Rich in history, rambling and rugged in landscape, Bermuda’s second largest park transports its visitors to remembrance of things past.
With some 63.66 acres of open space straddling the western peninsula of St. George’s Island, Ferry Point is one of Bermuda’s largest parks. Because of its position at the end of peaceful Ferry Road and because a section of the Railway Trail running through the park continues along the coastline beyond its boundary, it seems even larger. It also boasts a blend of natural scenery, incorporating the bleak and the picturesque, woodland and craggy open spaces, secluded bays, a lake and the open sea.
On the eastern part, visitors can follow a stretch of Railway Trail to enjoy the maze of woodland trails around Lovers’ Lake, itself a nature reserve within the park. A sunken green pool set in a hollow and ringed with black mangroves, it is surrounded by hillsides of asparagus fern-luminous green in summer, burnt golden in winter-and woodland, including the silver skeletal frames of dead cedar trees and the contrasting cedar saplings springing to life next to them. In springtime, Bermudiana irises line some of the pathways along with other wildflowers, such as Jamaican vervain and speedwell.
Moving west, visitors can stop at the curving Whalebone Bay, the one beach in Bermuda with traces of volcanic ash. Backed by stands of Natal plum, prickly pear and casuarinas, it is a rewarding beach for snorkelling. Damselfish abound there, although according to Martin Thomas’s The Natural History of Bermuda, its seagrass beds are on the decline.
Visitors can stride along the Railway Trail that runs through leafy tunnels, keeping an eye out for giant centipedes, which sometimes use their forty-odd legs to trundle along the pathway. Gazing upward, they can look for hovering American kestrels or visiting egrets. Soon the trail follows the dramatic, rocky coastline, offering panoramic views of the open sea.
Wherever people go, the park is a quiet refuge from the roar of traffic and the bustle of daily commerce and transaction. On summer days, there is little sound but the lapping of rippling water, the whispering of pine trees, the chattering of kiskadees. On stormy winter days, the sounds can be more dramatic: windswept waves crash onto the rocky coastline, and visiting gulls and killdeers make their plaintive calls. Sometimes planes taking off from the neighbouring airport make their presence heard, but no one would call the area bustling.
Yet it wasn’t always the case. Once, much of the region did bustle, thanks to the ferry that gave rise to its name, the Bermuda Railway and, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, soldiers serving in the military. And so the sounds heard there in centuries past must have been livelier altogether.
The Crossing to the “Continent”
At its westernmost tip, Ferry Point Park points a rocky finger and thumb at Coney Island on the other side of the water. Bermuda’s first ferry plied this route, and for 250 years, it provided a crucial means of crossing from St. George’s Island to the main island. In the early days of settlement, a ferryman rowed people across in return for a pound of tobacco per year for every inhabitant over the age of 16. According to Butler’s History of the Bermudas, John Yates, a planter and local councillor, was appointed official ferry keeper in 1622 after “being appointed as Captain of Southampton Fort.” As captain, he was responsible for seeing that the fort was staffed with his own people, ready for possible attacks, and for employing a resident gunner under his own personal command. In return, Yates was granted “the keeping of the ferry at Burnt Point. If the ferry was adequately maintained by him in every way, he was only to receive the benevolence and free gift of the people, the inhabitants of the main island, and nothing more.”
The fort was on Southampton Island, south of Nonsuch Island, which meant the captain would have rowed across what was then Southampton Harbour, now Castle Harbour. The distance away from the crossing point may explain why William Zuill referred to the ferry in his Bermuda Journey as a “constant source of irritation and annoyance due to the casual behaviour of the keeper and the dangerous condition of the ferry boat.” Of course, he probably subcontracted, given his responsibilities at the fort. But either ferryman would probably have negotiated with would-be passengers for a fee.
Henry Wilkinson, in his The Adventurers, writes that “women and children could not pay with cumbersome tobacco and soon the contracting boatman was accused of extortion, fit for ‘Jews and Turks'” “It’s easy to imagine the sounds of altercation between the reluctant ferryman and frustrated passengers. Eventually, Wilkinson explains, the ferry keeper’s profits dwindled so he required subsidization and a cottage dwelling.
The “thumb” of the peninsula is Ferry Island, one and a half acres of land accessed from a small bridge, a useful viewpoint, by the way, for watching fireworms glow 56 minutes after sunset, two to three days after a full moon, from June to October. In fact, this bridge is the site of one of Bermuda’s three earliest wooden bridges marked in a Bermuda chart published in John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles in 1624. (The second was on the main island leading to Coney Island and the third in Somerset.)
