Exploring The Parks: Christiansted National Historic Site

Christiansted fortCannons in the fort

The courtyard in the Christianvaern Fort. Cannons still point out to sea. Photographs by Danny Bernstein

Here at the Traveler we recently asked you to comment on Which Is The Most Overlooked, Or Under Appreciated, Unit Of The National Park System? Well, after my trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I can answer with great conviction that the three intriguing parks in St. Croix -- Christiansted National Historic Site, Buck Island Reef National Monument, and Salt River Bay National Historical Park -- qualify for both overlooked and under-appreciated.

After appreciating the trails, beaches and donkeys of Virgin Islands National Park in St. John , my husband and I flew to St. Croix. If you find yourself lucky enough to visit the Virgin Islands, don't miss the island of St. Croix.

St. Croix is the most Danish of the three U.S Virgin Islands. Denmark didn't get into the European race for colonies and profits in the New World until late. It occupied the uninhabited islands of St. Thomas from 1671 and St. John starting in 1717. The Danes purchased St. Croix from France in 1733 to increase their sugar mill operations. Of the three islands, St. Croix is the largest, flattest, and most suited to growing sugar cane.

Christiansted National Historic Site, established in 1952, consists of seven acres and six historic buildings. Its stated mission is "to preserve the historic structure and grounds within its boundaries, and to interpret the Danish economy and way of life in St. Croix between 1733 and 1917." The site sits in the middle of the town of Christiansted, named in honor of King Christian VI of Denmark-Norway.

During the height of the sugar cane industry, (mid-18th century to mid-19th century), the island became wealthy, attracting international residents. At one time or another, the white population of Christiansted consisted of Danes, Norwegians, British, Germans, Dutch, Irish, and a few Sephardic Jews. There's still an active synagogue in Christiansted, though we decided to skip the Friday night services.

Fort Christiansvaern, built in 1749, is the major historic building left by the Danes. The yellow building has its cannons still pointing out to sea, though I doubt if it could take on a hostile navy now. The small visitor center houses information for all three St. Croix national park sites.

A Park Unit In Need Of Help

The historic site needs a lot of help. We visited the fort on a Saturday, hoping to get on a scheduled ranger tour, but no tours were offered because there just isn't enough staff. Instead, Jazmyne, a smiling fifth-grader, approached us and asked if we wanted a tour. "Yes, please," we replied.

Jazmyne started with the dungeon for bad slaves. "If you burned cane fields, they put you in solitary confinement." That was the worst crime that could be committed. The cell is a small black hole. Jazmyne also made sure that we saw the urinals where human waste went straight out to the sea.

Alexander Hamilton's mother, Rachel Lavien, was imprisoned in the fort for a while. Hamilton, born in Nevis, grew up in Christiansted with his mother and older brother. Lavien had left her abusive husband, who was much older and more socially powerful than her. He had his wife imprisoned in the fort, claiming that she had committed "such mistakes, which for married people were indecent and very suspect." At least she had her own cell.

Lavien's life could inspire romance novelists. After being released from prison, she fell in love with a Scotsman, James Hamilton, and had two sons, though she was not free to marry. The family came back to Christiansted, but soon the Hamilton boys became orphans. Alexander became an apprentice carpenter. As an exhibit states, "Hamilton was determined to make his way into the world, but not in St. Croix since he was not born to a plantocracy." Instead, he found his way to New York and became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

In the fort, the officers had a day room facing the courtyard where they rested, played checkers, and wrote letters. The original Danish furniture dates back from the 1830s to 1850s. Upstairs, the cannons face out to sea. The location was protected by two smaller forts, forming a triangle. If an enemy ship came into the harbor, it would be caught in crossfire, but the fort was never attacked.

Jazmyne has the singsong uptalk of a tween trying to recite important facts. But she did a great job as a tour guide and saved us the trouble of figuring out the rooms from a paper guide that had been photocopied to death.

