Grand Turk is the historical and political centre of the Turks and Caicos, and the second most populated island in the country after Providenciales.
Originally founded by settlers from Bermuda as a site for sea salt production in 1681, Cockburn Town on Grand Turk has been the official capital of the country since 1766. Many of the country's main government offices, such as the Supreme Court and Governor's Residence can be found here.
Several important historic events have taken place around this small island, including being the likely spot of Columbus's first landfall in the New World, and the first land American astronaut John Glenn stepped foot on after orbiting Earth in 1962.
The first inhabitants that there is evidence of were the Tainos. It is believed that these peoples migrated north up through the Caribbean sometime around the year 700 AD. Grand Turk never had the populations of Tainos that Middle Caicos and East Caicos did, but did support some small fishing communities.
Grand Turk is also rumoured to Christopher Columbus’s first point of landfall in the New World. The case is strong. Of the three main candidate islands, Grand Turk offers the best match of terrain to Columbus’s account of a “bean-shaped” island with central ponds..
Not long into the 1500s, the Tainos populations disappeared due to disease and slavery and the Turks and Caicos remained largely uninhabited for about a century. During this period, loose control passed between pirates, the Spanish, French and British.
Sea salt production is what initially put Grand Turk on the map. Many islands in the Turks and Caicos have shallow salt water ponds, and these ponds, occasionally replenished by abnormally high tides, would naturally produce sea salt due to evaporation.
Sometime near the end of the 1600s, British colonials from Bermuda saw the potential of the ponds and the salt industry began. The ponds were developed into “salinas”, with low stone dividing walls splitting the brine into different stages of salinity. Windmill pumps and gates controlled ocean water input and movement.
Production peaked at the start of the 1900s, when over 227 acres (92 hectares) of salinas was being utilised. Grand Turk was the base of export in the country, and at the height of production, about two million bushels of salt was being shipped annually.
The capital of the Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town, formed naturally over the centuries.
The modern era saw a shift in the economy on Grand Turk. The local salt industry was dying due to the inefficiencies of the small scale of production, and the economic outlook wasn’t promising.
In the 1950s, Grand Turk saw a bit of increased activity with the construction of two US bases. On the northern coast and near to the lighthouse lies the ruins of Grand Turk's U.S. Navy NAVFAC 104 Base. This base was used for their Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) programme during the Cold War.
Also built at around the same time was South Base, the US Air Force missile tracking station and airport. South Base operated for a few decades until it was decommissioned in 1983. The runway became the Grand Turk JAGS McCartney International Airport (GDT), and many adjacent buildings were repurposed for local government use.
After orbiting the Earth in 1962, Colonel John Glenn’s capsule touched down in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Turks and Caicos. After being picked up by the American destroyer USS Noa, John Glenn’s first step on dry land took place on Grand Turk.
The most famous landmark in the Turks and Caicos is the Grand Turk Lighthouse. The only lighthouse in the country, it was prefabricated in England and built in 1852.
It was initially set up to burn whale oil for light, but over time was converted to kerosene, and finally, electricity in 1971. The lighthouse is no longer operational, although the surrounding grounds are open to the public.
Another site for the historically inclined, the Turks and Caicos National Museum is located on historic Front Street. There’s a wealth of fascinating displays here, including a 500-800 year-old Lucayan duho, (a ceremonial chair), and artefacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck, which was the oldest European shipwreck excavated in the Western Hemisphere.
Many of the older buildings on Grand Turk reflect the colonial British-Bermudian heritage, with their cut stone block and smooth stucco finish. This architecture is best seen on Front Street and Duke Street in old Cockburn Town.
Donkeys, and horses, first introduced in the salt industry days as a means of transportation, can still be seen roaming freely.
Grand Turk is also known for having excellent diving and offshore snorkelling, with pristine and sheer wall sites defining the underwater experience. In many places, the wall can drop from 30 feet (9.1 metres) to over 7000 feet (2134 metres).
The Columbus Landfall National Park, which marks the presumed landfall site of Christopher Columbus, is located on the western coast of the island. Many beautiful beaches are found in this protected area, including Cockburn Town Beach, Governor's Beach, and the Cruise Center Beach.
A relatively recent addition to Grand Turk is the Grand Turk Cruise Center on the southern end of the island. This facility was opened in 2006 by Carnival Cruise Lines as a mooring site for ocean liners and as a base of operations for cruise ship visitors. Many small jewellery and gift shops, restaurants, bars and attractions are located here, along with swimming pools for cruise ship guests.