Treetop outpost was used to spy U-boats

Dropping into place among the treetops at the Fort George site, the non-descript wooden building betrays little of its storied history. 

A tree-house that was used by the home guard during World War II to monitor German U-boat activity off the coast of the Cayman Islands has been restored, as part of a $50,000 upgrade of the historic site in George Town. 

Originally, the building, first put in place in 1942, would have sat in the upper branches of a large silk cotton tree – one of six outposts around Grand Cayman where guards using powerful binoculars scanned the horizon searching for the periscopes of enemy submarines. 

The replica, which includes elements of the original building, is attached to a Caribbean Utilities Company power pole, though the surrounding foliage of pop-nut, sea grape and silver buttonwood trees give the impression of camouflage it would have enjoyed during the war. 

Fort George itself dates back to the 1700s and was once used to protect the island from Spanish marauders. 

It survived centuries of history, sometimes fraught with conflict, only to meet its demise at the hands of a landowner who bulldozed it amid a development dispute in the 1970s, said Denise Bodden, of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. 

The ruins of the fort, including its original cannons, are a tourist attraction today. For Ms Bodden, the National Trust’s historic education and development manager, the renovation of the site, funded by Walker’s charitable trust, is the realisation of a dream. 

“I choked up for a minute when the building was dropping into place,” she said. 

The project, which also includes the construction of a large mural and the addition of native plants and interpretive signage, is a success story. But Ms Bodden warns the recent history of the site shows how difficult it is for the National Trust to protect historic buildings under existing legislation. 

The organisation has to buy up any buildings it feels should be protected to prevent them from potentially being destroyed or damaged by development. 

The National Trust maintains a list of several hundred historic buildings in the Cayman Islands. It owns less than 10 per cent of those and has no power to prevent private owners from doing as they wish with the rest. 

“The sad thing is that people can continue to destroy or demolish buildings of significance and there is nothing in law to force them to think twice about it. 

“I am not saying that every one can be saved, but we have to at least think about the potential impact on our heritage.” 

Both the UK and the US have legislation protecting historic buildings from development, even if they are privately owned. 

Ms Bodden said similar legislation here would be cheaper and more efficient than the National Trust and government buying up all the islands’ historic sites. 

“We need to develop a healthier and more constructive attitude to preserving the unique Cayman qualities and the unique Cayman experience,” she said. 

She added thanks to the Walker’s charitable trust, volunteers Andy and Sue Gibb and the team of volunteer architects, engineers and labourers that have worked on the Fort George project. 

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Workers put a replica of a World War II-era wooden outpost into position among the treetops at the waterfront in George Town, Grand Cayman. – Photo: Justin Uzzell
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  1. The wall now painted pink at the cruise ship terminal could be painted with a seascape mural to offer a more visually pleasing experience and a contest could be held by local artists showing their vision for this wall mural.

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