Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

Laurence of the Caribbean

It’s Springtime in Virginia and many will be enjoying the gardens of historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg and hiking the trails of Shenandoah National Park. And, when kids get out of school, some families will be traveling to the Virgin Islands National Park (VINP) in the U.S.V.I.

Some may not be aware that one father and son are largely responsible for preserving Williamsburg and establishing both the Shenandoah and Virgin Islands Parks. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. spearheaded the Williamsburg and Shenandoah projects and his son Laurence orchestrated creation of the VINP.

On their way to The Hampton Institute, a liberal think tank, John, Jr. and his family first visited the decaying, mostly abandoned ancient town center of Williamsburg. It was the only colonial capital and Revolutionary War era city capable of being preserved and restored in its entirety. John, Jr. spent about $55 million to do just that and is responsible for most of the Williamsburg we see today. I once had the pleasure of hearing David Rockefeller, then chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and another of John, Jr.’s sons, proudly tell a small group in the Rainbow Room of Rockefeller Center about his family’s work on Williamsburg.

But, John, Jr.’s conservation work was in part expiation for the perceived sins of his oil monopolist and “robber baron” father John D. Rockefeller, Sr.   John, Jr. “was deeply troubled by the image of his father and saw his life’s mission as trying to remove the taint that seemed to exist around the Rockefeller wealth, and the Rockefeller family, and the Rockefeller name,” explained Steven Rockefeller, John, Jr.’s grandson in an interview for a well-watched PBS “American Experience” story on his family.

John, Jr.’s middle son Laurence developed his own passion for philanthropy and conservation, inspired by his father’s better angels. Laurence told PBS that his father “took us on voyages to see America; we were camping and building log cabins and riding horseback, and we were hiking.” His father “had this great love and joy in opening up, wherever he was, the beauty of nature so people could see it.”

Following service in the Navy during World War 11, Laurence sailed the Caribbean with his wife on a grand tour. According to the New York Times, in 1952:

“He put in at Caneel Bay, a cove fringed with frangipani, bougainvillea and monkey-no- climb trees on St. John, the smallest and most unspoiled of the United States Virgin Islands.”

He reportedly said St. John is the most beautiful island in the Caribbean. And, at that time, there were only about 400 residents on the island. Eighty-five percent of the land was undeveloped. Laurence was determined to preserve as much of the beautiful island as possible so the public could enjoy it.

Using his family’s Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. (JHP) non-profit group, he first purchased the 170 acres of Caneel Bay peninsula, including sugar plantation ruins, and built one of the nation’s first eco-sensitive resorts. Laurence Rockefeller believed there should be a partnership between responsible commerce and conservation.

The proceeds from Caneel Bay resort went to JHP to help fund other environmental preservation projects. Founded by Laurence’s father John, Jr., JHP had been instrumental in forming Grand Teton National Park. With the mission of “preserving areas of outstanding primitive grandeur and natural beauty,” JHP laster deeded the Caneel Bay land to the Virgin Islands National Park, but continued to operate the resort under a long-term lease.

As he constructed and operated Caneel Bay resort, Rockefeller provided many jobs to islanders and built the infrastructure required to make it self-sufficient. At the same time, he was purchasing land for the National Park he envisioned. Laurence brought JHP engineering talent and other resources to the VINP project.

In collaboration with St. Johnian Frank Stick, who owned 1,400 acres of Lameshur Bay, the Creque and Lockhart families, among others and with the local political guidance of St. John territorial Senator Julius Sprauve, Laurence invested about $1,000,000 of JHP funds to assemble 5,086 acres, which were donated to the federal government on December 1, 1956. The land amounted to more than half of the 9,500 acres later authorized for the Park. On August,2, 1956, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing the VINP as the nation’s 29th National Park.

Laurence, who was a conservation advisor to President’s Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, had had the clout to make the Virgin Islands National Park a reality. He also had considerable influence over Eastern Airlines, as its early financier and largest shareholder. Eastern was a major early passenger carrier to St. Thomas and St. Croix.

On St. Croix, Rockefeller also established the Carambola Golf Resort built on land his own family had used as their retreat. Rockefeller enlisted the famous golf course designer Robert Trent Jones to lay out a world-class golf course that opened in 1966. Named after the Carambola tree that yields locally popular Star Fruit, the resort is located at the edge of Cane Bay on the lush north shore of St. Croix, the largest island in the U.S. and British Virgin Island archipelago.

During the same period, Rockefeller also bought land on the undeveloped British island of Virgin Gorda. There he built the environmentally sensitive resort Little Dix Bay, which opened in 1964. He reportedly called it “wilderness beach,” because of its unspoiled beauty. As with Caneel Bay Resort, the construction and operation of Little Dix Bay brought jobs, roads and other infrastructure to Virgin Gorda, which then had a population of about 600 people.

Today, Rockefeller’s Caribbean creations are doing quite well. According to an article run last year in Robb Report magazine:

“Little has changed at Caneel Bay since Rockefeller first introduced it to the world in 1956. Spread over 170 acres, it remains the only resort located within the now 7,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park. Afternoon tea is still served at the Turtle Bay Estate House, and seven white-sand beaches remain fringed by gin-clear water. Even the resort’s new features—such as the Italian restaurant that opened last year in an 18th-century sugar mill—are rooted in the past.”

Similarly, of Rockefeller’s Virgin Gorda resort, Robb Report, says, “half a century later, Little Dix Bay’s pared-down-luxury motif is largely intact.” New owners have restored and expanded the resort.

And, on St Croix, the Marriott Corporation has restored and upgraded the Carambola Resort under its’ Renaissance brand. Its location on a beach in the northwest rain forest region of St. Croix continues to be a draw to tourists looking for a quiet ecologically-oriented vacation.

But, the jewel of Laurence Rockefeller’s Caribbean realm remains the Virgin Islands National Park. Within its more than 7,000 acres on St John and St Thomas are twelve unspoiled beaches, a fully equipped seaside campground, majestic Caribbean mountain views and examples of most Atlantic tropical coastal, marine and terrestrial ecosystems. It also boasts important and rare pre-Columbian Native American sites, including striking petroglyphs carved in stone by a waterfall and pond off the popular Reef Bay Trail on St. John.

A new Park addition is Hassel Island, located on St. Thomas, bordering the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. The island contains the ruins of 18th century Danish settler habitation, 19th century Napoleonic-era British forts, and the oldest remaining marine steam railway in the Western Hemisphere. It even has a leprosarium.

On St. Croix, the National Park Service manages the Salt River National Historic Park and Ecological Reserve, which includes the only known site where Columbus’ men stepped on shore in what is now U.S. territory. It is also the site of the first battle between Europeans and Native Americans.

Park Service-administered Buck Island Reef National Monument, a short boat ride from Christiansted, St. Croix, is a small uninhabited island (176 acres) known for its snorkeling and brown pelican nests. Two-thirds of the island is surrounded by an elk-horn coral barrier reef. And the island’s powder white sand beach has been rated by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful in the world.

Laurence Rockefeller, who died in 2004 at the age of 94, told PBS that his “father so emphasized the biblical verse ‘Unto he who much is given, much is required,’ that it was almost like our flag.”

Virgin Islanders and Virginians have been given much environmental and historical treasure. Much is required of citizens to conserve and preserve these assets for future generations.

Written by: Jeff McCord

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