On the western side of Ferry Island, an old slipway stretches out to the water. This is a reminder that eventually horses and carriages required a vehicular ferry. Susette Harriet Lloyd, who arrived in 1829, mentions in her Sketches of Bermuda a visit she made to Government House at Mount Langton: “I saw here the model of a floating bridge proposed to be constructed to facilitate the conveyance of carriages and horses across the ferry between Saint George’s and what, by way of distinction, is styled the Continent, being by far the largest portion of connected Land.”
Known as the “horse-ferry,” the barge certainly carried horses and carriages but it is unclear whether horses helped pull it. By 1842, the barge was regularly in use and crucial for carrying mail. In fact, one carriage driver contracted by the Bermuda Post Office to take the mail from Hamilton to St. George’s was William Facey, the only ex-convict allowed to stay in Bermuda, where he ran a successful livery. The ferry was certainly busy. In The Islands of Bermuda, Terry Tucker explains that during this period 700 or 800 persons, 58 horses and 20 carriages were the normal load per day. She also says there was once a waiting room, complete with fireplace, by the slipway. So the sounds of the time would have included the chatter of waiting passengers, the rumble of wheels and the neighing of horses.
Making the crossing could sometimes be perilous, as a newspaper article published in 1848 and quoted in William Zuill’s Bermuda Sampler recounted: “…when attempting to cross in the boat for the Morning Mail, the wind being East, the boat was struck by a heavy sea, which nearly half filled her with water, and caused the warp which leads from one side of the landing to the other, to be jerked out of the hands of the boatmen. They tried to row but were driven through the Ferry and on to the North side.” Fortunately, they were rescued by one Peter Outerbridge and two others and towed into Burchall’s Pond.
In 1871, it must have been a relief that the newly constructed causeway opened, thus eliminating the need for the ferry. For many years, Ferry Island was abandoned. Then in 1899 it briefly became important after the causeway was partially destroyed in a strong gale. With repairs complete, the island was again left to the quiet of wilderness and the call of birds, until December 1931.
From a Railway Carriage
In December 1931, the Hamilton to St. George’s section of the Bermuda Railway was officially opened, the Hamilton to Somerset section having been opened with great fanfare the previous October. Once again, that stretch of water between Coney Island and Ferry Point came into its own as both locations had public-railway stops. Instead of horses neighing, there were train wheels clattering. Today, the concrete plinths that used to support the Coney Island trestle and the Ferry Point swing bridges still rise from the water.
In his book The Bermuda Railway Gone but Not Forgotten!, Colin Pomeroy includes a train driver’s log by William Kitchen, whose father, James, headed the Bermuda Railway. The account conjures what must have been a wonderful experience, taking a trip on the “Old Rattle and Shake,” which would have continued to St. George’s, stopping on its way at the oil docks and Mullet Bay stations.
Just a couple of passengers left us at Coney Island station, then we were running across the long Coney Island Trestle-with breathtaking views in both directions (but especially to the right)-we arrived at the swing bridge with its black ball displayed at the mast head to indicate to shipping that the channel was closed. Ahead of us the bridge keeper appeared, red flag waving until he was happy that we had reduced our speed to just 5 mph and then we enjoyed the hollow metallic rumble of the wheels on steel until we reached dry land again below the Martello Tower on the tip of St. George’s Island.
Sadly, the train proved uneconomic and in 1946 was dismantled. Today, of course, we are left with its chief legacy, the Bermuda Railway Trail, which allows easy access to different parts of the park, including Ferry Point Junction, where a private railway from the Astor estate on Ferry Road linked with the Bermudian train. Inside the building at Astor’s Halt (one of several “privilege” as opposed to “public” stops), remains of the track where the train turned can still be seen.
Because of the ferry’s importance from the first years of Bermuda’s settlement, it is likely that Ferry Road was one of the earliest well-trodden pathways. Lloyd mentions it in Sketches of Bermuda: “The fashionable, indeed the only walk in St George’s is the ferry road; there are some pretty views, and being on the water-side it is pleasantly cool in the evening….” Praise indeed from this young lady, since she was prone to a plaintive tone when faced with discomfort. Of course, the road would later have been essential for horses and carriages disembarking from the ferry and continuing their journey to Mullet Bay Road, the way into St. George’s. It would have been important to keep it in good condition.
After the causeway opened, however, there is evidence from Lady Brassey’s In the Trades, the Tropics and the Roaring Forties that the road fell into neglect. During her stay in Bermuda in 1883, she visited John Bartrum, who, according to Zuill, lived in this district and who was known for his aviaries, taxidermy and collections of stuffed birds and shells he stored in his own museum. She describes her hazardous journey to his cottage:
“…when we reached the place where we had been told to turn off the main road, we could scarcely believe it possible for a carriage to proceed along the rough track. We decided, however, to make the attempt; and one of the party accordingly got out and walked in front while the driver skillfully guided our gay little horse up and down the most extraordinary places, over ploughed fields, between trees, the branches of which met not only over, but across the path, so that they had forcibly to be held back while we passed; sometimes ascending a bank at such an angle that I thought we must inevitably be capsized, at others coming down steep places or over such huge stone, with such jolts, that I thought our springs must break, especially when we came to the margin of the sea close by a ruined cottage, and meandered over the beach and boulders for some distance, the waves on one side of us washing the wheels of the carriage.”
