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Fort Willoughby

Hassel Island, USVI

See Hassel Island Photo Gallery

Hassel Island
Hassel Island Viewed
from the East

Hassel Island was originally a peninsula with a narrow isthmus between the peninsula and the area now known as Frenchtown. It was this peninsula that created the well-protected harbor that would become so important to the future of St. Thomas.

The Hassel Peninsula was first settled by indigenous Americans who established several small settlements there.


Hassel Island Cave
Rocky South Coast
of Hassel Island


With the arrival of Europeans in the 16th Century, the St. Thomas harbor formed on the west by the Hassel peninsula became an important entry point and stopover for vessels plying the Caribbean waters. The part of the harbor behind the narrow isthmus was so well protected that it became a hurricane hole, used by vessels when tropical storms and hurricanes threatened less secure anchorages. The early European settlers named the peninsula Orkanshullet, meaning hurricane hole.


The isthmus itself was known a a haulover, because small craft could be hauled over the narrow spit of land easier and faster than sailing or rowing around the peninsula.

The Gateway to the Caribbean

‘The place that is on the way to every other place,’ is the mariners terse way of describing St. Thomas. When he lays his course for any part of the Caribbean Sea, the tip of his horny finger points to St. Thomas. To call the little island the gateway to the Caribbean is not mere poetic fancy. The shortened and best course from England to any Central American port, for steam or sail, is by St. Thomas. The route from Spain to Cuba or Mexico is by St. Thomas. For the lines from the United States to Brazil, the most convenient port of call is St. Thomas. To go from the Greater to the Lesser Antilles one goes by the way of St. Thomas…

- William Drysdale, Harpers Weekly,
January 20, 1900, “The Gateway to the Caribbean”

Putting together the location of St. Thomas at the outer corner of the Greater and Lesser Antilles, a convenient stopover for ships crossing the Atlantic or plying the Caribbean, the liberal nature of its government concerning religion and nationality, and the and the excellence of its harbor, St. Thomas became the most important port in the Caribbean. Pirates and privateers frequented the town of Charlotte Amalie, entering port often with no questions asked. Merchant ships from all over the world could take advantage of the many facilities offered on the island often with no duties or taxes levied upon them. With the advent of steam powered vessels, St. Thomas became a coaling station where vessels could refill their coal bins before venturing again across the Atlantic to Europe or the Americas and for many years the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company used St. Thomas as the hub for mail delivery throughout the Americas meaning that all transatlantic mail would be offloaded and sorted on the island before being routed to the various destinations in the Caribbean and North and South America.

Little Hassel Island, with its location within the St. Thomas Harbor played a major role in all this international maritime commerce with warehouses, coaling companies, wharfs, and major repair facilities including the historic Creque Marine Railway. Today ,most of Hassel Island is part of the Virgin Islands National Park and the left behind relics of the island's maritime past has left a treasure trove of artifacts for marine historians and archeologists as well as providing a most fascinating place to visit for both Virgin Islanders and visitors.

Careening Cove
Careening Cove

On the eastern coast of the peninsula was a shallow bay that proved useful for the careening of vessels that needed repairs or hull cleaning. This small bay became known as Careening Cove.

Careening Cove was mentioned on a 1687 map of St. Thomas Harbor drawn by John Jenifer who wrote, "In this harbor Prince Rupert (a buccaneer who preyed on English shipping) careened some of his ships when he was in America.

The Danes who settled St. Thomas constructed a fort called the Prince Frederik's Battery at Magens Point on the south eastern shore of the peninsula. The battery was built in 1779 and was designed by Peter Oxholm of map making fame.

Hassel Island Cave
Fort Willoughby

Fort Willoughby
Fort Willoughby

Fort Willoughby
Fort Willoughby



Careening Cove
Careening Cove


During the British occupation of the Danish West Indies, Prince Frederik's Battery was taken over by the British Navy and renamed Fort Willoughby and a magazine was built just north of the fort.



The British also constructed Shipley Battery on a hilltop on the north part of the peninsula and Cowell's Battery atop the hillside on the south. The fortifications included barracks, officer's quarters, a hospital, cisterns, powder magazines, latrines and mess buildings.

