Roatan’s Past thru Photographs
A Photographic Journey Through the Island’s History in French Harbour, West End and West Bay

June 1st, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] Roatan is continuing its fast transformation from a little developed Caribbean island to a booming place attracting international hotel chains and developers.

Unlike its sister islands in the English Caribbean, few cameras had documented the life on Roatan in XIX century and early XX century. It is mostly visitors and visiting sailors, and some well off residents who took photographs of the little known Honduran island. There are no institutions created to preserve the island’s cultural and historical heritage. The few documents, photographs and books about island history are scatters amongst amateur collectors of island history.

Over the last eight years Bay Islands Voice has managed to gather some of old photographs of island. We show some of them here, and compare to recently taken images from the same places for comparison.

West Bay beach looking West (1972, photo courtesy of Bill Brady)

West Bay beach looking West (1972, photo courtesy of Bill Brady)

West Bay beach (2011)

West Bay beach (2011)

West Bay Beach

West Bay was a little visited, unspoiled part of Roatan until 1990s. One of the largest wetlands on the island, the West Bay supported four ecosystems: the reef, beach, marshes and forests on the hills. American John Henley came in 1960s and begun leasing land for 20-40, even 99 years, for development here.

In 1980s two homes were built in West Bay, but the development arrived with the construction of the road that connected West Bay to West End. Wetlands were filled almost completely, most trees were cut down.

The Coxen Hole Central Park and Gordon House (1960s- photo courtesy of William Davidson)

The Coxen Hole Central Park and Gordon House (1960s- photo courtesy of William Davidson)

Skyline of Coxen Hole (2011)

Skyline of Coxen Hole (2011)

Coxen Hole

The “comendancia” building with a wooden porch is visible on the left. A sever line covered with wood planks is visible at the bottom of the photograph. A cannon “from the English time,” says Roland Galindo, is in the center of the park whose upkeep was at that time the responsibility of the military. There are today two cannons in Coxen Hole: one by the clock tower and the other by the Municipal park. In the background a steep embankment of Coconut Garden, what today is a flat area of Roatan Airport is visible.

The house of Arthur Gordon faced the spacious Municipal Park of Coxen Hole. Park’s reen wooden benches were gradually being replaced by concrete benches, walkways. A young almond tree is visible on the right. On the left a base of a statue bust of Honduran President (1932-1954) Tiburcio Carías Andino, founder of the National Party. In 1960s the statue was destroyed in election riots by the Liberal Party demonstrators. A less controversial stone statue of Jose Santos Guardiola was placed in the same spot in 1970s.

Before land “fill” became readily available, Coxen Hole was a “beach side community.” The freight boats moved cargo between La Ceiba, Belize and as far as the US. The 1969 Hurricane Francelia damaged the Roatan Municipal dock severely. It was never repaired since.

In 1960s two supply boats from La Ceiba would link Roatan and La Ceiba on a weekly basis. On Mondays and Fridays supply ship “The Kern” belonging to Hyde family would dock in Coxen Hole before leaving for French Harbour and Oak Ridge. On Thursdays “Edith Mac,” a supply boat belonging to the McNab family would stop by Coxen Hole.

French Harbour Cay

French Harbour (2011)

French Harbour (2011)

Aerial View of French Cay Looking North (1965, photo courtesy of Homer Woods)

Aerial View of French Cay Looking North (1965, photo courtesy of Homer Woods)

A calm, windless day provided an opportunity for a photographer to climb most likely a tall sail mast and preserve an image of French Harbour in 1913. Most people travelled down and up island on their boats. A wooden bridge, no wider than four feet provided the only way for travelling between the Roatan and the Big French Cay.

A 40 foot supply boat is anchored just off the cay. Kern Hyde sees the boat similar to the boat “Active” that ran supplies between mainland Honduras and French Harbour in 1930s. Eventually some other boats began exporting coconuts and bananas to US markets. Coconut houses, warehouses storing coconuts before they were shipped to US, were located on the south side of French Cay.

In early XX century, there were very few families, most of them Black, that lived off the cay in French Harbour: Godfreys, Nixons, Seamores and Campbells.

A 1941 Hurricane hit Roatan and French Harbour especially hard; Hurricane Francelia of 1969; Hurricane Fifi of 1974 and Hurricane Greta of 1978 still serve as reference points in the island’s history.

In 1950s there were perhaps 50 homes on the French Cay point. The small wooden bridge visible on the left side of the photograph served for people living off cay to be able to access the Cay.

On the main island, in the upper left corner of the photograph a dry-dock belonging to Hersel Elwin is visible. Elwin had a first dry-dock in French Harbour where he specialized in building wooden vessels and in 1959 launched “Judy,” the boat commissioned by the Hyde family that serviced the Miami-French Harbour route.

Adventist Church, Methodist Church, Church of God churches are visible in the lower left. The newer Eastern bridge that connects French Harbour now was built in 1998-9.

Coconut Garden Airstrip (1960s. Photo courtesy of Erick Anderson)

Coconut Garden Airstrip (1960s. Photo courtesy of Erick Anderson)

Roatan Airport

A DC-3, likely belonging to LANSA airlines lands on the soaked by rain and pothole ridden airstrip of Roatan airport in 1960s. Acres of reef were filled in with the construction of the Manuel Galvez International Airport. “It used to be one of the most beautiful areas on the island with hundreds of coconut trees,” remembers Sheryl Galindo, owner of ESBIR – Roatan Bilingual School. Migrating birds used to stop at the wetlands located behind the Coconut Garden site.

The waiting palapa provided some shelter from sun and rain as passengers awaited arrival of a plane. Fringing reef behind the landing strip is visible. In late 1800s and early 1900s coconuts from Roatan were exporting en masse to USA, but the lethal Yellowing disease in 1930s and 1990s decimated the island palm trees.

Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport (2011. The runway, 5 m above sea level is 2,240 meters long and 45 meters wide. In 1990, a SAHSA operated Douglas DC-3A overran the runway and ended up in the sea. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but all 32 people on board survived.)

Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport (2011. The runway, 5 m above sea level is 2,240 meters long and 45 meters wide. In 1990, a SAHSA operated Douglas DC-3A overran the runway and ended up in the sea. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but all 32 people on board survived.)

The landmark Brass hill visible in the photograph of the Coconut Garden neighborhood was dynamited to clear path for the airport and to provide gravel for the new and expanded landing strip. Acres of reef south of the airport were filled in to create more room for the landing strip. The availability of inexpensive fill and gravel has created a boom in construction in nearby Coxen Hole. The beach look of Roatan’s main city was transformed in matter of a few months and the town caught up and surpassed French Harbour in prominence. The fill was used to expand water lots and create docks for boats. Amongst many other locations the rock fill was used in Casa Warren, and on the parking lot in front of the Roatan Municipality.

The land the airport uses today stands on properties that used to belong to several island families: Hunts, Colemans, Solomons, Hynds, McBrides, Nelsons, Greens. Graves from Coconut Garden cemetery located on Brass hill site was moved to the Methodist cemetery located by today’s Royal Caribbean cruise ship dock.

As the airport expanded a permanent building was constructed. A hodgepodge of the airport buildings are visible in one of the photos. [/private]

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