Home Commentary Op-ed Visioning Hassel Island

Visioning Hassel Island


Jan. 9, 2005 – Doris Clabaugh Jadan died on Dec. 20, 2004, in the midst of the busy holiday season. She had been on my mind quite a bit recently. It is wise, and I now know, to reach out to others, rather than simply thinking about them. In many ways, I was distracted only by my efforts to assure that Virgin Islanders continue to intimately experience the natural environment and cultural history of this special place that we call home.
I truly benefited from the seeds Mrs. Jadan planted in my mind and the imagination that she sparked, through the Environmental Studies Program of the 1970s. As an elementary school student, I eagerly anticipated our field trips to St. John to visit with this spunky teacher and environmentalist. Through Mrs. Jadan, I learned that the sea purslane, so common along our shorelines, is edible. And I am still trying to get beyond the thorns of the wild pineapple to eat its fruit. Without a doubt, Mrs. Jadan loved St. John, its people, its culture and its environment, and she became one of its most determined advocates.
I was inspired by this passion when co-founding the Hassel Island Preservation Trust. The general public apathy that I observed at the Buck Island public meetings on St. Croix, and the understanding that broad public involvement is still integral to a successful planning process, influenced my actions. Founding members of the Hassel Island Preservation Trust Edward "Harmon" Killebrew, Rik Van Rensselaer, and myself first became actively involved during one of the first public meetings on the General Management Plan for the Virgin Islands National Park (including Hassel Island) and Coral Reef Monument, which was scheduled to take place at the National Guard Armory on St. Thomas. Few seemed to know about the meeting.
Formerly owned by the influential Paiewonsky family, approximately 93 percent of Hassel Island was sold or transferred to the federal and local governments between the years of 1977 and 1982. Presently, the National Park Service owns approximately 92 percent of Hassel Island. The local government owns less than 1 percent, yet those holdings include three architectural gems: Cowell's Battery, Fort Willoughby and the Garrison (Magazine) House.
The history of Hassel Island and its functions are quite diverse. Several pre-Colombian settlements have been identified on the island. Hassel Island is known for its early piracy and contraband trading activities, ridge-side farming, and its strategic military significance under Danish, British and American rule. This peninsula, along with Muhlensfeld's Point at Frenchman's Reef, served as the first line for defense for the Charlotte Amalie Harbor.
The skilled craftsmanship of the local work force marks many of the structures from the early 19th-century period of British occupation, and ship-repairing activities at Careening Cove. The Creque's Marine Railway is among the earliest steam-powered marine railways in the Western Hemisphere, and the oldest surviving example of a steam-powered railway in the world! An international crew of shipping companies operated from the island or in its immediate environs, including the German Hamburg America Lines and the Broensted Company, the British Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the French Generale Transatlantique line, and the Danish-based East Asiatic Company (precursor of the Danish West India Company). On Hassel Island, poised and powerful coal-carrying women earned a respectable income and worldwide fame as they fueled incoming steamships.
In the latter part of the 20th century, Hassel Island emerged as a pristine island. Yet, prior to this period, the Hassel Island peninsula was St. Thomas' "workhorse" replete with fuel tanks, water tanks, clunky signal stations, bustling pathways, and smoke exhaust from the old steam house. Hassel Island had — and has — character!
The Paiewonsky family made a gift of Fort Willoughby, located on 0.2 acres of land, to the people of the Virgin Islands in 1977. Later the Paiewonsky brothers sold other Hassel Island holdings to the federal and local governments for a total of $6,425,000, consisting of $4,425,000 in cash and $2,000,000 in charitable gifts and donations. Since then, Hassel Island, which is now in the public trust, has remained dormant, and for the most part is physically and politically inaccessible to the people of the Virgin Islands.
Possibly a bit naïve, I had hoped that good intentions are all that are necessary to run credible organization. Because few seemed to assume that there was public ownership of Hassel Island, at the first public meeting, the trust's founders expedited plans to establish the organization in a desperate attempt to rouse the National Park Service, its consultants and the general public's attention to the short- and long-term needs of this long-neglected island, and its heritage/ ecotourism and public education opportunities.
