Salt Cay is the second largest island in the Turks Islands group (Grand Turk being larger), and the smallest of the main inhabited islands in the Turks and Caicos at only 2.6 square miles (6.7 sq km). It’s found in the south-eastern region of the country.
Salt Cay get its name from its past with sea salt production.
Around 1673, British Colonials from Bermuda saw the potential of the shallow and landlocked ponds on many of the islands in the Turks and Caicos. At the time, salt was a valuable essential used for food preservation and commanded a high price.
Although the early visitors simply raked the naturally-occurring salt, it became obvious that production could be increased and the complex system of divided ponds, gates, channels and pumps was born.
These original settlers founded Balfour Town, the main settlement on the island.
Salt production continued and was the main source of income to the economy of the island for about 250 years. Several factors led to the industry’s demise in the early 1930's, but inefficiencies of the small scale of production was what ultimately caused the local industry to end.
The United States was the main destination of the country’s salt exports, even going back as far as the American Revolutionary War, when, despite the fact that Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands were under the jurisdiction of Britain, salt was shipped to George Washington’s forces.
Salt Cay saw a population high of around 700 in the 1700's and 1800's. This number has been declining to this day. Many residents moved on to other islands in the Turks and Caicos or the Bahamas.
During World War II in 1941, a Hollywood film titled Bahama Passage was shot almost entirely on this island, and it starred Madeleine Carroll (known for her role in 39 Steps) and Stirling Hayden (known for roles in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather).
This movie was filmed during the last era of salt production, and the film gives a last glimpse at the operating salt industry. The windmills, gates, and locks were still functioning, and piles of salt ready for export stood.
Today, Salt Cay is truly an example of an 'island time forgot'. Donkeys, the ancestors of which used to pull carts, now roam freely all over the island. There are no paved roads and very few cars. Remnants of the salt salinas and windmill foundations remain. The island is currently home to about 100 people, much of whom are elderly.
Salt Cay is an excellent location for both diving and whale watching. Recent campaigns have succeeded in getting Salt Cay nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, which would make it the only such site in the Turks and Caicos Islands.