E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary School students toured Fort Christian on Tuesday, marking the first school tours since the 343-year-old fort was closed to the public in 2004. Tours for the public should begin in a few weeks, according to the St. Thomas Historical Trust.
Student tours came first because the Historical Trust wanted to make sure that Virgin Island children are the first through the doors of the fort after its long closure, according to a statement from the trust.
"Many of these students are seeing the inside of Fort Christian for the first time," Historical Trust President Ronald Lockhart said in the statement. "We hope that this introduction will spur these children to think of it as their fort, foster pride in their island’s history, as well as a sense of stewardship," he added.
The Gladys Abraham and Joseph Gomez Elementary Schools will visit within the next week and then, once the tours are evaluated and refined, the trust aims to invite all island fourth-graders by the end of the school term.
The experience of the student tours will help the trust prepare for leading guided public tours, beginning in the next few weeks. Michael Sprowles is managing the development of the tours.
Sen. Myron Jackson, a former state historic preservation officer who played a role in pushing for renovations at the fort, led one of two big groups of students.
"I got invited over the weekend for a ceremony and ended up guiding a tour," Jackson said by phone Tuesday evening. Jackson said he was very happy to see the fort preparing to open for the public and to again be used as an educational resource.
"Today a school group actually had an opportunity to go into the fort, in its current, existing condition, and learn about the facility, and that is what it is all about," Jackson said. "We had an exchange on the building’s history: when it was built and why; how it functioned and its historic role in protecting the town of Charlotte Amalie," he said.
In the past, the fort was a major, all-around museum for the territory, with decorative arts, artifacts of the colonial and the modern period, natural history and more. But going forward, Jackson said he hopes it will be dedicated to "tell the story of early colonization and fortification of Charlotte Amalie."
Jackson said he feels that way both because it better suits the fort, which is registered as a national historic landmark, and because the centuries-old seaside fort, with water permeable stone and sand walls, is less than ideal for preservation and curating work.
"I suggest we look at it as a national historic site and as a fortification for the protection and creation of the town of Charlotte Amalie and its role in the transatlantic slave trade. … Fort Christian should tell that story," Jackson said.
"Denmark colonized the West Indies for the creation of plantations trading in tobacco, indigo, slaves, sugar and rum. They established St. Thomas as a colony and they needed a fortification to protect it," he said.
The fort played a major role in importing slaves until Denmark abolished the direct trade in 1802, Jackson said. In 1878 it became a jailhouse and the color was changed from white to red, an old tower was torn down and its clock tower was built, he said.
After years of planning and wrangling, renovation on the fort structure began in May 2005 and was expected to be completed within a year. The Federal Housing Administration originally provided a $1.2 million grant for the work.
But work was delayed as more damage was found and unforeseeable factors like the discovery of skeletal remains buried on the site. Then in June 2007, with an additional $2 million in V.I. Public Finance Authority funding, work began in earnest. In 2008, the four renovated faces of the tower’s famous clock were installed. But then, work stalled again, and in 2011 contractor Tip Top Construction sued the government for more than $2 million in uncompensated work. The government countersued, saying work that was paid for was not performed. That suit was settled in early 2013.
In September 2013, Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed an historic trust agreement with the V.I. Historical Trust, Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the State Historic Preservation Office that cleared the way for repairs and restorations on historic sites that fall within V.I. and allows the trust to raise money for preservation work on the fort and to lead tours there.
Founded in 1966, the St. Thomas Historical Trust is a registered nonprofit. Its headquarters and museum are located on Roosevelt Park at 14-B Norre Gade.