musson and McCallan families. It is thanks to descendants of the Mussons and McCallans that we have some vivid description of what the island looked like. In 1995, Elizabeth Musson Kawaley published The Island That Disappeared, a charming story for children based on her own childhood memories of living there during the 1920s. Through her eyes we see the road white and dusty, though less so after rain, and we see her parents’ little white cottage with green blinds “set back a bit from the road,” “pink geraniums growing in little flower beds close to the house.” We hear the “singers” or cicadas, now gone from Bermuda, see her garden of carrots and tomatoes and lily fields. We understand there are no shops on the island but “the grocer delivers her order every Saturday” and a bread cart passes by every morning with fresh bread and cakes from the bakery in Hamilton. This is what the Causeway made possible. We also understand there’s no running water when the mother dips water from the tank for a drink for the children—and no indoor lavatories either. We follow the children down a slight slope to a little beach where they swim every day at high tide. “When the tide is low, we can walk way out,” says one of them. “We call it the cricket field cause it’s covered with grass.” But what stands out in this description is something that cannot be done in Bermuda today: “Dad goes out there and gets lots of mussels and scallops.”
Another path takes the children down to a mangrove swamp. “How different this is from the rest of the island! There is a real jungle of trees with their roots growing in the shallow water and their branches bending downward and putting out their own roots so that after a time they actually moved forward. Someone,” Kawayley writes aptly, “has described them as trees that walk.” Quail or bobwhites are also mentioned, as are cedars, a lily field and a centipede. The cure for a centipede bite? Laundry blue.
Yet another stroll takes the children onto the road leading to the Causeway. One section is “more like a regular bridge. There are wooden planks underfoot and with only wooden rails between you and the choppy sea below, you step very carefully.” Oral history confirms this. Bonnie Exell remembers her grandmother, née Olive Louise McCallan but known as Kitty, telling her about this bridge at the western end of Long Bird Island. “Nana told me that she used to go to the bridge to wait for her brothers and sisters to come home from the Lyceum School on Wilkinson Avenue [where the centre for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is today]. She would never go onto the bridge itself because it was made of big wooden planks with spaces in between and all the water would rush through.”
Kitty, born in 1916, spent the early years of her childhood on Long Bird Island on a farm called Melrose where her father grew parsley for export to North America’s eastern seaboard. This may be the property mentioned by Tucker. Whatever the case, it is clearly marked on the A.J. Savage map of 1898–1899. The 1904 will of Kitty’s grandfather, William Mercer Campbell McCallan, in which he leaves parcels of land to members of his family, is also interesting for its physical description of his property and its boundaries which consist of water on “the Waters of the Reach” and land farmed by H. James and C. Vinsent. The property includes a “little bay on the Castle Harbour side, a quarry and a little hut and a Fruit Garden” which could have been citrus, though Exell remembers being told he grew apples, unusual for Bermuda. There are also references to small fields used to grow arrowroot.
Two stipulations about protecting cedar trees are particularly poignant given their fate in 1941.The will states that no “cedar or any other trees be removed between the planting land and the Sea Shore.” While a postscript says: “While my Wife shall have the property under her control for herself and the children’s maintenance, she is not to allow any trees to be cut except rotten wood, Garden Sage, Mangrove and for Fire Wood.”
The East Ender magazine of 1986 features gentleman farmer and fisherman Augustus Edric “Skipper” Spurling who lived on and owned half the eastern end of Long Bird Island well before the outbreak of the war. His property was “very wooded” and was situated between Castle Harbour and Ferry Reach. “There was a large comfortable wooden cottage and a horse stable large enough for a dozen horses.” Skipper sold it to a man from Ferry Reach before Long Bird Island was submerged. He was, the article goes on to say, revealing a skill admired at the time, “especially well liked by the St. David’s islanders because he was one of the few men in St. George’s that could get in a punt and swim an animal, a cow or horse, shore to shore from St. George’s to St. David’s.”