The founding members proceeded to reach as many potential participants as possible, including members of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, environmentalists, the Paiewonsky family and residents of Hassel Island. It was at this meeting that I first met Rik Van Rensselaer, another Hassel Island veteran, and the Hassel Island spark was revived. Soon after, a two-inch-thick compendium including the trust's proposal for developing an urban park on Hassel Island (later referred to as a living museum), and the documentation of previous Hassel Island initiatives, was submitted to the National Park service by the submission deadline. The trust also distributed (by hand delivery) complimentary copies to affiliated government agencies, St. Thomas Historical Trust, the Paiewonsky family and contacts on Hassel Island.
The concept of sponsoring and implementing a legitimate tour-guide training program preceded Hassel Island advocacy efforts. After being immersed in the Virgin Islands and Caribbean history via my graduate studies, the richness of the Hassel Island stories appeared to unite these chronologies. Facilitating this tour-guide training program created an empowering cross-generational outlet for locals to assume an integral role in our tourism industry.
Thanks to a partnership with the UVI-CELL program and funding by the Atlantic Tele-Network Corporation, the Hassel Island Preservation Trust started an extended tour-guide training program on Sept. 18, 2004. It included eminent trainers and facilitators, learning aids, CPR and first response training and certification, and a long-awaited site visit and practice session on Hassel Island. There, the unanticipated occurred. This was the first time that most of the trainees visited the island. Facilitator and agronomist Jaquel Dawson-Malbranche introduced the tour-guide trainees to the island's landscape, while Janet Mescus of the M-Factor coached the students on their delivery. Ms. Dawson Malbranche started the training session by explaining that Hassel Island contained all of the plants necessary to attract bees and to produce a superb local honey. This led to a training session where, for once, the architecture and history of Hassel Island assumed a secondary role, as the students became absorbed by the lessons of the natural landscape. This experience was truly and amazingly incredible.
The trust is also involved in facilitating drainage and aesthetic mitigation efforts on the Signal Hill road. On November 23, 2004, the trust coordinated an interagency mitigation team that included the National Park Service, the V.I. Port Authority, the Planning and Natural Resources and the Public Works departments to address the environmental and aesthetic challenges caused by the reestablishing the existing Signal Hill road and its steepness. Mr. Killebrew has definitely heard the public's ire for his role in spearheading the road improvements, but the responsibilities for the outcome are more complex and transcend Mr. Killebrew's personal decision-making process. Members of the Hassel Island Preservation Trust were also impressed by the World W
ar II road's newfound visibility.
The Hassel Island Preservation Trust has benefited from the unencumbered contributions of the ATN firm. The trust believes that a 21st-century telecommunications facility and harbor monument is compatible with the historic functions of Signal Hill and its signaling station. The difference is that today information is sent via the internet/DSL lines, cellphones and cable television. We believe that a compromise is indeed possible, as Mr. Cornelius Prior's stated interest in investing in cultural resources on Hassel Island is believable. Unfortunately, sincere intentions are often embroiled seemingly non-rational behaviors that are fueled by power, control and insecurity.
The focus of the Hassel Island Preservation Trust is obviously Hassel Island. From the beginning, we have been open (i.e., transparent) in our dealings. Our primary intention, besides raising the public's consciousness concerning Hassel island, is to generate the capital and investment from various sources necessary for Hassel Island to emerge as a true and state-of-the-art "living museum," with its Amerindian villages, historic trails, interpretive signage, marked ruins, stabilized and restored landmark structures, interpretive museum and archival facilities, a quality gift shop, a marine training facility at Careening Cove and other complementary attractions. There is room on Hassel Island for all: Hassel Island's history embodies us all! What we hope for is a newfound collaboration between interested individuals and organizations, lest we allow Hassel Island to remain stagnant for another 20 years!

Wanda Mills, a 1979 graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School with a doctoral degree in historic preservation and urban planning practice from Rutgers University, came home to live in the Virgin Islands in 2000 because, according to a Source People feature, she feels she can make a difference here with her research and professional interests.

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