Oct. 14, 2004 Every day people drive along the St. Thomas Waterfront, hardly noticing the piece of land in the harbor called Hassel Island. But for a group of individuals, Hassel Island is a treasure, filled with a rich, historical background needing to be preserved.
The Hassel Island Preservation Trust Inc. has made it its mission to do just that preserve the history of the island for future generations.
Formed in August of this year, the trust was the brainchild of Edward "Harmon" Killebrew, a 30-year resident of the territory. Killebrew said when he first came to the Virgin Islands in 1974, he lived in the steam house on Hassel Island, next to the Creque's Marine Railway, until its owners sold it to the V.I. National Park in 1977.
Killebrew, who now lives in Frenchtown, watched his "beloved" steam house deteriorate over the years and decided to do something about the disrepair of the Hassel Island's historic buildings.
"It's been my dream to see Hassel Island restored," Killebrew said.
Killebrew said he approached the V.I. National Park two years ago with the idea of partnering with them to preserve the structures on Hassel Island with the collaboration of the government and private sector.
However, Killebrew did not get the kind of interest he sought, so he took his idea to the Friends of the V.I. National Park, an organization that provides assistance to the National Park Service.
The group was interested in Killebrew's vision but because it was based in St. John, it became difficult to organize efforts for Hassel Island as well. After unsuccessfully trying to find an organization on St. Thomas willing to help in the preservation of Hassel Island, Killebrew decided to form his own. Killebrew shared his ideas with Rik Van Renssalaer and Wanda Mills and the Hassel Island Preservation Trust was born. Van Renssalaer serves as the organization's chief executive officer while Mills serves as chairwoman. Killebrew said he asked Van Renssalaer and Mills to run the organization, which is seeking 501 (c) status, because he wanted to focus on the "commercial" aspect of bringing guided tours to Hassel Island. (See "UVI Students Learning to Guide Tours on Hassel").
"People were saying that this would be a conflict of interest if I did both," Killebrew said.
Killebrew said his own company, Island Treasures, would hire students from the Tour Guide Training Course being offered jointly by the trust and the University of the Virgin Islands' Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning Center to provide tours on Hassel Island for visitors. This is slated to begin in November.
"I will give a portion of the proceeds to the nonprofit organization for the restoration project of Hassel Island," Killebrew said.
Mills, who is the chief presenter of the tour guide class, said she is "thrilled" to be a part of the organization. Hassel Island's glory is now faded, Mills said, although it held a vivid role when it was attached to St. Thomas before the mid-19th century. The area was then known by the Danish name Estate Orkanshullet meaning "Hurricane Hole," or a bay suited for harboring ships during a storm.
Now remnants such as the Creque's Marine Railway, the Garrison House and Fort Willoughby, all in a state of disrepair, have been left behind to tell the tale of years gone by.
"What we're trying to do as The Hassel Island Preservation Trust is to bring the island back to life again," Mills said. "We're advocating for a living museum of Virgin Islands maritime, ecological, military and cultural history."
Mills said as soon as they receive tax-exempt status, the organization will lobby and fund raise to restore the remnants of the historical buildings to their original state. The organization is currently working on its structure and recruiting members. Mills said they have nine individuals on the board thus far and four officers. They are also seeking to form an advisory board made up of specialists and government commissioners who are willing to assist. Mills said that around 150 individuals have signed up for general membership and participation in the organization.
"We've been able to generate the kind of public interest that we've hoped for," Mills said. Killebrew said of Hassel Island's future, "It's going to make a wonderful setting for people to come from St. Thomas and see the beauty of it."
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