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Visiting Hassel Island off St. Thomas

The smaller of the two islands in St. Thomas’s harbor, Hassel Island was once connected to St. Thomas via a narrow isthmus. There are several historic ruins on the 135-acre island, including British fortifications and the remains of a 20th-century marine railway. Most of the island is owned by Virgin Islands National Park, which has embarked on a project to restore the island’s sites, develop trails, and open the island up to visitors.

Hassel Island lies just offshore from Charlotte Amalie, St, Thomas, USVI.
Explore old forts and the remains of a marine railway and enjoy unbeatable views of picturesque Charlotte Amalie on Hassel Island, St. Thomas. Photo © Jared, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The Danish government first separated Hassel Island from St. Thomas in 1860 in hopes of creating better water circulation in the harbor. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the channel by dredging in 1919. Originally called Hurricane Hole, the island came to be known Hassel Island for its owners, the Hazzell family.

In addition to the military and industrial purposes the island has served over the years, it housed a leprosarium from the 1830s until the 1860s. The government paid the equivalent of $2 per patient housed in the facility operated by the Hazzell family.

Creque Marine Railway on the northern tip of the island was the earliest steam-powered marine railway in the Western Hemisphere and is evidence of St. Thomas’s importance as a 19th-century shipping depot. Opened in 1844, the marine railway lifted large vessels out of the water for cleaning and repair. The marine railway operated almost continuously for 120 years. From 1911 until 1954 it was operated by the Creque family of St. Thomas. During World War II it was leased to the U.S. Navy. The last recorded ship was hauled out there in 1965.

The ruins of the railway have recently been cleared of overgrowth, and visitors can examine an interesting collection of old-fashioned machinery and equipment, including early diving bells.

Other ruins on the island include early-19th-century British fortifications, dating back to the brief British occupation during the first Napoleonic war. The British built Fort Shipley, or Shipley’s Battery, on the highest point of the island; hike up for excellent views of Charlotte Amalie. Fort Willoughby, also known as Prince Frederik’s Battery, is a picturesque lookout on the island’s far eastern point.

Getting to Hassel Island

The St. Thomas Historical Trust (340/774-5541) offers guided tours of Hassel Island. The three-hour tour leaves via launch from Frenchtown and includes all of the historical sites on the island. The trust asks for a donation of $50 per person, which goes to help maintain the park and support its further development. The tours run based on demand and two-day advance reservations are recommended.

Virgin Islands Ecotours (340/779-2155 or 877/845-2925) also offers guided kayak, hike, and snorkel tours of Hassel Island four days a week. The three-hour tours cost $100 and include visits to Fort Willoughby, the Creque Marine Railway, Fort Shipley, and Garden Beach. A five-hour option includes additional time for snorkeling and a picnic lunch.

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