Jan. 21, 2004 – If Caneel Bay Resort's old stones could speak, what stories they would tell! The resort's first occupants were Taino Indians, who set up two fishing camps at Turtle Point from around 400 B.C. and remained until just before Christopher Columbus sailed by in 1493.
"They established a diet of fish that carries through today," Chuck Pishko, president of the St. John Historical Society, said on Wednesday as he shared some of the resort's earliest history with about 20 people taking part in a Friends of the V.I. National Park seminar.
The group taking the "Historical Sugarworks Stroll" included island visitors, snowbirds and permanent residents. Steve Spring, a snowbird, said he decided to attend because he's a history buff. "It sounded interesting," he said as Pishko led the group on a tour through Caneel Bay's extensive ruins.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, Pishko talked about Pieter Durloo, who owned the plantation starting in 1718, according to historical records. Durloo, who was Dutch and came to the island from Curaçao as the Danes were opening up St. John to development after planters had exhausted land on nearby St. Thomas.
Pishko said the government waived Durloo's taxes for seven years — not unlike the Economic Development Commission benefits currently given by the local government to attract business investment.
Called Durloo's Plantation, the estate played a big role in the 1733 slave revolt on St. John. Although the uprising began at Fortsberg in Coral Bay, the island militia fended off the revolutionaries at a point near the old plantation manager's house.
The plantation remained in Durloo family hands until 1798, when James Ruan, a French Huguenot, bought it.
Strolling through the stone remains of the manager's house, the few low walls left of the wattle and daub overseer's house and the sturdy stone walls of the sugar works, Pishko told a tale of hard work by the plantation's slaves and, later, the labors who worked under onerous conditions to make a profit for the plantation owners.
After sugar's heyday ended in the mid- to late 1800s, the plantation owners kept on farming. By the early 1900s, a Haitian named Louis Delinois owned Caneel Bay as well as other plantations on St. John. He was so successful that he was written up in the January 1898 issue of The Monthly Illustrator in an article noting that he exported a superior quality of rum, bay rum and goat hides.
In the 1930s, the Trigo brothers of Puerto Rico bought the property from the Danish West Indian Co. The Trigos ran it as a resort, with a fishing camp at nearby Denis Bay, and eventually sold it to Laurance Rockefeller. It was Rockefeller who in 1956 opened Caneel Bay Plantation, which in the 1980s became Caneel Bay Resort.
"Rockefeller went through and picked out the lights on the tables so they complimented the ladies and the food," Pishko said.
Rockefeller and some associates, under the auspices of the Jackson Hole Preserve, bought up and then donated to the federal government the 6,000 acres of land that became the original holdings of the V.I. National Park.
Pishko also credited Rockefeller with bringing 24-hour electricity to St. John and with starting a medical clinic.
This season's Friends seminars, which run through April, cover a variety of topics. Check out the full schedule here. In most cases, participation is limited to small groups, with reservations required. To sign up, call the Friends office at 779-4940.
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