Monday, November 10, 2014

A Sunday of Contrasts

Hassell Island sits on the western side of St. Thomas harbour and was at one time joined to Frenchtown as a peninsula. It has an incredibly storied history and is part of the National Park that includes St. John which we love so much. With all that, you would think that we would have been there before but with our usual habit of getting on the boat and heading off toute suite, we had woefully missed this little gem.

Here's a really brief history (apologies to the local historical society):

  • The original settlers were native Arawak and then Taino who left only a few artifacts behind.
  • With Chris Columbus the natives were wiped out and the Spanish occupied the area.
  • The Danes came along in the 1600s and settled where Charlotte Amalie is today.
  • Based on the various wars in Europe, the factions, be they Spanish, French or English were either at war or trading with each other. The Danes for the most part were neutral, just interested in creating a massive trade zone and thrown into the mix were a good number of pirates and privateers who just wanted to mess it all up.
  • The Brits, afraid of French control with Napolean's interests took control twice in the early 1800s and fortified Hassell Island with battlements that still stand today.
  • The Danes retained ownership however, until 1917 when the United States (like the Brits) were worried about war in Europe, the possibility of Germany invading Denmark and then having a foothold in the Caribbean, so they bought the Virgin Islands for $25 million.
As a result of all this activity, Hassell Island has been fortified, used as a boat repair facility, had a corner carved off for the local leper colony, and became the home (and final resting place) for the Hazzell family.

Oh, as I mentioned above, the island used to be a penninsula rather than separated from the mainland. Back in the 17-1800s, sanitation was not what it is today (and today it seems to be sometimes lacking as well), and St. Thomas suffered a number of outbreaks of malaria and cholera. To try to aleviate the pollution in the harbour, the Danes made a cut through the narrow spit of land that joined the penninsula to the mainland. I doubt this helped a great deal, but it did provide a shortcut to the western approaches to the harbour so it was probably seen as a pretty stand-up idea. Over the years the cut was widened and deepend right up until the 1960s when the U.S. Army Engineers opened it up to its current state. Nowadays ferrys, all sorts of pleasure-craft and tugs heading to the cargo ships that come into Crown Bay pass through the cut all day long.

You can clearly see where the island used to be joined to the mainland.
Ok, enough of the history//geography lesson. We packed all this info into our heads and took our dinghy over the short distance to the remains of the old shipyard right across from the docks at CYOA. The first area we explored is the only remaining steam railway dry-dock where they would put boats on a cradle in the water and then pull them up the railway using a steam engine in the building at the top of the incline.

Creque (rhymes with creaky) Marine Railway in its heyday.
The marine railway today.
This little anole had found a warm bit of cog-wheel to warm himself on.
We then headed off up the hill to the first battery built by the British. Now I know where they go to get all the great photos that grace the local calendars (short of renting a helicopter). Just one cruise ship in the harbour today, but sometimes there are up to three lined up on the dock at Yacht Haven Grande down below. One can definitely see what a great spot they picked to defend the harbour.

The remains of the guardhouse overlooking Charlotte Amalie.
Henry checking out the information plaque.
Overlooking the Danish-built Fort Fredrick in Charlotte Amalie.
Yacht Haven Grande where the cruise ships dock.
Back down the hill, we passed the remains of the Leprosarium, the officer's quarters, the barracks and then back up the hill at the southern end of the island to the second battlement and a signal house.

The Hazzell family cemetary.
A ship that evokes the style of ships past, leaving St. Thomas harbour.
Danish built and then British occupied Prince Frederik's Battery guard the eastern approaches.
The Garrison House and ordinance store. If you look in the background you can see Buck Island where we went in the afternoon.
By the time we made it to the end of the island it was getting pretty hot and what we had failed to realize when we set out nice and early is that there is basically one path to the end of the island. This means that where we had gone up and down, and then up and down again to get to the end, we would have have to turn around and do it all over again. So, although the highest point on the island is only 267', we had to climb it not once or twice, but basically four times. The cold shower back at the marina was most welcome, and necessary!

Our plan for the remainder of the day was happily lacking any content so we puttered away getting lunch and doing a small amount of 'bucket laundry'. Across the dock from us (not sure if I've mentioned this before) there is a small dive excursion boat that goes out most mornings. We have come to know Dwayne and Jerry as pretty good guys and have fun chats with them as they get ready for their dive groups. Well, Dwayne and his wife Laura were taking a friend out to Buck Island for a memorial service for a local diver and instructor who had died a few months ago (not a diving accident - brain cancer). They asked if we would like to join them, and although we did not know Andre Webber, it was a very nice offer and we decided to go for the excursion and see how a memorial at sea was performed. We headed off to Buck Island which is just a mile or so offshore where a couple of large excursion catamarans and some dive boats had rafted up in one of the bays. There must have been 40-50 people aboard the various boats and all poured a pain-killer and then sat around and listened firstly to a minister and then to each other as they honoured Andre's life and his contribution to the diving community of St. Thomas. He sounds like he was quite a man who had a broad influence judging by the number of people who indicated he had instructed or mentored them at some point over the years. Flowers were spread on the waves, a plaque had been mounted down at one of the dive locations, songs were sung and then we were on our way back to the dock.

All in all a very interesting day of new experiences.