Restoration of Hassel Island planned

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands— Just like the Coliseum in Rome, the Aztec pyramids in Mexico, or the Great Wall in China, Hassel Island holds and tells the story of St. Thomas’s past; from the Arawak Indians to Caribbean pirates.

Once a striving island, located just off St. Thomas, Hassel Island, after decades of neglect, is now being restored and will soon, hopefully, be a top tourist attraction in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hassel Island’s rocky coast can be seen across the bay from the dock at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Resort (Photo by Gabriela Campos).

Now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park and maintained by the National Park Service, Hassel Island’s story started when it was a peninsula protecting the famous Charlotte Amalie Harbor. It soon became an important stopover for vessels traveling about in the warm Caribbean waters up until the mid-20th century, be it pirates or British and Danish commercial boats.

Separated from the mainland later in 1865 to allow better water circulation and to facilitate harbor traffic, the little island was extremely important for the international maritime commerce, with its warehouses, coaling companies, wharfs and repair facilities, such as the Creque Marine Railway; the oldest surviving example of a steam-powered marine railway in the world.

“When boats got here, they were all beat up and their rivets were all leaking,” said Mark Hardgrove, U.S. Virgin Islands National Park superintendent. “They used to drag them up to Hassel Island and fix them.”

With time, several different facilities were built on the island. For example, during the British occupation of the Danish West Indies, Fort Willoughby was constructed to guard the entrance to St. Thomas harbor. Fort Shipley was also built by the British and included barracks, a hospital and a mess building.

Today, most of Hassel Island is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. The National Park Service bought 95 percent of the island from the Paiewonski family in 1978, which had purchased the island in the 1930’s in order to provide water for their distillery.

The remains of famous Fort Willoughby and Garrison house (Photo by Gabriela Campos).

Yet, for the last 30 years, despite some minor preservation plans, Hassel Island and its landmarks have gone untouched and have slowly been deteriorating. It has seen more than 200 years of Caribbean weather and that has definitely taken its toll on the rich history of the island.

Things, however, have been changing in the last few years. There has been both more talk and action concerning the preservation and restoration of the so-called locally “treasure in distress,” particularly since Hardgrove took over as park superintendent in late 2007.

In combination with the National Park Service, the Hon. Donna Christensen (Congresswoman of the U.S.Virgin Islands), the office of the Governor, the St. Thomas Historic Trust, the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and the community, an assessment of the island has recently been made and actual restoration has already started taking place.

“People want more, the shopping (in Charlotte Amalie) is not enough,” Hardgrove said. “This prompted the governor to decide that Hassel Island is the solution to the future economy of St. Thomas Harbor, which gave me the opportunity to plan differently.”

After the assessment, exotic vegetation, debris, hazardous animals, such as pigs and sheep, were removed from the island. With this, the plan is to restore and develop the ancient historic landmarks, making it safe enough for visitors to tour the island and see what it has to offer.

Visitors arriving on cruise ships in St. Thomas will be able to enjoy what Hassel Island has to offer when the area opens for tours in late 2009 (Photo by Gabriela Campos).

Most likely, Creque Marine Railway will open in about a year, as well as the small trail up to Fort Shipley, but restoration of the rest of the island might take a little longer. Yet, once that occurs, there will be commercial service operators providing guided tours to large groups of about 15 to 50 people. They will be able to park their boats around the island, and take the visitors to the different landmarks for a half day tour.

“It will be a great partnership with the community,” Hardgrove said about the different services and tours.

Many of these visitors will probably be from cruise ships that arrive almost every day on nearby the nearby St. Thomas dock. Hardgrove believes that if you can see the park and island from the cruise ship, then there is a good chance that tourists will be interested to see what the island has to offer historically and might choose to take one of the tours offered by those in the community.

Ancient houses and landmarks close to Careening Cove (Photo by Gabriela Campos).

In fact, many locals believe that it has taken too long for anything to be done about the future of such an important historical aspect of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many could benefit, commercially and leisurely when the island will be open to the public.

“The locals would be happy, this has been in the making eons ago, and I’ve never seen it get done,” said Maura Farrell, a St.Thomas resident . “This is just one of the aspects of historical life.”

But, as of right now, there are no authorized commercial providers allowed to take anyone to Hassel Island, it is completely closed to the public. That will change, however, in a year, hopefully, with the opening of some parts of the island. The National Park Service believes that it is going to be tough to get the entire island in good condition by 2016, but it there will be some areas opened and in good condition, just not all resources.

“Where I think we failed, was to wait so long to intervene,” Hardgrove said.

That wait has come to an end, though. Simply put, just like the Colleseum, the Aztec pyramids, and the Great Wall has been maintained and restored over the centuries, Hassel Island should receive the same kind of attention and love as well. Now it will.

A large catamaran cruises by Hassel Island on a sunny Caribbean afternoon (Photo by Gabriela Campos).


If You Go

There is currently no kind of transportation or commercial service provider that can take you to Hassel Island, since it is in the process of being restored.

You can, however, see much of the island from a passing cruise ship arriving and departing from the port, or from the Charlotte Amalie shopping district, from the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Resort, or from the Skyride gondola to Paradise Point. The cable car and you will have a breathtaking view of Hassel Island, and St. Thomas. By simply taking the cable car up to Paradise Point, you will have a breathtaking view of Hassel Island and most of St. Thomas Island.

Once the island is open to the public, you will probably be able to contact the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park to find out more on how you can take tours and get to the island. Interested persons may also check the park’s official Web site at:

An aerial photo  marks important landmarks (Photo map courtesy of the St. Thomas Historical Trust).

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