Cruz Bay circa 1938 (Photo by Daisy Reck)
Cruz Bay dock, 1938 (Photo by Dr. George H. H. Knight)
Cruz Bay holds incredible historic treasures and local historian David Knight thinks it is about time that visitors and locals alike get a better understanding of the area.
Armed with a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHIPO), the amount of which Knight declined to share, the historian is delving into a year-long research project to get downtown Cruz Bay recognized as a Federal Historic District as well as a Virgin Islands Historic District.
While many people are familiar with the National Register of Historic Places, there is also a Territory Register of Historic Places. Being included on the federal list, automatically adds the historic site on the territory list, Knight explained.
“The local list is basically the same as the National Register, but it’s a local register and anything within the Virgin Islands which is nominated and goes on the national register automatically goes on our Territory Register,” he said. “And beyond that, the local SHIPO has the authority to recognize sites considered historically and culturally significant, but that may not qualify for federal recognition.”
Instead of recommending one or two buildings, Knight is nominating Cruz Bay town to be recognized as a Historic District.
“What we’re going for here for Cruz Bay is not necessarily preserving any specific architectural element,” said Knight. “We’re not going for a specific nomination, what we’re going for is a nomination as a district. There’s a big difference.”
Cruz Bay from the Battery, circa 1898
There are currently three districts in the Virgin Islands which are recognized as Historic Districts: the King’s Corner area of downtown Charlotte Amalie; the oldest portion and part of the waterfront of Frederiksted; and an area of Christiansted. Knight wants Cruz Bay added to that list.
“I have the feeling that we are missing out in people recognizing the historic significance of Cruz Bay by not having the Historic District appointment of the oldest section of Cruz Bay,” Knight said.
Cruz By was overlooked for the recognition in the past in order to promote development, Knight explained.
“Up until the development decades of the 1960s and 70s, Cruz Bay was only barely a village with a very small population and no real economy,” he said. “It was the seat of government for the island, but that government was an extension of St. Thomas. Both from a federal and a local perspective, Cruz Bay was seen to be very poor and in need of government help to make it develop and bring in services, to make it more vibrant.”
“Then all of a sudden we have the National Park created on St. John and this little, sleepy village hamlet all of a sudden became the gateway to a national park,” Knight said. “Because there were no preservation measures in Cruz Bay they ended up developing, not preserving. Then things just boomed and snowballed and got out of control.”
With all the focus on development, areas of Cruz Bay were actually exempted from the Coastal Zone Management plan, Knight added.
“We did not even have a National Register at that time nor were we thinking about preservation,” he said.
Requirements for including a certain building or site on the National Historic Register are very specific, yet the guidelines for nominating a district are broad, explained Knight.
“The guidelines are broad for a district because they realize that districts are often living towns,” he said.
So what makes Cruz Bay a candidate for recognition as a Historic District?
“The reason can be put very briefly; it is all encompassing and completely a no-brainer,” said Knight. “Cruz Bay has historic contextual integrity. What I mean by that is that the town of Cruz Bay was originally surveyed and mapped by the Danish surveyor Julius von Rohr in July 1766.”
Von Rohr’s survey shows the town of Cruz Bay laid out in an orderly grid with two primary streets running parallel to the water and two cross streets; just like today.
“That original survey is here in the Virgin Islands in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds,” said Knight. “It has survived intact and is the only copy that has all of the original street names and plots of town laid out. And what is amazing is that his plan, rendered nearly 150 years ago, is the exact same layout that we encounter in Cruz Bay today.”
“Our streets have never moved; they are still in exactly the same spot,” he said. “Our town plots are still plotted exactly as von Rohr drew them. Our park was laid out in 1766 and it is still the same park.”
Through Knight’s research, he has also determined the correct names of those ancient Cruz Bay streets.
“There are so many mis-translations of von Rohr’s names and the reason is that von Rohr was the Danish Crown surveyor so everyone has been trying to translate his names from the Danish,” said Knight. “But he was a German speaker and he wrote in German. They’ve been totally misnamed, but now I’ve been able to translate all of them from German.”
The streets which constitute the full Cruz Bay historic district start with the street which leads from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to Connections, which is Prince’s Street. Walking off the dock and taking a right at Mooie’s, that street is Great King’s Street. If you make a left at Connections, that street — running from the U.S. Post Office to the Lime Inn area — is West Street. The end of that street and leading to right, near the Fish Trap, is Queen’s Cross Street.
“That’s it; that is the historic district,” said Knight. “Those blocks within those streets from the Battery through the park and out to the waterfront and all the way down Wharfside Village until you hit the area where Grande Bay is now.”
The historic area also includes the Cruz Bay ferry dock, which was built in 1838, Knight added.
While the process of gaining recognition as a Historic District is a slow one, Knight hopes to have the necessary historic narrative complete next year.
“The documentation and the paperwork is one thing, but I think we should be able to get on the local register almost immediately,” said the historian. “I have about a year of historic background research and then I’ll write the historic narrative.”
Once that historic narrative is created, Knight will be able to present his research to SHIPO and that office can then recommend Cruz Bay for recognition as a Historic District.
While some buisnessowners might be leery of the designation, they have nothing to worry about, explained Knight.
“No one has to be worried that this will not allow them to make improvements to their land or anything like that,” he said. “This is all only a win-win situation for Cruz Bay. We’ll get little plaques that we can put on our historic elements.”
“Tourists and a lot of people who have moved to St. John recently don’t know the significance of the things they are seeing,” said Knight. “We can make them a part of our common memory and get people to appreciate them. And our tourists will be able to understand what they’re seeing.”
The designation will also make it easier for preservation groups to obtain federal funds, Knight added.
One thing Knight is hoping to change even faster is the location of the cannon found at the end of the Cruz Bay dock, he explained.
“That cannon was placed there in 1838 when the dock was built,” said the historian. “The only problem is that the last time they re-built the dock, about 15 or 20 years ago, they uprooted the cannon and it’s in the wrong context. That cannon was never there pointed out to sea trying to protect us from pirates.”
“It was planted with its muzzle down into the ground and was the hitching post where you hitched your donkey or horse,” said Knight. “That is just culturally wrong so let’s put the cannon back where it should be.”
To find out more information about Knight’s research and the fascinating history of historic Cruz Bay, sign up for his Friends of V.I. National Park seminar on January 6. To register for that seminar call Friends at 779-4940.