Historic Charlotte Amalia

In order to bring some bright colors to this rainy Friday in New England (in Vermont at least – where did last week’s weather go?), let’s take another jaunt to St. Thomas, USVI. Originally named Charlotte Amalia, a map misspelling changed the name to Charlotte Amalie upon U.S. acquisition. Charlotte Amalia was the first settlement on St. Thomas, established in 1672 by Danish settlers. In its early years, it was a haven for pirates. The Charlotte Amalia Historic District includes government, civic and residential buildings. Learn more about the USVI historic sites on the NPS travel site (the website is dated, but the information is good).

While stunning and colorful, I found the beauty of the buildings to be marred by the numerous utility lines and poles, modern street lights and the asphalt streets. Many of these modern amenities were likely added in the last few decades, when tourism increased exponentially. I hope that future improvements take into account the historic context of the district and the visual effects of existing infrastructure. With that said, the district is fascinating; partially because was an entirely new landscape to me. These photographs are an eclectic mix from our stroll through the historic district.

Red metal and tile roofs define the view in Charlotte Amalie; what a striking complement to the blue sky and green leaves everywhere.

The colors of buildings along the streets are so vibrant!

Many of the historic buildings have tall windows with functioning shutters, which would have been designed to control the temperature and air movement throughout the day and seasons.

The buildings in the shopping district have doors such as those above, which open wide for business hours but are locked with latches and bolts at the end of the day. It makes for a much more interesting and appropriate streetscape than standard doors.

Wood doors and cast iron balconets are a common sight.

An alley "restored" in the 1970s; many alleys lead to additional small stores. Charlotte Amalie is known in the USVI for its shopping district.

Above the main streets, the streets are steep and hilly, as seen in this photograph. the asphalt pavement meets the building edge or meets the concrete gutters on the side of the street. The open gutters function as above ground rain and runoff drains. You can see on the left that some buildings build over the drains, creating small culverts.

The Frederick Lutheran Church.

The United States Post Office.

The 99 Steps located on Government Hill. The Danes built these "streets" up the steep hills in the form of stairs, using brick ballast from the ships. Some portions of the steps have been rebuilt and covered with concrete. There are also more than 99 steps.

Looking down the 99 steps.

The view from the top of the hill at Blackbeard's Castle.

These photographs are mostly without pedestrians because we were strolling around on a Sunday, which is not a cruise ship day, and therefore much of the island is closed. While it limited where we could venture inside, it made for easy sight-seeing.

Other USVI posts: Preservation Photos #122. Annaberg Sugar Mill. Preservation Photos #121. Home Sweet Home. Historic Sites on the Reef Bay Trail. Reef Bay Sugar Mill.

Reef Bay Sugar Mill

And the cold weather has returned to Vermont. And because Mother Nature has a sense of humor, it is snowing today whereas last Monday I drove with my windows open and wore short sleeves. Anyway, I’m sure you all have similar crazy weather patterns.

So, let’s go back to the USVI, shall we? We left off at the end of the Reef Bay Trail hike, which brings us to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill. Originally a cattle and cotton plantation, it was converted to a sugar plantation and sugar cane production in the late 18th century.

The Reef Bay Sugar Mill, as seen from the horse mill.

This sugar mill is part of a National Register of Historic Places as the Reef Bay Sugar Factory Historic District. While the Virgin Islands are home to many sugar factory ruins, the Reef Bay mill is the best preserved example, partially because it operated longer and later than any other mills. One reason for its longevity is that production power was converted to steam power in the 1860s. You’ll recall that the Annaberg Sugar Mill operated off wind and horse power.

View from the trail.

You can see, outside and inside this section of the factory, the steam power mechanisms. This engine room was built to house the mechanisms.

The steam engine.

In this picture, take note of the frame and sheet metal roof over the ruins. This is a common method (adding a lightweight roof) to protect a site without altering its features. The roof is clearly distinguishable from the historic building.

Inside the factory, these boiling coppers are more visible than those at Annaberg. This is where the sugar was boiled and processed.

Individual view of one of the coppers.

Looking into the boiling house.

Weathered door frame, hinges and building masonry.

Weathered bricks. All of the weathered and worn masonry provided excellent color contrast, which made the site even more interesting.

The Reef Bay Sugar Mill was documented by the Historic American Engineering Record, and if you look at the photographs in that collection, you’ll see that it was documented prior to site stabilization and the sheet metal roof.  The site operated as a sugar factory until the early 20th century. Read the data pages of the HAER documentation for a full history.

The only downside of the trail and the historic site is the poor condition of the interpretive panels, which have faded and developed a tacky surface, which make reading the information difficult on some. Obviously, the Virgin Islands National Park faces budget cuts, like all other parks, but it is a shame that the history has to suffer. If you want to get the most out of your visit, read background information on the site or the HAER documentation before you go.  The views, the scenery and the historic site are certainly worth a hike down the Reef Bay Trail.

Other USVI posts: Preservation Photos #122. Annaberg Sugar Mill. Preservation Photos #121. Home Sweet HomeHistoric Sites on the Reef Bay Trail.