Cowell's Battery later served as a signal station to identify ships passing or entering the harbor.

The peninsula was owned by the Hassel family during the nineteenth century, eventually leading to the name Hassel Island after the Haulover cut was opened.

Coal Boat
Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.

In 1840, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company set up headquarters on the northeast shoreline and the St. Thomas Marine Railway Co. began construction of a ship repair facility on Little Careening Cove on the northern end of the island.

(Now in ruins, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company building later became the Royal Mail Inn, which some say was the inspiration for Herman Wouk's novel, "Don't Stop the Carnival." It is more likely that the hotel in the novel was the Water Island Hotel owned by Wouk's friend, Walter Phillips.)


In 1865, the isthmus was opened to the sea.

In 1871, the Hamburg America Line established a depot on Hassel Island.

Broensted Co
Broensted Coal Company

In 1871, the Hamburg America Line established a coal depot and wharves on the eastern shore of Hassel Island.

In 1875, the Broensted Co. leased the north shore of careening Cove and set up their coal supply business.

Coal Boat
Coal Boat

In 1905, the East Asiatic Company built a coaling wharf on the island.

In 1917, after the purchase of the DWI by the USA, the US Navy established a naval station on the island, which remained in operation until 1932.

In 1929, Haulover Cut, the channel made through the isthmus was widened and deepened allowing larger vessels to pass through.

In the 1930s, most of the Hassel and Water Islands were purchased by the Paiewonsky family in order to provide water for the family's distilleries.

In the 1940s, the Paiewonsky family acquired more of the island from the department of the interior resulting in Paiewonsky family ownership of 125 of the island’s total 135 acres.

Heading the Paiewonsky family were two brothers Ralph and Isidore Ralph Paiewonsky, who served as governor of the Virgin Islands wanted to develop the island commercially with construction of resort facilities such as condominiums, hotels and marinas.

The Korean Reverend, Sun Myong Moon, offered the Paiewonskys $3,000,000 for the island and later a German banking consortium offered them 5,000,000, a considerable sum in those days.

Ralph's older brother, Isidore did not agree with his brother's plans. Isadore wanted to preserve the island’s natural setting and maintain it as a historic site.

Isadore prevailed and both the Sun Myong Moon and the German banking consortium's offers were declined.

In 1978, the Paiewonsky’s sold the Hassel Island to the Virgin Islands National Park

Hassel Island Residence
Private Residence
once belonging to the
Paiewonski family



Most of the island is now owned by the National Park. The remaining lands are divided between the territorial government and private residences.



The St. Thomas Marine Railway
In 1840 the St. Thomas Marine Railway Co. purchased six acres of land on the peninsula from James Hassel Jr.

Steam Engine
Interior of the Head House

Head House
Head House

The company had the shoreline on Little Careening Cove cleared and a slipway into the water was prepared. Steel tracks led into the water and a wooden cradle rode upon the tracks. The cradle, upon which a vessel could be secured, would be hauled out of the water and up the gentle incline by a steam-powered winch located in the head house. Other facilities on land included coal storage, a repair shop, storage buildings and a dock.


Head House
Marine Relic



The steam engine was built by the Boulton Company of Hamburg Germany






Blacksmith Table
Blacksmith Table

Once on dry land hulls could be cleaned, caulked and painted. Repairs could be made and sails could be mended.

Henry O Creque purchased the marine railway in 1910 repairing restoring and upgrading the operation which was renamed the Creque Marine Railway and begin commercial operation a few years later continuing until the 1960s.



Diving Bell
Diving Bell

The slipway was 156 feet long and 30 feet wide and could accommodate vessels of up to 400 tons. The pier was 200 feet long and the water alongside was 31 feet deep.

The Creque Marine Railway is considered one of the earliest steam-powered marine railways in the western hemisphere and the oldest surviving example of a steam-powered marine railway in the world.

See Hassel Island Photo Gallery


Hassel Island Documentary from Erik Miles on Vimeo

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