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J. Robert Oppenheimer and Friends

Oppenheimer Beach

It seems that the names of places in St. John, far from being permanent, are in a state of continual evolution and change.

Take Cinnamon Bay for example. The Tainos and their predecessors who lived there in Pre-Columbian times certainly had their own names for Cinnamon Bay, what the names actually were, of course, we will never know.

In historic times the early Dutch settlers named Cinnamon Bay for the cinnamon trees (bay rum) found there. Of course being Dutch they used the Dutch word for “cinnamon” which is “caneel”. Thus Cinnamon Bay was called Caneel Bay.

What is now called Caneel Bay also had a magnificent stand of bay rum trees for which the bay was named. To distinguish this Caneel Bay from the other Caneel Bay (Cinnamon Bay) the former was called Klein Caneel Bay meaning Little Caneel Bay and Cinnamon Bay was called Store Caneel Bay (Big Caneel Bay).

When English became the predominant language in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), Store Caneel Bay became know as Cinnamon Bay and Klein Caneel Bay, no longer needing the distinction “little”, became simply “Caneel Bay”.

To further complicate matters the small beach to the west of Cinnamon Bay is now called Little Cinnamon Bay.

Sometimes the evolution of names can be ironic. Hawksnest Bay is a case in point. Again we will never know the first names for this bay, which were used by the ancestors of the Taino who had a village at Hawksnest Point.

European settlers named the bay, Högsnest, after the hawksbill turtle, which used to nest on the beaches there. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, human activity became intense enough to convince the hawksbill turtle to nest somewhere else, but this did not result in a change of name for the bay.

When the language of St. John evolved into English, though, Högsnest was anglicized to Hawksnest.

In 1950 Robert and Nancy Gibney purchased a track of land within the Hawksnest Bay Valley and constructed a stone house behind the beach on the eastern side of the bay. St. Johnians referred to that beach as Hawksnest Beach. The other beaches in Hawksnest Bay belonged to Rockefeller and were part the Caneel Bay Hotel.

When the National Park was established in St. John, Rockefeller kept the western beach, then known as Sheep Dock, but now called Caneel Hawksnest and donated the rest of his holdings in Hawksnest to the National Park. A campground was established on what is now the public beach at Hawksnest. The first name given to the beach was Little Hawksnest to distinguish it from the Gibney’s beach, Hawksnest.

In 1957 financial pressures prompted the Gibneys to sell off a small parcel of their land in Hawksnest to J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” and his wife, Kitty. The property was at the northeastern extreme of the Gibney’s land. It did not include the beach, but the Oppenheimers were given right of access to the shoreline directly bordering their property. (This was, of course, in the days before all Virgin Island beaches became public domain.)

The Gibneys placed a series of deed restrictions on the sale. To prevent over development only one single family residence was permitted to be built, and to maintain the pristine and natural beauty of the land all construction designs, including the placement of any structures on the land, had to be approved by the Gibneys. To have control over who were to be their neighbors, the deed restrictions prohibited the rental of the property. Most importantly to the Gibneys was a right of first refusal that was included in the deed, giving them the option to repurchase the property if and when the Oppenheimers decided to sell.

The deed restrictions did not seem to restrict the Oppenheimers. Shortly after building their cottage they began to rent it out through the efforts of a local real estate agency. When the Gibneys protested, the Oppenheimers countered that the tenants were not renters but “just friends of theirs”.

After J. Robert Oppenheimer died, Kitty Oppenheimer began construction of a second building. When the Gibneys protested, Kitty countered that this was not a second building it was “just a tool shed”. The “tool shed”, which had a design and location unacceptable to the Gibneys, was built extremely close to the beach and right next to the Gibney Oppenheimer property line. That Christmas both Oppenheimer buildings were rented out to tenants or “just friends”, depending on who you believe.

The Gibney Oppenheimer relationship deteriorated. Lawsuits were initiated and, on more than one occasion, the police were called to intervene.

When Kitty died, she left the property to her daughter Toni, who some years later, hung herself in the beach cottage. By the terms of the will, the property was left to “the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area.” The executor of Toni’s estate was Robert Meyner, a former governor of New Jersey who had become an attorney. The Gibneys did not want a public park on their land and told Meyner that they would like to exercise their Right of First Refusal. Meyner responded that a Right of First Refusal would apply only to a sale and not to a donation. The Gibneys then said that they would pursue the deed restriction that said only a one family residence could be constructed. Meyner replied that they were wrong again; the deed said that only a one family residence could be “built” on the property, and there would be no need for further building.

“The people of St. John” proved to be a nebulous entity and, as no provisions were made for the upkeep of the property, the house and land fell into disrepair. Graffiti covered the walls, and the house was vandalized.

The Gibneys continued their long and drawn out fight to regain control of their property only meeting delay after delay. Robert Gibney died in 1973. Nancy Gibney continued her campaign but died in 1980 with the affair still unresolved.

Meanwhile, the National Park Beach constructed a parking lot, a changing area, pit toilets, barbecue grills, tables and benches and sheltered pavilions at Little Hawksnest which soon became so well recognized and so well visited that the name of the beach evolved to just plain Hawksnest. The small beach to the west became Little Hawksnest and the beach at Gibneys became known as Gibney Beach.

The Government of the Virgin Islands became the owners of the Oppenheimer land. They renovated the old house and made improvements to the land, which is now used as a Community Center. One of these improvements was a large iron gate at the entrance to the property on the North Shore Road. In an ironic twist of fate, the gate was prominently inscribed with what the powers that be felt would be the new name of this stretch of St. John shoreline … Oppenheimer Beach. Althogth the gate inscription has gone the way of many things in the tropics and is no longer readable, the name, Oppenheimer Beach, has to some extent remained intact ...for now.