As a child growing up on St. Thomas, Luana Wheatley could see Hassel Island’s overgrown hills and railway ruins from across the harbor in Frenchtown, but it was not until Saturday that the V.I. Tourism Department spokeswoman finally stepped onto its shores.
Wheatley, along with nearly 80 other people, were invited by the St. Thomas Historical Trust and the U.S. National Park Service to explore Hassel Island’s new hiking trails.
“I was in awe of what I saw,” Wheatley said after the excursion, which took participants on one of four guided hikes.
The celebratory occasion came after nearly four years of work from the Historical Trust, U.S. National Park Service, and numerous other supporting partners, including the Friends of V.I. National Park and SeaTow.
During that time, nearly $500,000 in public and private funds have gone into cleaning the island, restoring its historic ruins, and creating public recreation areas, Trust Board of Directors member Charles Consolvo said.
Saturday marked a sneak peek of new amenities that National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove said should be fully open to the public by the fall of 2012.
Pamela Reid, executive director of the Historical Trust, said the new trails’ construction was paid for by $44,500 from the American Battlefield Protection Program, $27,000 from Diageo USVI, $20,000 from a National Park Foundation Active Trails Grant, $25,000 from the local Lana Vento Foundation and numerous Trust members’ personal donations.
The crowd met at Crown Bay Marina to ferry over to the island, which was once attached to St. Thomas – in the 1860s, the Danish government separated the 135-acre peninsula from St. Thomas’s mainland in the hopes of creating better water circulation in the harbor.
Half of the group boated to the island’s south side from which they hiked through the remains of British officers’ quarters, a lime kiln, and the Hassel family cemetery; some hikers in this group saw the Garrison House, a one-story stone structure used by the British to store weapons from 1807 to 1815.
The second group of visitors boated to the island’s north shore and docked at Creque Marine Railway where hulking pieces of restored and waiting-to-be-restored equipment were scattered across the complex that repaired and maintained large ships from 1840 until the 1960s.
Kate Wentworth, 23, is part of the crew that has been conducting the painstaking process of restoring the rusted-out steam engine parts and steel diving equipment to its former luster.
Wentworth, whose father, Alan Wentworth, owns the local SeaTow franchise and has been very active in the Hassel Island projects, helped clear brush for the trails using a skid steer when she was lucky, or a machete and her own might when she was less so.
“My dad says I get paid to go to the gym,” Wentworth said.
Wheatley’s hike took her through the Creque Marine Railway ruins and up past a leprosarium, of which only a stone cistern remains.
National Park historian Ken Wild, who has been researching Hassel Island since the 1980s, said the area housed up to 25 people who were dying of leprosy and other highly contagious conditions, such as smallpox or cholera.
The short but steep and rocky climb culminated at Shipley’s Battery, which the British built in 1801 to guard the Gregory Channel: hikers climbed over a semi-circular stone fort and peered into the remains of a military guard house, which also served as a smallpox hospital after the second British occupation ended in 1815.
Colleen Mader did not make it all the way to the top of the trail, but she said walking through the Creque Marine Railway building that housed a Bolton steam engine was well worth her while.
“I liked seeing the old artifacts, and I’m amazed at the machines. That the oldest steel is still around from the 1800s – that is pretty impressive,” said Mader, who has lived on St. Thomas for nearly 30 years.
While the day marked a big step forward for putting Hassel Island’s history into public view, Park Superintendent Hardgrove said more work needs to be done, so that Virgin Islanders, such as Wheatley, do not have to wait decades to experience it.
“My dream will be realized when I see our schoolchildren out there with their teachers,” Hardgrove said. “It’s only 200 yards away, and we’ve got to bridge that gap.”