Our Then and Now series looks this month at how transportation has changed so dramatically in the Cayman Islands since the islands were first populated.
Over the past couple of years, Cayman’s transportation system has reached some incredible milestones, such as the 50th anniversary of the national carrier, Cayman Airways in 2018, and the opening of the newly renovated Owen Roberts International Airport by HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in March of this year. But long before the advent of the aeroplane connecting Cayman to the outside world, it was the ship that was Cayman’s main transport link.
Cayman’s road network only began to develop properly in the 20th Century. Up until that point people were quite separated from each other, district-wise, and would often move between districts by sea. The first road on Grand Cayman ran along the coastline from West Bay to East End with a branch from Frank Sound to North Side. In Cayman Brac the first road went along the north coast from West End to Spot Bay. Early roads consisted of consolidated marl or coral sand and were maintained by rakes and shovels.
The first car in Cayman was an open top Cadillac, imported by Mr Carrol Henderson around 1912 to 1917 (there are conflicting reports as to the exact date) from Cuba. In 1923 there were about six cars and no garages or petrol stations. Owners had to import their own petrol, repair their own tyres and teach themselves basic motor mechanics. By the end of 1936 there were 47 cars, 11 lorries and five motorcycles in Cayman.
In June 1908 work began on Crewe Road, named after the Earl of Crewe, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Colonies. It shortened the distance to East End by 2 ½ miles and followed an old bush track. According to the Cayman Islands National Archives, people were so eager to have roads that landowners willingly gave the land through which the road passed and one fifth of the labour and materials were donated. By 1935 there was a drivable road to each district used by several dozen cars. They were not paved and not much more than a car’s width.
Reaching the rest of the world
The 120-tonne Cimboco was the Islands’ lifeline for 20 years, and was the first locally-owned motorship, named after the company that owned her – the Cayman Islands Motor Boat Company. It was built by Captain Rayal Brazley Bodden and launched in 1927. The boat provided a regular link to the outside world, transporting post, people and goods.
After the Second World War ended in 1945 the first planes began touching down in the Cayman Islands, amphibious Catalinas that operated out of the North Sound conducting submarine and defence patrols and air and sea search rescues of torpedoed survivors. Two pioneers of Caymanian civilian air travel were RAF war veterans, King Parker Jr and former Wing Commander Owen Roberts.
The Owen Roberts International airport came about from pressure by Roberts, who piloted the first plane to land at the Cayman Islands new airport in 1953. He established routes from Cayman to Jamaica and Tampa flying these seaplanes. By the end of 1954 Cayman was becoming well served by flights, with Costa Rica’s LACSA’s national airline making regular stops, as well as BWIA which stopped in Grand Cayman weekly on its flights between Belize and Kingston, Jamaica, and eventually connected the islands to Miami. In May 1967 Cayman had its first jet aircraft arrival, a LACSA British Aircraft Corporation 1-11. Regular jet service was then provided by BWIA.
On Cayman Brac, a group of volunteers dug out the first airstrip in 1954. Two Commissioners, Smith and Gerrard, obtained small grants from the UK to asphalt the runway and extend it further and once completed in 1955, the Gerrard-Smith Airport was duly named. Cayman Brac Airways, owned by LACSA, started in 1955 as a link between the Sister Islands. In 1962, a small grass airfield was developed and named the Edward Bodden Airfield after a Little Cayman works fireman.
Cayman Brac Airways became Cayman Airways in 1968, with government taking 51 per cent ownership of the airline and, after various ownership moves of the remaining 49 per cent, the airline made its historic inaugural flight into the US in 1972, having flown regularly to Kingston.
In the 1970s scheduled and charter passenger and cargo flights became a regular occurrence, while private plane traffic also increased significantly, following an upgrade to ORIA in 1968. In 1979 Cayman received 8,833 flights carrying 121,562 passengers. In 1977 Cayman Airways became wholly owned by the government and by the 1980s and 1990s Cayman’s tourism industry grew massively thanks to the aviation industry. By the end of the 20th Century, Cayman was served by five US airlines as well as Cayman Airways. British Airways joined the list in the late 1990s, followed by two Canadian airlines Westjet and Air Canada. Nowadays American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, South West Airlines and United all have regular flights to Grand Cayman from a multitude of North American destinations. Cayman is now a significant player among Caribbean tourism destinations thanks to those early pioneers.