Aug. 4, 2008 — Hassel Island saw an assortment of visitors Friday, as school students, archeologists, historians, National Park Service staff, a Creque family member, and even a retired U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Team member, inspected the recent work on the Creque Marine Railway restoration.
The NPS began a project about two months ago to stabilize the railway steam house. Working two-week shifts in groups of eight, masons have virtually transformed the outer surface of the century 165-year-old building.
"We want to shore up the building, bolster the walls, before hurricane season. Parts of the building have already collapsed," said V.I. National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove, pointing to an area on the water side of the structure.
Working under a white tent set up in front of the building, the masons have sandblasted the exterior, leaving it looking much as it did when it was built in 1844. The rock-and-brick structure is shored up with metal poles in front, bolstered by huge planks holding the upper structure tight.
Hardgrove said the Puerto Rican crews are enjoying the work. "It's sort of a vacation for many of them who have never been to St. Thomas," he said, "let alone Hassel Island." The day was also what Hardgrove described as a "treat" for the students who have been busy on St. John for eight weeks on conservation projects.
And the day was really special for Leon Varlack, NPS chief of maintenance for the past 18 of his 31-year federal career. Varlack said he was happy to be celebrating a terminus to his active career on "this beautiful island."
Varlack has been lauded for his vision and work in the recovery process of restoring the St. John park after its devastation by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Historians Alton Adams Jr., Myron Jackson, and Ronald Lockhart, president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, shared a bit of history with the eight Youth Conservation Corps summer students as they gingerly explored the innards of the railway. The youngsters marveled at the ancient machinery, the giant gears recently cleared of overgrowth.
Adams took things in hand, offering the students a spontaneous glimpse of the island's rich history.
"At one time, this railway boasted the most modern steam machinery in the world," Adams said. "St. Thomas was the terminus for international shipping for years." Adding an immediate personal note, Adams really got the youngsters' attention when he told them his grandfather, Jacob Adams, worked for 37 years on Hassel Island as a shipwright for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. "Wow, that's so cool," one of the awed youngsters observed.
Pointing out Art Andrews, standing on the sidelines, Adams joked that we had present day history "right here." "Art was here with the UDT's in the forties," Adams said. "He knows where all the ammunition from World War II is buried," he said, "but he won't tell."
Bill Creque, whose family at one time owned the railway, talked of coming to the island as a kid, exploring the old railway. "It was all overgrown even then," he said, "but it was so much fun to climb through it."
Though the students are all from St. Thomas and St. John, none had ever set foot on Hassel Island. "This is one thing that's so sad these days," said Jackson. "Our children should be aware of our history — it's their inheritance."
The islands' history is second nature for Jackson, V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute director, who may soon be making local history for himself as a first-time 2008 senate candidate.
Over several years, different groups, notably the Friends of the V.I. National Park, have started cleanups on the island, but lack of funding has generally cut the efforts short. This present effort is supported by a coalition with necessary clout to make progress.
It is made up of organizations and private citizens including the 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. (See "Hassel Island's Makeover Uncovers Historical Riches.")
Upon leaving, Lockhart looked with satisfaction at the ongoing work. Pieces of old steam machinery, recently unearthed, dotted the landscape. "Preserving the history on this island was was Mrs. Woods' dream," Lockhart said. "I wish she were here to see it." Preservationist and historian Edith Woods was an integral part of Charlotte Amalie for years.
Lockhart had words of praise for Hardgrove. "He hasn't even been here a full year, and look what he's gotten started," he said.
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