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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, April 12, 2024
HomeCommentaryOp-Ed: The Time to Preserve Ham's Bluff Lighthouse is Now

Op-Ed: The Time to Preserve Ham’s Bluff Lighthouse is Now

his photo was taken about 25 years ago with the historic lighthouse with the St. Croix Hiking Association standing on the sacred ridge of Maronberg. (Photo courtesy Olasee Davis)
This photo was taken about 25 years ago at the historic Ham’s Bluff Lighthouse, with the St. Croix Hiking Association standing on the sacred ridge of Maronberg. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

The other day, I got a text from a hiker friend of mine asking if I saw the picture of the lighthouse on the front page of a local newspaper. I did. I have written several articles over the years about preserving the historic lighthouse on Ham’s Bluff in the northwest corner of St. Croix, which is part of Maroon Country’s steep cliff wilderness area. In the 1990s, I took thousands of schoolchildren, and beyond that over the years, to this historic and sacred landscape of St. Croix.

Olasee Davis
Olasee Davis (Submitted photo)

In those days, I would contact the U.S. Navy in Puerto Rico to get permission to carry the schoolchildren to see the historic lighthouse since the property was managed by the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard, I was told. Nevertheless, I would pick up the lighthouse key from the U.S. Navy site at Estate Sprat Hall. The rest is history where the schoolchildren hiked up the hill to the lighthouse, the path where runaway slaves known as Maroons walked hundreds of years ago. As we got to the top of the sacred ridge known as “MaronBerg” by the Danes (now Maroon Ridge), the children climbed the three stories of the lighthouse to the very top. What a view, and the history of the site I would relate to the children.

For donkey years and still today, I hike up to the lighthouse with people from all over the world and locals as well, explaining the history of the area. Over the years, the historic lighthouse has begun to deteriorate from the elements of nature and human impact on the structure.

More than 25 years ago, I wrote a letter to the Virgin Islands National Guard to ask if they could do something about preserving the lighthouse since they were housed in a military building at the bottom of the hill west or south of the lighthouse. The building once belonged to the federal government. My understanding is that the military facility was given to the Virgin Islands National Guard or deeded to them when the military base in Puerto Rico closed. Our National Guard occupied the building until they moved to the Bethlehem National Guard facilities.

I was contacted by the National Guard to visit the historic lighthouse site. An archeological study was conducted and completed. For whatever reason, the project didn’t continue. Today, hundreds of people from all walks of life visit the lighthouse site. However, they have no idea about the history other than it is a beautiful area. It is a sacred area where slaves hid in caves along the steep cliffs and forest above the ocean floor.

I have written several articles over the years to preserve the historic lighthouse on Ham’s Bluff northwest corner of St. Croix, which is part of Maroon Country’s steep cliff wilderness area. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
The author has written several articles over the years about the need to preserve the historic lighthouse on Ham’s Bluff in the northwest corner of St. Croix, which is part of Maroon Country’s steep cliff wilderness area. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

It is a place where, according to oral history, enslaved Africans jumped over the cliffs for their freedom. It was the stronghold of the Maroons until the 1848 emancipation. I can tell you more history, but it is a sad history of how our people suffered during slavery in the Danish West Indies. It is also a history of braveness by slaves who fought the Danish colonial system to the very end of emancipation. Should I go on! I don’t apologize to no one when it comes to Virgin Islands history. This year, if the good Lord spare my life, I and other individuals plan to install signage giving some history of the site.

The historic lighthouse was designed and built by the Danish government between 1913-1915 in response to the building of the Panama Canal in Central America. The Danes believed that with the Panama Canal — which thousands of people from the Caribbean region died building due to diseases and hazardous conditions — the main route for ships from Europe to the canal would be between St. Thomas and St. Croix. “In addition, the French engineering suffered setbacks and delays that impeded progress. Disease was also rampant, and thousands died in the construction effort,” noted a reporter before America took over the construction. I had family members, the Smalls from Barbados, that helped build the canal.

Also, the Danes believed new navigational facilities would be needed in the Danish West Indies to enhance the islands’ economy and planned for an attractive lighthouse station as well to enhance the island’s attractiveness to the United States government. When the lighthouse was completed in 1915, it was operated by gas light with a lighthouse keeper. The keeper lived in Frederiksted and faithfully rode his donkey every day, rain or shine, to the lighthouse to turn on and off the gas light. In fact, an archaeologist found a structure below on the west side of the lighthouse believed to be where the lighthouse keeper stayed overnight.

In 2019, the lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once the Danish West Indies was transferred in 1917 to the United States, Ham’s Bluff Lighthouse came under the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard. Nonetheless, later in its history, solar panels were installed, taking the place of the gas light. As time when on, what I call the “human species” vandalized the place where the door of the lighthouse is no longer on, and of course humans took over the once-beacon-of-light in the northwest corner of St. Croix.

Members of the Coast Guard rebuild the Buck Island aid to navigation tower in 2023. (Photo courtesy Coast Guard)
Members of the Coast Guard rebuild the Buck Island aids to navigation tower in 2023. (Photo courtesy Coast Guard)

At night, you can see the light from the lighthouse from Blue Mountain, Mount Eagle, Sweet Bottom Bay Ridge, Cane Bay, and other high lookout areas on the northeast of the island. Believe me, what a sight to behold at night. It makes you feel proud of being a Virgin Islander. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge south of the St. Thomas Harbor, where a few years ago archeologists rushed to preserve the historic Danish lighthouse on the island that was built in Danish colonial style in 1913. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that its Aids to Navigation Team Puerto Rico completed the rebuild of the tower light.

Both lighthouses are historic. We talk so much about history and when would we restore Ham’s Bluff lighthouse on St. Croix. I am talking to the federal and local government authorities as well as the people of these islands. Let us stop the talk and do something before Ham’s Bluff lighthouse crumbles to the ground. After all, slaves shed their blood for you and I on the spot where the lighthouse stands today.

— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.

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