Strolling Through Town

After leaving the fort, we continued the tour suggested in the park pamphlet. The town is laid out in a grid with imposing masonry structures, painted yellow. Christiansted’s Danish heritage can still be seen in its architecture, its arcaded sidewalks, and its street names. The colonial capital was built on the backs of slaves and fueled by sugar and rum money. In 1917, after a long economic decline, the United States bought the three Virgin Islands from Denmark a few days before it officially entered World War I.

The other buildings, all within a couple of blocks of each other, were mostly closed, but a walk around offers a good feel for the wealth and gentility of the colonial era.

The Steeple Building, built 1753, was the original Lutheran Church, and today is a museum. The Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse housed storerooms. In the yard, slaves were auctioned off. The Customs House and post office dates to 1751.

Today the exhibit signs have faded. The Scale House is now used as offices, with outdoor exhibits on Alexander Hamilton's early life. Government House, owned by the Virgin Islands government, might be open to visitors on weekdays. The last building on the tour, the Lord God of Sabaoth Lutheran Church, was first built as the Dutch Reformed Church before 1740.

On Saturday evening, I heard music coming out of the open doors in the Lutheran Church and slipped in quietly. Almost all the parishioners were African-Americans. The pastor, a tall, rotund man, wore a white robe with a rope holding the garment closed. When I got there, the congregation was up at the pulpit getting the Eucharist, followed by great singing led by an inspirational choir.

The president of the congregation made his announcements and asked. "Are there any visiting Danes worshipping with us tonight?" Three couples stood up. "Are there other visitors?" I didn’t stand up because I wasn’t worshipping, just observing. The music got lively and everyone swayed and took a few dance steps, even the minister and the female assistant minister, similarly dressed in a white robe. The Danes looked around in amazement. We all sang, “I shall not be moved.”

The St. Croix Parks Need Your Help

The three national parks in St. Croix could use a lot of help and a Friends group.

I met Ranger David J. Goldstein, chief of interpretation, and asked again about a tour, but the St. Croix parks are underfunded and understaffed. "My priorities are the children on the island," he said. "They don't know about this place. They don't know why they're here."

So no resources for ranger talks for the public. I sympathized with him. Even the Eastern National bookstore wasn't open on the weekend.

I am outraged at how little help the St. Croix national park gems are getting from its residents. This is not a poor area. We met rich retirees from the mainland with second homes or living here permanently. The upscale restaurants show that there is plenty of money on the island. These folks could be volunteers.

Where is the Friends group? Almost every national park has a Friends group, which raises money for the park, supplies volunteers, and in general increases visibility for the park. The parks also need volunteers that will give tours, clean up the trails, and do a thousand things that the park staff doesn't have the resources to do. Heck, how about just writing a check? The National Park Service can't do it all. Even before all the budget cuts and sequestration, the National Park Service was never well-funded. There has to be support from the locals.

And what about the Danes? St. Croix is the most Danish of the Virgin Islands. All park pamphlets are in Danish and English. So are the restaurant menus. A mother and daughter came from Denmark to celebrate the mother's 60th birthday. She had worked as a nanny in St. Croix more than 40 years ago. There are Danish tours from November to April. I spoke to several Danes who said that they came in search of their country's history. Of course, visitors help the island's general economy, but none seems to trickle in to the national parks. Shouldn’t there be a Danish Friends of the St. Croix national parks? Money, time, and effort could refurbish the fort and open up the other buildings.

Even the tourist brochures have very little mention of the national parks. VISITUSVI.COM has an exhibit board in the center of town offering sightseeing suggestions. The Christiansted fort is only suggested on Day 5, maybe.

If you're in the Virgin Islands, visit St. Croix and its national park and drop a ten-dollar bill in their donation box.

Comments

That little girl, Jazmyne, is she by chance a child of one of the park staff?

Yes she is. Not that little. She's in the 5th grade and very well-spoken.

Danny

www.hikertohiker.com

Thanks for some interesting insights into some parks that are off almost everyone's radar.