Waterloo Guest House steeped in history
Entering Black River from the east, one crosses an old metal bridge that spans the mouth of the river where it empties into the Caribbean Sea.
History beckons on both sides and along High Street. The senses of smell, sight and hearing compete for favour: the aroma from the oven at Sunrise Bakery, Jamaica-style wooden shopfronts – and Georgian ones, too; the music blaring from shops – mostly ol’-time Jamaican gospel, rivalled by vendors hawking their products from handcarts and hand.
A few chains from this burst of commercial activity, one arrives at Waterloo Guest House and steps into the past, where history still resides.
The house, famous for being the first residence in Jamaica to have electricity, is marketed with that designation as a major selling point. It was built in the mid-19th century and derives its name from the Waterloo property.
One of the main points of interest on the property is the grave of John William Leyden, reputed to be its first owner. He died in 1889 at age 76. It was his sons who installed electricity in the house and in their business place, giving Black River that enviable recognition in Jamaican history.
Andrea Bell is owner and manager of Waterloo Guest House, Restaurant & Bar, assisted by 11 employees. She’s been running the business since 2002 when she inherited it from her mother, Carolyn Allen, who got it from her grandmother, Lynette Stewart. It was Lynette’s husband, Dr Ferdinand Stewart, who bought it for her in 1938.
The house, which is designated a heritage building, is a major selling point and a drawing card for visitors to Black River.
“I have a synopsis of its history online and the Europeans really like it; they love it, actually! That’s what draws them here,” Bell explained.
Accordingly, she aggressively markets the property to Europeans “who are more adventurous and go around Jamaica seeking out the more interesting locations”.
Her enthusiasm is most evident when describing how Europeans respond to the property: “They love the wrap-around verandah; they constantly ask about the history. In fact, I did not fully appreciate the impact of the history until I started hearing from them!”
The high seasons for stopover guests are in the summer months and December. In anticipation of summer arrivals, Small Business Today observed that several rooms were being upgraded that would ensure Waterloo remains competitive in the emerging south coast tourism market.
“It’s a rustic experience,” Bell confirmed. “I make sure my rooms are clean … ; all of them have air conditioning, they have hot water, a comfortable bed, and there’s also a pool.”
From that base, visitors go off to explore the old town, where a walking tour – ‘Way Back When’ – is conducted by local resident Allison Francis Morris, or up the Black River by boat, or beyond to other parish attractions such as YS Falls and Lover’s Leap.
MUSEUM AND DINING
The manager plans to enhance visitor interest in Waterloo by formally establishing a museum.
The aim, she said, is to “really, really get all those people who love the history to come to Black River and spend two days and do the tours … .”
To achieve that objective as soon as possible, she has applied for state funding and is awaiting a response. She reasons that the benefit from having the museum would accrue to the entire town.
Bell envisages that schools will bring their students to explore the property.
“It is important to bring the property back to its glory days so that people can see and really appreciate it,” she said enthusiastically.
Visitors are accommodated in a modern building, with 16 rooms, constructed with architectural nods to the style of the older structure on the property.
There are six rooms upstairs the old house that are currently not in use and the owner plans to bring them back into operation.
Time has not been kind to the wooden structure, which requires painstaking care and keen attention to architectural details, in keeping with its special designation.
In the meantime, the restaurant and bar are in the old house. Dining on the verandah, adjacent to the bay and cooled by the sea breeze, is a pleasant experience, adding to the allure of the property.
“I have a dining room, but they hardly use it; they love it out here on the verandah,” she shared, looking out to sea as a small fishing boat, powered by an outboard engine, sped by, the water churning in its trail.