June 21, 2001 – Hassel Island, a geographic and historic gem in the rough prominently poised at the mouth of Charlotte Amalie Harbor, is about to be dusted off and given what many in the community would agree is its rightful due.
Steeped in intriguing marine history, the island has been the object of noticeable neglect since it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1978 — as the new V.I. National Park superintendent readily admits.
"I feel bad the service hasn't done a better job in carrying out its responsibilities," says John King, who took over as superintendent earlier this year. "We haven't had the money or resources to manage St. John and Hassel Island, but now we are a little more flexible." And now, he adds, "We want to do something consistent with the island's cultural resources."
Hassel Island could be developed as a historic-interest attraction for tourists, he says, especially cruise ship passengers, offering something different while at the same time providing a relief valve for St. John.
King isn't the only person enthusiastic about restoring the harbor island and making it attractive to visitors and residents. Edward "Harmon" Killebrew has been eyeing it with a passion for half his life. The 50-year old Chicago transplant became enamored of its historic Creque Marine Railway 24 years ago, shortly after he moved to St. Thomas.
Killebrew doesn't see a decrepit stone and brick building creaking with disrepair, or the remnants of the railway now almost totally obscured by vegetation. Looking out from the privileged viewpoint of his home and workshop on Gregerie East Channel, almost directly across from the railway, he sees children, lots of children, and youths, scurrying around pulling weeds, clearing brush, bagging trash, carefully cleaning cobblestones, prudently applying herbicides.
"Of course, they'd be in small, supervised groups," he explains.
It's all part of a plan he has been working on for years — to revitalize the marine railway as an invaluable piece of St. Thomas history and a valuable heritage tourism site, and to provide a learning experience for young people at the same time.
From ruin to restoration
But this is just the first stage of the restoration Killebrew modestly envisions. He sees a totally restored steamhouse (the main building) and a functioning railway (the tracks on which boats were hauled from the water for repair). He talks about a maritime museum, a marine training academy at Prince Rupert Boatyard on the island's eastern side, and children conducting hikes along a trail system to explore the island. And even tourists and residents all dressed up attending plays and musical events in a theater built to blend in with the site.
Killebrew pauses in his mental tour, smiling. "I don't mean tomorrow," he explains. He opens a thick ledger with yellowed pages and begins naming names. "These are all the people I've talked to over the years, people who are interested in volunteering their time," he says, looking at dozens of cards. "And these are the articles going back 24 years," he adds, noting with a laugh that The Draughting Shaft donated the ledger to him "in the '80s."
"People want to help; they love the idea," he says, brimming with enthusiasm unbridled by the years. "They don't want to be paid — you don't get paid to fix your history. Everyone I've talked to wants to donate time or goods. They love the idea of a boat-building school, of a museum. Can't you imagine? All kinds of people from all over … bringing all kinds of stuff for the museum."
Killebrew is on a first-name basis with the old railway; it was his second home for a time after he moved from an East End boatyard. He is also familiar with the organization process, having been a founder of KATS — the Kids And The Sea program — and one of St. Thomas's first volunteer school teachers.
"When people ask me what I want to get out of it, I don't know what to say," he muses. "It's not about Harmon, never has been about Harmon. It's about the kids."
He decided a while back that when he turned 50, "I'd dedicate myself totally to the kids," Killebrew says. He will close his pizza shop in Frenchtown at the end of this month and do just that.
About six weeks ago, as a member of Friends of the V.I. National Park, he got permits to remove two unsightly old military marine landing craft which had been clogging up the railway since the mid-'70s, abandoned by a temporary partner of his who had fancy notions about restoring the property.
"I got a bunch of people to pitch in," he says, "Local Towing, R&R Caribbean, STS Trucking and A-9 Trucking — they all volunteered their services, moving the barges and hauling them to the Bovoni dump."
A little help from the Friends
The Friends of the Park will initiate island cleanup programs in the first stage of the restoration. "It takes a lot of planning," Killebrew explains. "We will be getting non-profit, volunteer groups of kids, like the Boys and Girls Club, Weed and Seed, to come in supervised groups to start the cleanup, but that requires backup."
Trudy Toliver, Friends of the Park development director, says for youngsters to work on the island, there must be shelter, water, an expert in CPR and first aid, and transportation – for openers. Killebrew is constructing a kitchen, complete with a mobile pizza oven, on his property to feed the volunteers. He has engineered volunteer ferry transportation with Barry Nasch of the Water Island Ferry.
Toliver says several local organizations have expressed an interest in helping with the project. A Rotary group has offered a grant, and Geraldine Smith, St. Thomas-St. John executive director of the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission, will commit her youth crews to help out. It's too late to set up a summer program, Toliver says, "but we are hoping to use the kids this fall. They have a year-round Saturday cleanup program."
If enthusiasm were enough to make it happen, Toliver, Killebrew and King could have the island ready for business tomorrow. King says the planning process is now in the very beginning stages.
"We need to defoliate between the cobblestones," Killebrew says."Small trees have started between the stones, and when they come up, the mortar comes up with them. You have to remove the stones and cut the trees out, treat the stump with an approved herbicide, and use hand tools for digging out the root sections. Then you have to fill the cavity back in. There are thousands of joints like that."
And any work, even cleanups, must be closely supervised out of archeological sensitivity.
Railway may be the last of its kind
The marine railway is regarded by historians as the most important historic site on the island. It was one of the earliest steam-powered marine railways in the Western Hemisphere — and may be the oldest of its kind left in the world, according to documents Killebrew has. Built by a group of Danish businessmen, the railway functioned from 1843 to 1911.
In its heyday, Creque's Railway did a land-office business by sea. It hauled and repaired countless merchant ships calling at St. Thomas, the trading crossroads of the Caribbean at the time. Coal furnaces created the steam to run it.
When the railway came into existence, Hassel Island didn't exist. What today is the island was then an isthmus extending out from the Frenchtown area, effectively blocking the harbor and creating a backlog of refuse which fouled the otherwise beautiful bay. Dredging in 1865 created the cut that severed the spit of land from St. Thomas, allowing the harbor to come clean.
King says the park service has embarked on a thorough planning process that includes public meetings. "We want to make sure what we do
is in concert with what the public sees as a vision for the island," he says. A park planner is finishing a two-month vessel management plan for the island.
There may eventually be concessions for food and drinks, transportion and a gift shop, but "we are a long way from getting to that point," he says.
King says the park service is looking to partner with community groups for maximum utilization of resources. Toliver says the Friends of the Park will be holding fundraisers to support the project.
And, of course, "We're going to have a web site," Killebrew says. "That way, people can watch each day what's being done and how we're coming along. They can see the materials and the work they're donating in use."
But all in good time. For now, he's concentrating on the logistics of getting the youngsters safely to the island to restore those countless cobblestones.


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