Pruning the Parks: St. Thomas National Historic Site (1960-1975) Left the Park System as Quietly as It Entered

Upper photo:Danish soldiers fire salute from the fort’s Salute Battery as U.S. representatives come ashore at Kings Wharf on March 31, 1917, for transfer of ownership ceremonies. St. Johns Historical Society photo by H. Petersen.

Bottom photo: Modern view of Fort Christian north wall. USVI Division of Tourism photo.

St. Thomas National Historic Site left the National Park System as quietly as it entered. Getting abolished without ever being activated didn’t make it unique, but getting established on Christmas Eve put it in a class of its own.

On the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea not far east and south of Puerto there is a cluster of four islands and about 50 islets and cays. Danes colonized three of the large islands -- St. Thomas (1660s), St. John (1718), and St. Croix (1733) – and collectively administered them as the Danish West Indies. At first a company-run commercial venture, it became a crown colony in 1755. Saint Thomas primarily served trade and shipping functions, while slave plantation sugarcane production was concentrated on St. Croix.

How the United States acquired the Danish West Indies is an interesting story. The U.S. offered to buy the little colony from Denmark before World War I, being concerned that Germany might conquer Denmark, assume ownership of its overseas dependencies, establish a military presence in the Caribbean, and use it to make mischief in America’s back yard. This initial offer was refused, but Denmark had a World War I-related change of heart and sold the Danish West Indies to the United States in 1917 for $25 million. The United States now had a territory henceforth to be called the United States Virgin Islands (USVI).

The strategic significance of the USVI being what it was, the U.S. Navy was assigned to administer it during the early years (1917-1931). Recall that this was the era of Gunboat Diplomacy, a time when nations projected their power with battleships. For this you needed friendly ports and coaling stations. (If the Federal government entertained the notion that the USVI might someday become a popular sun-sea-sand tourist destination, there was little hint of it.)

The transfer of ownership ceremony that took place on St. Thomas in 1917 made conspicuous use of the island’s single most important structure, a history-steeped fort called Fort Christian situated in the port city of Charlotte Amalie on a narrow peninsula projecting into St. Thomas harbor.. Constructed in the 1670s to protect Charlotte Amalie, and named for Danish king Chrsitian V, Fort Christian (aka Christians Fort) was designed as a rubble masonry fortress with thick curtain walls enclosing a square with a tall internal bastion. There is a large diamond-shaped bastion at each corner of the fort.

Improvements in naval gunnery rendered the fort obsolete by the 1820s. It was completely demilitarized by the 1870s.

Numerous modifications over the centuries enlarged the fort and greatly changed its appearance. Most conspicuously, the north curtain – the wall and parapet extending between the northeast and northwest bastions -- was demolished and replaced by a Gothic revival one-story wall that has a three-tiered tower as its architectural focal point. This is the aspect of the fort most frequently captured in tourists’ photographs.

After the 1917 ownership transfer, the Navy took over Fort Christian as well as some land lying south and east of the fort (one tract of which subsequently had a Marine Corps barracks ensconced on it.). In addition to serving Navy administrative needs and related functions, the fort housed a police station and the USVI prison. Although Navy administration ended when USVI acquired a civil government in 1931, the latter two functions continued until 1983.

Since 1954, the USVI has been administered by the Federal government, through the Department of the Interior, as an unincorporated territory with limited self-government. In 1970 USVI residents, of which there are currently about 110,000, were given the authority to elect their own governor.

Upkeep of Fort Christian was an expensive proposition, as you might imagine, and it was not done as conscientiously as it should have been. The USVI had a struggling economy and was sometimes referred to as “America’s Poorhouse.”

By the late 1950s, the cumulative effect of deferred maintenance and neglected repairs was very apparent and some USVI residents were voicing concern about Fort Christian’s preservation. Secretary of the Interior Fred Andrew Seaton responded by signing an order establishing the St. Thomas National Historic Site, under National Park Service administration, effective December 24, 1960.

The Park Service never activated St. Thomas National Historic Site. The entire structure was allocated for territorial prison and police station use except for the southwest bastion, which housed the Civil Defense office of the Virgin Islands, and four lower rooms of the southeast bastion, which housed a small museum of local history established in 1971 by USVI’s first elected governor.

Under the terms of the Submerged Lands Act of 1974 (PL 92-4351), Congress transferred ownership of Fort Christian to the Virgin Islands government. St. Thomas National Historic Site was abolished effective February 5, 1975, having existed for a little more than 15 years as the only national park established on Christmas Eve.

Postscript
: Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus designated Fort Christian as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977. It is currently undergoing restoration.