June 5, 2002 – The remains of the old Dutch Fort Willoughby still grace the rocky shoreline. Bits of pottery and glass lie amid the ruins of structures that once helped to provide a defense to the bordering Charlotte Amalie harbor. On most days, except for the handful of people who live there, only the seagulls visit Hassel Island.
The Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park organization hopes to change that. Its president, Joe Kessler, stopped by a Rotary One meeting at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on Wednesday to share a glimpse into the Friends plan for Hassel Island.
Kessler said the protection and preservation of cultural history within the Virgin Islands is a primary function of his organization and Hassel Island is a "cornerstone" in its efforts. He allowed as how the work on the island is "something of a departure" from the usual efforts of the Friends of the National Park.
The organization is known for raising funds to help finance projects within the V.I. National Park on St. John, including restoration work at the Annaberg Plantation ruins.
But most of Hassel Island is the property of the National Park System, too, Kessler said. The park system acquired it in the late 1960s from the Paiewonsky family, which still own three parcels of land on its eastern shore.
Like Annaberg, Hassel Island holds significant architectural promise for the people of the Virgin Islands, according to Kessler. "There is a lot of potential with the historical sites on the island," he said.
But he said the Friends group is just beginning its work on Hassel Island. Initial plans are to clean up the area surrounding the historic Creque Marine Railway located on the western shore across from Frenchtown. After that, he said, group members and other volunteers plan to put in a foot path, fence the area around the steam house and add interpretive signage to the area. And, he said, they're considering putting in restrooms to accommodate visitors.
There's not much reason for tourists to want to visit Hassel Island now, and no way for them to get there if they do, other than by private boat. But Kessler doesn't rule out the potential for tourism. "I believe in the philosophy that if you build it, they will come," he said, laughing. "Any activity on Hassel Island right now is pretty much a self-initiated one."
He said he believes that once Friends members clear and rehabilitate the Creque Railway site, "entrepreneurs" from the boating community will seriously consider operating a concession to transport tourists to and from Hassel Island.
None of the roughly 80 percent of the island that's owned by the National Park System has been developed with an eye toward tourism. The Creque Railway project is one of the first steps toward that end, Kessler said.
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