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.

Historic Sites on the Reef Bay Trail

*Note: The pictures are large and may take a few extra seconds to load. 


The Virgin Islands National Park is rich with hiking trails throughout the park, one of which is the Reef Bay Trail. It begins on Centerline Road, which as you can infer, twists and turns across the center of the island. Although just under five miles from Cruz Bay  (the town where the ferry docks), the 20 mph speed limit, curving roads, and left side of the road driving will make those five miles feel much longer. On the way  you’ll have terrific views. If you’re not driving, you can probably enjoy them.

When you see the trail sign, park on the side of the road.

We chose the Reef Bay Trail because it is well recommended by locals and travel books, and more importantly, because there are ruins of four sugar estates and the trail ends on a beach. Packed with lunch, water and the camera, we were ready for an adventure. Reef Bay Trail is marked with a standard brown & white NPS sign. Park on the side of the road and walk down a stone staircase to the trailhead. Unlike most trails, the downhill is the first half rather than the second. Parts of the trail are technical, while others are easy walking on a dirt path.

An interpretive panel at the beginning of the trail.

At the trailhead.

The beginning of the trail is through a forest, wet and dense, green and leafy. Along the way, large trees of plant types are identified. Early on in the trail, we came across a Danish drainage ditch, channeling from the road down into the forest. Call me a transportation nerd (Vinny does), but I found it fascinating to see a historic drainage ditch. Talk about well planned roads.

Drainage gutter, built in the 18th and 19th centuries by Danish road engineers. Proper drainage kept the roads in good, lasting condition. Some were paved with volcanic rock.

A drainage ditch, look up and down the center of the photograph.

While it’s difficult to see the drainage gutter in this photograph, it is very apparent in person and continues further down. There were a few more on the trail, likely until the trail diverted away from the modern road.

Around the middle of the hike, we encountered historic building ruins. Associated with this set of ruins is a horse mill, similar to the one at Annaberg Sugar Mill.

Ruins of a building adjacent to the horse mill.

A tree grows through this wall.

This section looks like a staircase.

We continued on through this drier portion of the trail. After a little while, the trail leveled, indicating that it would be a good spot for building. Sure enough, we came across the ruins of the Par Force Village, which was a workers’ community. The stone foundation for one building remains. Workers lived here until the 1940s, decades after the sugar mill closed, raising cattle and crops.

The interpretive sign, looking a bit shabby.

Par Village Ruins

From here the trail continued to be flat and an easy walk. The vegetation changed and we saw many small critters – little lizards and soldier crabs scuttling across the trail.


Flatter trail and stone wall, which was part of a sugar plantation.

Pineapple grows underground; these are pineapple plants.

As we hiked, I wondered if the trail was a historic path, the one used by workers, slaves and owners of the sugar plantations.

Sandy soil and different trees were the scenery as we get closer to the beach.

Some of the trail looked like a forest from a fairy tale.

The trail ended at the Reef Bay Sugar Mill, another beautiful historic site in the park, just before landing at the beach. Read more about the Reef Bay Trail history here.

The next USVI post will feature the Reef Bay Sugar Mill.  

Other USVI posts: Preservation Photos #122. Annaberg Sugar Mill. Preservation Photos #121. Home Sweet Home.  

Preservation Photos #122

A cheery house located near the 99 steps and Blackbeard's Castle in the Charlotte Amalie Historic District on St. Thomas, USVI. Note the full length, working window shutters, a common feature here.

Annaberg Sugar Mill Plantation Ruins

The US Virgin Islands are more than beaches, spirits and palm trees. The islands have centuries of history and culture to share. Approximately two-thirds of the island of St. John comprises the Virgin Islands National Park. Much of the park is underwater, which you can see via snorkeling; but, there are many interesting hiking trails and historic sites on land, too.

Welcome to the Annaberg Sugar Mill!

The Annaberg Sugar Mill Plantation Ruins comprise the Annaberg Historic District in the Virgin Islands National Park. Sugar plantations were abundant in this region throughout the 19th century. Though originally grown in India, Columbus brought sugar to the Caribbean, where it thrived. You’ve heard “Cotton was King” in reference to the US South. Well, here “Sugar was King.”  In 1758, a Dutch immigrant, Salomon Zeeger, purchased the property and named it Annaberg in honor of his wife Anna. Though its namesake, the Zeegers did not construct the mill, which dates to ca. 1800. An Irish merchant,James Murphy, purchased many adjacent properties, including Annaberg, to create his sugar estate. Sugar product continued on the plantation long after his death in 1808.

In this historic district are ruins of slave cabins, a magass (drying) shed, a windmill tower, a horse mill, an oven, a boiling house, a curing house and overseers’ quarters, a water cistern and a dungeon, a still house, a rum still, a firing trench and an ox pound.

The trail sign at the Annaberg Sugar Mill. There are 16 points along the trail, though not the same number of informational panels.

When we visited, we were fortunate that volunteer interpreters were on site to give us a helpful lesson on the boiling house. They also handed us a detailed walking tour, which supplemented the few interpretive panels throughout the site. (My knowledge of the site comes from the NPS walking tour brochure, which is very well done.)  We found the site to be in need of additional interpretive signage, especially because the volunteers are only on site for a few months out of the year. Without the brochure and/or the guides, it is much harder to understand the site.

The view near the windmill. Not a bad view for the volunteers and park rangers!

The windmill, which rotated by an attached pole. Rollers crushed sugar cane, which ran into a tank where it stayed until it was ready for processing,

Looking up and through the windmill.

The cook house, where bread was prepared for workers.

Standing inside the boiling house. On the left you can see where the coppers (kettles) were located in order to boil the cane juice down to sugar. Boiling sugar required a lot of attention and skill.

Close up of boiling house wall. The walls were constructed of volcanic rock set into a mortar composed of sand, fresh water, molasses and quicklime from seashells and coral.

Boiling house doorway with wood frame remaining.

Exterior of boiling house.

View looking through the boiling house windows towards the windmill.

View from the horse mill. Horses walked in a large circle in order to substitute for the lack of wind and windmill power on a calm day.

We loved the Annaberg Sugar Mill site for more than the view; the buildings are fascinating. It is a site very different from those throughout the continental United States (though the boiling house reminded me of smelting iron and similar processes, which was a good reference point). Ruins are always intriguing, and historical context and information heightens appreciation and awe of such sites. If you are visiting St. John, the Annaberg Plantation is a must. (A tip: make sure you get the walking tour and read it before you walk around, wondering what the unidentified buildings are.)

Read a detailed history of Annaberg Plantation, from the National Park Service. View the HABS drawings, from the Library of Congress. See the HABS photographs.

Preservation Photos #121

Main Street in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The historic buildings (part of a historic district) that line these narrow streets house small shops - some local, some specialty chains - all of which attract many tourists. It is the best shopping in St. Thomas, so I heard. This picture was taken on a Sunday morning, so most everything was closed, which takes away from the vibrance of other days, but allows for better pictures of the buildings.