One hopes that the road was in better condition when the ferry was reopened in 1889. By 1908, the area was home to the West Indian Oil Agency Docks (now known as ESSO) and then later to Wright Hall, built in 1911 as a sanatorium but eventually transformed into the Shore Hills Hotel, complete with golf course. In 1931, the Bermuda Biological Station (established in 1903 and now called the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences) moved into Wright Hall. In addition, there was the luxurious Astor estate, constructed in 1934 and almost a village, complete with its own private railway. This 22-acre property is still intact and privately owned by one individual. Between 1931 and 1946, residents living in the area disembarked from the train at Ferry Point to walk or cycle their way home.
In July 1996, tragedy became part of the road’s history. The body of a young Canadian visitor named Rebecca Middleton was found here after she had been raped and murdered. Because of legal complications, her murderer has never been brought to justice.
Two Forts, a Tower, the Military and Ferryman’s Cottage
Tourists and military strategists have one thing in common: they appreciate commanding views. Both Ferry Point and Ferry Island offer these, so it is no surprise that ruined stone forts lie on each of these hills. Burnt Point Fort on Ferry Point was first built sometime in the seventeenth century when the Spanish were deemed the chief enemy. The fort on Ferry Island, above the old slipway, was built somewhere between 1798 and 1827.
However, the fortification most prominent today is Martello Tower, whose construction started in 1823 and which once housed six soldiers on the first floor. “Martello” towers were named after Cape Martella in Corsica, where a small tower housing a garrison of 38 men held out against British naval ships for two days before surrendering. The British were so impressed with the tower’s strategic implications that they copied it, and Martello towers started to appear all over the east and south coasts of England and in other colonies, such as Jamaica.
Today, Bermuda’s Martello, surrounded by a circular ditch, is accessed from the drawbridge; the tower offers magnificent views of Coney Island and Dockyard. Nearby stands its derelict stone gun-powder magazine.
In Bermuda Journey, Zuill says the tower “recalls the plan of [Loyalist] General Donkin during the Revolutionary War by which he intended to hold the colony against a possible invasion by the Americans. Donkin’s scheme was to evacuate the entire population from the mainland to St George’s, knock holes in the tanks, poison the wells and defend St George’s and Saint David’s to the death.” Fortunately, as Zuill dryly points out, the plan never went into action.
In 1846, the War Department bought 30 western acres of St. George’s Island, including Martello Tower, barracks, the magazine, forts and Ferryman’s Cottage, on condition they granted right of way to the ferry dock. Soldiers slept here in tents to isolate them from the ravages of yellow-fever epidemics, one of which started in 1853. Ironically, the area was a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carried the disease, so the soldiers were at even greater risk.
Two cemeteries, owned by the National Trust, are sad reminders of the death of many men. One on a hillside near Whalebone Bay was devoted to the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Queen’s Royal Rifles, who were buried in 1864. In 1912, the same battalion returned, cleared up the cemetery and erected the marble cross still seen today. The other, a walled area near Ferryman’s Cottage with no marked graves, was once used for keeping livestock. Apparently, in 1785 a cockfight was held there. In 1928, the land was sold back to the Bermuda government for £1,090 with the proviso the military cemetery would be maintained.
Ferryman’s Cottage, a picturesque two-storey house at the entrance of the park, was either an expansion of one of the ferryman’s cottages dating back to early 1600s or a barrack dating back to 1781 when the House of Assembly during the Revolutionary War funded quarters for soldiers. Like most houses of the period, it must have been whitewashed, most likely with melted lime burned in a nearby kiln. Just off the Railway Trail, the kiln’s stone structure can still be seen.
Novelist Anthony Trollope, who came to Bermuda in 1859 to inspect Bermuda’s Post Office, was impolite about the island, especially about its houses. He says they gave the “idea of a snow storm. Every house is white, up from the ground to the very point of the roof. Nothing is in so great demand as whitewash. They whitewash their houses incessantly, and always include the roofs. This becomes a nuisance, from the glare it occasions; and is at least painful to the eyes.” But, he concedes patronisingly, it is “cleanly and cheap and no-one can deny that cleanliness and economy are important domestic virtues.”
These days the cottage is not glaringly white; it’s a soft yellow instead. And today the only soldiers left are Portuguese men-of-war jellyfish that float in on stormy seas and tuck into the rocks and stones around the old fort on Ferry Point.