Feb. 15, 2002 – Although the members of the Friends of the Virgin Islands Park are mainly on St. John, where most of the park is, too, the group is undertaking a cleanup of Hassel Island at the entrance to the St. Thomas harbor beginning this weekend.
The V.I. National Park consists not only of about two-thirds of the island of St. John, but also all but a few acres of Hassel Island, once the site of the busiest maritime repair shop in the Caribbean.
In the cleanup project, youth and adult volunteers will start by removing brush that covers the historic Creque Marine Railway. Before they begin work, they will receive training in techniques for clearing debris and preserving the historic structures.
"Hassel Island has an enormous amount of cultural history that is untapped," Friends development director Trudy Tolliver said. Paul Thomas, the V.I. National Park interpretive chief, said the marine railway served for more than a century as the island's center of maritime commerce. "Ships would pull up in the slipway," he said.
Lori Lee, a park archeologist, said the marine railway was built between 1840 and 1843 and originally was called the St. Thomas Marine Repair Slip. It became Creque Marine Railway in 1910, she said, and continued in use until the 1960s.
What is Hassell Island today actually was a peninsula extending from Frenchtown until it was severed from St. Thomas by dredging a cut to improve harbor sanitation and ship access. Today, all but a few of the island's 135 acres belong to the National Park Service, Thomas said. The signal tower, battery and garrison house belong to the local government, and a few shoreline parcels with houses are privately owned.
Once the marine railway is restored, it will be opened to visitors via paths leading from a dock to the water's edge of the railway floor and running around the steam house — the structure with a tall smokestack that is visible across the harbor. The flagstones of the railway floor will be cleared and cleaned, and machinery along the railway will be preserved and made accessible for viewing.
There will be interpretive materials to educate visitors about the history and significance of the site. "This is just the beginning," Joe Kessler, Friends president, said. "People on St. Thomas will be able to see our progress and will literally watch Hassel Island come alive again."
Tolliver said that when the work is finished, Hassel Island should attract a lot of cruise ship visitors. "It will help take the pressure off St. John," she said, referring to the 1.3 million people who visit the V.I. National Park on St. John every year. And, she said, St. Thomas folks will have a functional national park in their own front yard.
Once the area is ready for visitors, Tolliver said, a private company will provide ferry transportation. The National Park Service plans to embark soon on a planning effort to determine the improvements needed for the island and the priorities for taking them on. Kessler said that volunteers are the backbone of the project.
This weekend, a dozen youths from the St. Thomas-St. John Anti-litter and Beautification Commission's "Saturday Beautification Program" will form a part of the work crew. Kessler said he's hopeful that "even more people will want to help."
So far, Kessler said, more than $60,000 worth of goods and services have been donated to get the project rolling. Sponsors on board are Budget Marine, Chi-co Distributors, DeSigns, Frenchtown Deli, Hook Line and Sinker, Island Block, Local Towing, MSI Building Supplies, Reliable Rentals of St. Croix and Water Island Ferry.
Anyone interested in volunteering or making contributions is asked to call the Friends office at 779-4940.


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