Historical Bits and Pieces

New Trail — New Adventures

by Chuck Pishko

Great House Ruins


In the last issue of the St. John Tradewinds, we learned of the trail maintenance work performed by the Student Conservation Association. Not only was this work done in the bush in the extreme heat of summer, but it also involved heavy physical activities like digging trenches to create drainage swales.

In doing this work, the seven-person crew helped establish a new official hiking trail for the Virgin Islands National Park. The trail is an historic road that served a number of plantations from both the Konge Vey (Centerline Road) and the shores of Reef Bay by which supplies were delivered and farm products shipped mostly by oxcarts.

The lush neotropical shady foliage and gradual slope of the trail belie the frantic activity in the area 200 years ago.
A quarter of a mile down the trail you’ll pass L’Esperance (The Hope) Estate on the left. From the trail you might catch glimpses of the estate buildings.

If you carefully go into the bush you will find a compact arrangement of fairly large buildings that include a horse mill, factory, free-standing cistern, storage building, great house, cook house, service building, cemetery, stone bridge as well as retaining walls, staircases and stone fencing.

The site takes advantage of the level ground at the convergence of the stream and gut. The architecture of the great house is exceptional, with the use of volcanic sandstone as a building material. This sandstone is not native to St. John and must have been brought here as ships’ ballast.

The ground floor walls stand to their full height and supported a wooden superstructure. The walls are rubble masonry with cut and dressed stone around openings and at corners.

The freestanding exterior faces have articulated quoins. There is a 20-foot wide enclosed room that runs the full length of the building and a 12-foot wide partially open gallery. It was most likely constructed in the late 18th century.

The cemetery contains a monument cover that reads in Dutch:
Hendrick Tonis
(born) Geboren op S. Thomas
Den 15 January 1733
(died) Overleben op S. Jan
Den 23 September 1765

In previous columns we’ve talked about the Tonis family who befriended the Moravians. We know the Moravians held services here. We know that Peggy Vriehuis lived here before and after her marriage to Isaac Knevels. Now we can read her father’s 1804 description of L’Esperance.

“The buildings and …houses lie in a valley surrounded by mountains on which the cane fields are laid out which are sheltered from the injurious North Winds,” according to D.J. Vriehuis. “Two small rivulets run through the Estate, whereof one waters the Works. It has not been dry in 30 years that I have been here.”

“It has arguably to the opinion of those who understand it water to supply a water mill which I have not been able to build on account of the heavy debt which rests on the Estate when I bought it,” Vriehuis continued.

In 1792 Vriehuis added two estates farther down the road to his holdings, Sieben and Mollendahl.

Sieben, which is due south of L’Esperance on the heights above Fish Bay. The plantation extended from the slopes of Camelberg, the second highest mountain on the island into the bottom of the Fish Bay valley. For most of its sugar producing life it was operated jointly with the next plantation on the road, Mollendahl, which was also acquired by Vriehuis.

Mollendahl’s early history bears repeating here because of its illustrious family connections. It was established by Gerhard Moll who came from a long line of wealthy Amsterdam wine merchants. He did not live at Mollendahl. It was a working plantation designed to create profits through sugar production.

Moll died in 1731 and passed the property to his son, Gerhard. Young Gerhard married Maria Tessamacher, who was born of two well known West Indian families. Her great-great grandfathers were Peter Stuyvesant, Director of the New Netherland (New York) and Curacao and Lucas Jacob Raapzaat, Dutch Commander of St. Eustatia and Saba.

Gerhard died after four years of marriage in 1755. In 1756, Maria Tessamacher married John von Johnn who was the “Chief of Military” on St. Thomas. He was soon elevated to District Governor and Commandant and expanded Mollendahl by purchasing Sieben in 1756.  

Unfortunately the debt Vriehuis described above caught up with him in the early 1800s and the estates had to be sold at auction. A good final note, however, in 1850 the St. John Municipality acquired the house at L’Esperance from the Danish government to provide a residence for a royal physician, Dr. Jacob D. Raphael, who treated the sick on St. John.

Note: The ruins are very unstable. Do not climb on the ruins or even stare at them harshly. They will collapse.