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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, July 19, 2024


March 25, 2002 – Crystal Fortwangler's maps and photographs told the tale of St. John's stunning growth.
Speaking at the Cinnamon Bay amphitheater Saturday on "Changes in the Landscape: The Past Hundred Years on St. John," Fortwangler took the several dozen people who attended the Friends of the V.I. National Park seminar on a trip through time.
According to Fortwangler, a University of Michigan doctoral student working on her dissertation on St. John, there were 925 people on the island in 1900, and their number would drop in the first half of the century. A hundred years later, the 2000 census showed St. John with a population of 4,197.
Fortwangler described an economy that limped along with subsistence and cattle farming as the way of life until shortly after the national park opened in 1956. That year, The New York Times reported that in addition to the rooms at Caneel Bay Plantation (now Caneel Bay Resort), where guests paid $28 to $38 a day, the island had a guesthouse at Trunk Bay for up to 13 visitors at $12 a day plus two "native inns" and four or five housekeeping cottages.
The first cruise ship to visit St. John, the Swedish American Line's Kungsholm, dropped off 850 people at Caneel Bay, on Oct. 28, 1958. That was "100 more people than lived on St. John" at the time, Fortwangler said.
Throwing in a few territorial facts, she said that in 1959 the first Pueblo supermarket opened on St. Thomas and Pan Am began daily service from New York with tickets running $67 one way. In 1961, Virgin Islands Television began broadcasting, Chase Bank opened its St. John office and the National Park Service began constructing buildings on St. John. In 1962, the park started work on its Cruz Bay Visitor Center.
While local lawmakers had complained about the park as far back as 1958, the situation reached fever pitch in 1962, when word reached St. John that the U.S. Senate had passed a bill allowing the federal government to take land lying within park boundaries by condemnation. A lobbying effort spearhead by the late St. John senator Theovald Moorehead nipped that idea when it got to the House of Representatives, but the move sowed the seeds of discontent that continues today.
In 1969, Ruth "Sis" Frank opened what became Holiday Homes, the island's first vacation villa management agency, the start of what is now a booming business on St. John. By the mid-1960s, St. John was on its way to becoming a tourist haven, with some people who still live on the island opening businesses. In 1967, Fortwangler said, Islandia Real Estate set the pace for the cadre of real estate agents selling homes today. The ever-popular Fred's Bar and Restaurant opened in 1977 with a grand party, and the Mongoose Junction shopping complex opened in 1978.
The Virgin Grand Hotel — which later became the Hyatt Resort and now is the Westin Resort — opened in 1987. Before that, most St. John vacationers except for the well-heeled guests at Caneel Bay were people who enjoyed camping at Cinnamon Bay Campground or Maho Bay Camps or who stayed at one of the island's modest vacation villas or in one of the guesthouses scattered around Cruz Bay. With the coming of the Virgin Grand, pricey restaurants with elaborate menus and gift shops with merchandise aimed at spendy visitors became the norm.
Fortwangler's array of photos, gleaned from the park's files, brought home the extent of change. A 1978 photo of Estate Carolina shows a couple of houses. Today, the hillsides sport an array of homes.
Barry Devine of the University of the Virgin Islands Conservation Data Center brought maps that indicate the fragility of Estate Carolina and the entire Coral Bay area. He said that Coral Bay has the second-largest watershed area in the territory. It has little development today, but if something isn't done to protect the natural resources, it will grow to look like Benner Bay on St. Thomas, which is the largest watershed in the territory. The Benner Bay area, also called the Mangrove Lagoon, is crowded with houses and is home to the Bovoni dump.
Much of the Coral Bay area lies outside the park boundaries and has no controls on development, a fact that prompted park ranger Denise Georges to predict that it and other St. John areas outside the park will soon look like congested St. Thomas. "It's on its way," she said.
The Friends seminars continue through April, with the next set for Wednesday morning, on "Archeology at the Annaberg Slave Village." For more information on the seven remaining presentations, see "Friends of the Park series offers 17 outings" Or call the Friends office at 779-4940.

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