• close family • small boat • big world •

Hassel Island

April 15, 2015

by Paula
At anchor, St.Martin

(This is from our backlog of posts)

It’s not a hippie commune, but it feels a bit like one. An old-time sail-maker and a few of his friends still live and work on Hassel Island, a tiny island just south of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. The island is now a national park, but these guys have been around long enough that their operation has been allowed to remain. Friends took us to visit Milton, who has been making sails the old-fashioned way for decades. Unfortunately we arrived just as he was just heading out with his wife and son, guiding a wheel-barrow full of canvas-work toward the dock for delivery. But he gladly encouraged us to take a look around.

We wound our way through gorgeous scenery peppered with bits and pieces of sailing and sewing detritus. Strewn throughout the property are old sailing artifacts, decrepit sewing machines, antique bottles, vintage architectural items, old tools, and random art projects. But rather than looking junky, this place has an artistic feel.

The one-story structure where they all live and work is the same crazy mish-mash. A ramshackle sail-maker’s workshop leads to a large kitchen and dining room, which leads to the main bedroom. Numerous smaller
bedrooms seem stuck on here and there, to accommodate whoever is sharing their home at the time. Some of the windows had screens, while others, like many of the doors, were just open spaces. The whole place looks like something that evolved rather than being built.

We met up with Bobby Ray, another old-timer also living and working on the island. He’s an artist who specializes in computer graphic work of outer space. What a crazy juxtaposition - he lives in this simple, throw-back of a place, but works on high-tech animations for Disney. It just goes to show what an internet connection can do.

Elsewhere on the island we explored the remains of the Creque Marine Railway. The island, like most of those in the Caribbean, has a varied and fascinating history. During the 1700s, St. Thomas was a Danish-owned free-port that played a major role in the Caribbean mercantile community. The British occupied this and other islands from 1801 to 1802 and then again during the Napoleonic Wars from 1807 to 1815. Both times, the British set up headquarters on Hassel Island, which was still a peninsula joined to the mainland, and built a number of fortifications and housing structures.

Once the Danes took back the island, shipping and free-trade resumed, with a booming business by the 1830s. Hassel served this end with a variety of activities. Careening Cove was a spot where ships were beached for repairs and cleaning - careening. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC) established their Caribbean headquarters for the transfer of mail, freight, and passengers from its transatlantic steamers, and their compound included a ship’s coaling station. A ship-repair business was set up by locals, which eventually became the Creque Marine Railway, a facility that used rail lines to haul ships from the sea for maintenance.

Cholera and malaria outbreaks lead the Danish government to dredge the harbor in 1864 to disconnect the peninsula and form Hassel Island. The epidemics, along with hurricanes and changes in technology lead to the decline of business on Hassel. The RMSPC moved to Barbados, but the St. Thomas Marine Railway Company was purchased by local Henry O. Creque, who continued to repair and service ships under the new name, The Creque Marine Railway.

The US bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, utilizing their strategic location during WWI and WWII for military purposes. However, the Creque Marine Railway continued operations until its closing in the 1960s. Eventually in 1978, a large part of Hassel Island was transferred to the Virgin Islands National Park.

Much is left of the Creque Marine Railway, which operated to hoist large steam-powered ships onto land for repair and maintenance. A long inclined plane with rails leads from the water to a cradle on which the ships are set. A Bolton steam engine powered the winch that was used to hoist the large ships up the rails and onto the cradle. The slipway could haul vessels as large as 1200 tons. The Creque Marine Railway is the oldest steam-powered marine railway in the Western Hemisphere.