In mid-August, Sean Krigger, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, got a call he was expecting sooner rather than later.
Human bones had been observed in a trench that was being excavated by contractors working for the V.I. Water and Power Authority on the western tip of the historic district of Cruz Bay on St. John.
The trench was located in the road perpendicular to the entrance to the Gallows Point Resort, according to Krigger, and the fact that bones were found there was no surprise: Gallows Point Resort is located adjacent to and across the street from the main cemetery in Cruz Bay, a burial ground that has been in continuous use for hundreds of years. “We knew there would be archaeological findings,” Krigger said.
The road excavation is part of the first phase of a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bury power lines, switches, and transformers as part of an effort to protect the island’s power grid from the ravages of a major storm.
“In the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes, more than 90 percent of the electric system on St. John was destroyed. Electrical service was restored to the island some 51 days after Hurricane Irma’s landfall,” according to a WAPA press release in January 2021.
As the project was being planned, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Historic Preservation Commission – a separate entity – mandated an archaeologist be on hand to continuously oversee the excavation.
As contractors continued their work in August, the remains of three more burials were discovered; at least one of them was an intact burial.
This discovery was enough to trigger a process to halt the excavation in the immediate area while local and federal authorities seek to resolve three issues: what research should be conducted on the human remains that are found at the site; what process should be put in place to ensure that the remains are respectfully re-interred; and how much funding will be needed to address these issues.
“The existing contract didn’t include recovery of burials. The archaeological contractor is now preparing a new scope of work for the excavation and for the four burials,” Krigger said.
Although road work near Gallows Point has been suspended, the first phase of the project – estimated to cost $11,905,690 last May – continues. Haugland VI, the contractor for the project, has moved its equipment to the road in front of Mongoose Junction, where work has been ongoing since mid-September, according to area residents. (See video of the road work) “It was no surprise to any of us that remains would be found near Gallows Point,” said David Knight Sr., state chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. “We’re digging holes right straight through an historic cemetery.”
The paved road that passes Gallows Point began as a foot trail that meandered through the cemetery, according to Knight. It was turned into a road when the V.I. government sold a parcel of land to Richard “Duke” Ellington to create accommodations for the rising tourism industry. That property later became Gallows Point Resort.
“When they put in the road in the 1950s , they didn’t dig. They just smoothed it out,” said Kurt Marsh, the St. John representative on the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission. Although there was very little development in that part of Cruz Bay back then, now there are numerous private homes and condominium resorts in the area near the cemetery.
“There has been some discussion of trying to reroute the road, but there doesn’t seem like there’s another option,” said Marsh.
Krigger clarified that neither WAPA nor the contractor did anything wrong during the excavation process. “It’s just a rusty can that got kicked down the road,” he said.
“I can’t speak to what happened in the 1950s, but we will do what we can to respect the souls buried in this space. We want to right this wrong,” said Marsh.
Krigger, Knight, and Marsh all called for community engagement as the process continues. One possibility is to create an ossuary, a chest or designated site that serves as a memorial for those whose remains have been disturbed.
“We’re seeing a process through, though it may be slow and convoluted, it’s being watched very closely, and it’s working. If there’s federal money, there has to be oversight and compliance,” said Knight.
He referred readers to a publication that explains regulations, known as Section 106, for monitoring projects that might disturb historic areas.
The cemetery at Gallows Point is within the boundaries of the Cruz Bay Historic District, which has been on the National Register of Historic Districts since 2016.
Because of Section 106, each one of the unearthed burials needs further study. “I’m pleased that we’ll get historical knowledge,” said Knight. “I hope we can use this as a model of a process that’s working.”
The burial of the power grid on St. John is planned to take place over several phases. The current phase of the project extends from the WAPA substation near Frank Bay to just past Mongoose Junction.
Future plans call for the installation of underground wiring up Centerline Road to the Myrah Keating Smith Health Clinic. Eventually, the project will extend to the Westin Resort on the South Shore Road and to Maho Bay on the North Shore Road, according to WAPA’s website.