Hassel Island's Makeover Uncovers Historical Riches

April 9, 2008 — Hassel Island, one of the territory's richest archeological treasures, is responding well to the care it has desperately needed for decades, since the last boat rolled down the Creque Marine Railway in the 1960s.
The island is giving up treasures that have archeologists, historians and preservationists smiling widely. A tour Wednesday with some of the professionals working on the island marked the end of the second phase of a massive cleanup effort.
Calling it "likely the world's largest outdoor marine museum," V.I. National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove looked in amazement at the array of objects revealed by the cleanup.
"See that blacksmith table," he said, indicating a large, rusted piece of ironwork. "We had no idea that was here. It was used to pound out the metal for the boats' fittings."
A coalition of organizations and private citizens, including Virgin Islands National Park, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, St. Thomas Historical Trust, Ricardo Charaf, the Office of the Governor, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, the Cassinelli family and Trudie and Neil Prior have partnered in a common effort to preserve the island's history.
Over the years, different groups, notably the Friends of the Park, have started cleanups, but lack of funding has generally cut the efforts short. The coalition now has the necessary clout to make progress.
NPS archeologist, Ken Wilds, darted from one piece of history to another, anxious to reveal their pasts. "Here," he said, pointing to some of the larger finds, "this is a drill press. This is a steam engine. We are standing here on an old machine shop. These were part of the Royal Mail Packet Co., which distributed mail and passengers."
The island was a terminus for international shipping for years. The Creque Marine Railway was a conveyance for pulling ships out of the water for dry-dock repair and is said to be the oldest such steam-powered railway still in existence.
The British built Shipley's Battery in the late 18th century, poised on the hill above the railway. Karen Brady, Friends of the VINP development director, said a path will be cleared to see the battery as well as what remains of a leprosarium and yellow fever hospital nearby.
Almost all of Hassel Island is property of the V.I. National Park, purchased in 1978 from the Paiewonsky family, with a small area owned by the V.I. Port Authority, and a few private residences.
As we walk up the path to the railway steam house, Charles Consolvo, trust member and marine historian, points out our way with the enthusiasm of a youngster.
"This is something I've been waiting for for 30 years," he says. He takes a few steps inside the fragile remains of the railway steam house. "Look at this flywheel. It's the most wonderful thing," he said, pointing to an enormous wheel embedded in a brick wall. "The steam engine powered the fly wheel, the wheel turned the gears, and the gear pulled up the boats," he said.
Alan Wentworth of SeaTow, which is doing the heavy lifting, marvels at the sheer amount of debris his company has removed from the island. He looks around the area with a proprietary gaze. "We've hauled 40 or 50 Dumpsters off, with about 17 tons of stuff to be separated and sorted at the landfill," he said. Wentworth said they used four Jeeps, five boats and three bulldozers.
Historical Trust president Ronald Lockhart said, "I'm very pleased with what I'm seeing. And we're getting more than our money's worth — this is Alan's passion."
Looking about, Lockhart said, "There's just so much stuff I didn't know was here. I look forward to the day we can bring people and take tours."
The NPS is sponsoring shoring up the railway steam house. "They have hired stone masons from Puerto Rico to bolster up the walls before another storm," Brady said. The walls already have been severely damaged by storms and neglect. Part of the building has collapsed.
Brady said the first phase of the project cost $40,000, and phase two is costing $86,000, funded by the Historical Trust and the Friends of the VINP, with a few private donors. Lockhart said, "It will take years and cost millions. It's going to be forever to shore things up and get them all together."
Brady said the work will proceed with as funding comes in. "We can only do what we have money to do. The projects are endless. We want to generate interest. hoping for further support."
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