Two more documents held in the Bermuda Archives take us to the island’s imminent obliteration in 1941. One tells us that six owners of land in St. David’s and on Long Bird Island were in dispute with the War Office over the value of their land required for the land lease. They include two other members of the McCallan family, as well as William Blackburn Smith who bought Melrose from Olive’s parents and who by 1941 had 19.5 acres including 6 acres of arable land, an extensive mangrove swamp and 9700 feet of waterfront on Long Bird. He considered the total value to be £25,000 rather than the £14,415 and 8 shillings the War Office was offering. In his own description it’s clear that he had a vision for Long Bird Island as another Tucker’s Town. He, too, valued the cedars, saying “….no trees have been cut by me.” But the land wasn’t so important for farming as it was for development. Pointing out that the main road leading to Saint George’s passed directly through it, he said, “This property has nearly two miles of waterfront, with one Long Beach and many smaller ones on the Castle Harbour side, also several on the Reach side. All the waterfront is particularly suited to cottage development, each cottage with its own waterfront. There is ample room for 40 cottages each with at least 200 feet of waterfront… Waterfront of this kind is most difficult to obtain in these islands and therefore is very expensive and most valuable as far as revenue is concerned.”
The document reveals he was already fulfilling his vision: “In order to start development, I was in treaty for the sale of several lots and had agreed to convey to miss Katherine Eldon of Chicago a lot of about 1/3 an acre for £1200 which is about equivalent to £900 an acre. This portion has no beach. I have made many enquiries but cannot find any waterfront property to replace this at even £100 an acre.” The beaches he already owned on the south side were “good but at a small cost could be made exceptionally good i.e. by building several concrete spurs and pumping up sand.”
Ironically, given the fate of the land, he aptly argues, “the fact that at least 24 acres of marshland on the Reach side, which is above water at three quarter to half tide, and a shoal of shelf on Castle Harbour side, of many more acres [probably 80 or 100] which is partly awash at low tide, is unquestionably a valuable asset as far as enlargement and reclamation is concerned and this value is now being demonstrated.”
After Long Bird Island was decimated and the airport completed, Zuill reflected in Bermuda Journey on destiny: “The wheel of fate has turned a full but wider circle. Long Bird Island has undergone a strange metamorphosis, and the 17th century nesting place of tern and cahow has become a 20th century haven for man-made birds—liberators, skymasters, fortresses, Dakota’s. Indeed, there is a fascinating parallel in the curious fortune which has restored this tiny island to its prehistoric purpose.”
Today, this parallel is jarring. However, he was writing in 1946, only months after the end of a hard-won war during which Bermuda played a vital part. In addition, a free airport was a huge benefit for a small island determined to promote tourism. No wonder he wrote optimistically. But in 2022, with all its dire predictions about the adverse effects of climate change, we could see what happened to Long Bird Island as a warning of what not to do in the future.
- Long Bird House
- One house managed to escape destruction in 1941 and that was Long Bird House, built by American William Marcus Greve, who purchased the eastern half of Long Bird Island in 1939, which included at least 11 acres of arable land. He was a millionaire who had been involved with building the American Empire State Building. According to the National Trust’s Hamilton Parish, he wanted a house to rival Vincent Astor’s estate on Ferry Reach (now the Bierman estate) which had been built in 1933. He began building a house, complete with stables, a model dairy farm and citrus orchard. A million-gallon tank, necessary to support his farming plans, was added to the property with a massive greenhouse being built on top of its roof. William Blackburn Smith saw this project as being advantageous to his own development plans because as he wrote, it removed “the possibility of the sale of any portion to unsuitable tenants or purchases and is even more controllable than the neighbouring Mid-Ocean Club property.”
Like Smith, Greve, who at this time had Lichtenstein citizenship, had to fight the War Office and the Arbitration Commission over fair recompense for the land, buildings and the tools. As his wife, Mary, argued, they had employed eighty Bermudians at a time when unemployment was high. In the end, he received about $270,000 compensation. The American military took over the house, completing it and directing Kindley Field’s first air traffic control tower on its roof. The stables were converted into quarters for unmarried officers, who dubbed them the Hotel de Gink after self-service hotels for homeless men in the US. The house itself became the home of the base commander. After the Americans left, Long Bird House was demolished in 1997 to conform to international civil airport regulations.