Newest Donation to National Park is Rich in Cultural Resources

Pictured above: In the image overlooking Maho the three estate houses were all owned by the Hill family, so that is most likely Abraham C. Hill on the horse in the foreground. The estate houses are: America Hill (Cinnamon Bay estate house; top center), Munsburry (left), and Vanniniberg (bottom right). Up the ridge to the right of the Vanniniberg house is the Hill family cemetery. During this period, c1850-60s, all three Estates we merged under the name “Abraham’s Fancy”.
Photo and caption courtesy of David Knight Sr.

In January when Jon Stryker gave $1.275 million to the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park to buy an 11.8-acre property on St. John’s north shore, the general reaction was a resounding “Thank you!”

But for those who have explored the park more extensively, the reaction was, “What, you mean that land wasn’t already part of the National Park?”

That reaction is understandable. This is the third major change in ownership of properties around Maho Bay in the last few years, and it’s easy to confuse them.

The property in question – we’ll refer to it in this article as the Frederichsdahl parcel – is familiar to many who drive the scenic Northshore Road (Rt. 20).  It includes the stop sign at the triangle where the one-way, east-bound Northshore Road converges with the King’s Hill Road leading to Centerline Road.

The parcel also includes the Old Stone Bridge, recently restored with funding from the Friends of VI National Park (Friends VINP,) that has delighted ramblers as they’ve hiked along the Old Danish Road.

There’s a richness of cultural ruins there,” said Joe Kessler, president of the Friends VINP.  “Most people don’t know about it.”  Kessler said that until now there’s been little research done on the property since it wasn’t part of the Park, but this summer archaeology students from Denmark will be working to assess the cultural resources.

Historian David Knight Sr. says the parcel includes the “significant’ ruins of Estate Frederichsdahl [“Frederich’s Valley”], named after the first Danish governor of St. Croix.  “It may not include all the sugar factory, but I believe it includes most of it; it also appears to have some of the most recent slave village, all of the original slave village; the manager’s quarters; a cemetery; and a reservoir.”

The property’s history in colonial times is complicated, Knight said.  In the late part of the 18th century, several British officials, including Governor Turnbull from the British Virgin Islands, bought estates in the area.

British officer Joseph Vanini purchased four of these estates.  Estate Vaniniberg resulted from combining estates deWintberg, Maria’s Hope, and Mariadahl from Maho Bay Quarter, and Estate Windberg (also known as Windy Hill). The property is commemorated in a well-known painting by Fritz Melbye.

David Knight and Eleanor Gibney led a hike through the Vaniniberg Estate in 2009 for the St. John Historical Society according to Robin Swank’s summary.

The entire Vaniniberg property was bought at auction by Abraham C. Hill of Tortola, who also purchased neighboring Munsbury from James Murphy’s probate. With these acquisitions, Hill created the huge sugar estate that he christened Abraham’s Fancy…. The Hill family kept Abraham’s Fancy for some 90 years, and eventually sold it to Ernest Marsh in about 1900.

It was three members of the Marsh family that agreed to sell the 11.8 acres which will soon become part of the Park, said Kessler.  “We are so grateful for their interest in preserving this property by selling it to the Friends for conveyance to the Park Service. It was very forward thinking of them.”

Map of the donated land (in yellow) courtesy of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. Maho Bay to the west (left) and Leinster Bay to the north (above).

The three family members are Dr. Alva Marsh, who now lives in Los Angeles, and Warren Marsh and Jewel Moolenar-Marsh, both residents of New York.

Dr. Alva Marsh has been rehabilitating the old “warehouse” (which is not part of the Frederichsdahl parcel) near the parking lot at Maho Bay; it was most recently the home of Aegis Marsh.  “We’re very pleased that the reconstruction is in keeping with the historic fabric of the place,” said Kessler.

The parcel with the Frederichsdahl ruins acquired in January is separate from nearly 400 acres of undeveloped land known as Estate Maho Bay or the Maho Bay watershed.

That property was owned in common by 11 heirs of Harvey Monroe Marsh who died in the 1960’s, according to Kessler. Over the years, the National Park Service bought the interest of three of those family members, and the Trust for Public Land bought one additional share.

When the Marsh family heirs decided to put the property up for sale, James Harris Simons – a retired mathematician, physicist, and hedge fund founder – made an offer.  According to Kessler, Simons’ plans for the property included relocating the road behind the wetlands and effectively limiting access to the beach at Maho Bay, and building a dock.

Alarmed by the proposed development, the Friends VINP kicked off a letter writing campaign that generated more than a thousand letters protesting the sale to the head of the National Park Service.

“Simons then decided not to develop the property,” said Kessler.  At that point John Garrison – who had once headed up Friends VINP and was working for the Trust for Public Land – stepped in and offered to buy the land from the Marsh family heirs under the same terms.

It took several more years to hammer out the details.  In the end, members of the Marsh family each were allowed to retain two parcels of three acres, and the Trust for Public Land acquired the rest.  TPL then transferred their land to the Park Service. It was funded partly by donation, and partly through federal appropriations.

The parcel including the Frederichsdahl ruins acquired in January is also separate from another nearby property purchased by Stryker around 2012 that was formerly the site of the Maho Bay Campground.

Stryker has kept a low profile on St. John, but he’s well known internationally as an activist for social and environmental causes.  An architect and philanthropist, he founded the Arcus Foundation and has supported animal conservation and LGBT causes.

Kessler characterized Stryker as one who understands the unique pressures that St. John is experiencing as a result of development. Knowing that the Susannaberg Transfer Station was overtaxed, Stryker arranged to have the materials from the dismantled campground sent directly off island by barge.

Stryker also employed local ecologist Dr. Gary Ray to restore the vegetation of the former campground to its natural state.

Referring to the Frederichsdahl property, Kessler said, “A significant, historic and beautiful piece of land has been added to the Virgin Islands National Park today thanks to Mr. Stryker’s generosity and vision.”

The purchase of the 11.8-acre property was a unique opportunity for the Friends VINP, according to Kessler.  “We don’t normally do this kind of thing.  This is only the second parcel the Friends has purchased.”