Early 1900s Photographs Provide Window Into Life in V.I. Under Danish Rule

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The view of undeveloped Peter Bay from America Hill (what is now the Cinnamon Bay archaeology building is visible). Photo Courtesy of Eleanor Gibney

Children at the John Lindquist-owned home at America Hill. Photo Courtesy of Eleanor Gibney

A nearly full house was treated to rare images of life in the Virgin Islands in approximately 1910 at the St. John Historical Society’s Tuesday, February 11, meeting at the Bethany Moravian Church.

The photos were presented by SJHS board member Eleanor Gibney, who recently acquired the two leather-bound volumes of approximately 100 photographs.

“All my life I’ve loved looking at old photos of the Virgin Islands to see what things have changed and what things haven’t changed,” said Gibney.

Although not much is known about the collection, Gibney surmised that the images were all taken by the same photographer with the intent of documenting the economic conditions of the islands. In 1910, an attempted sale of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. had just fallen through, and Denmark was exploring the idea of putting in more infrastructure in an effort to turn things around in the islands.

This early 1900 photo shows traditional architecture on St. Croix at the time, including the arched cistern at right, and gingerbread detail on the home. Photo Courtesy of Eleanor Gibney

Gibney’s presentation began with photos taken aboard the 310-foot-long SS St. Croix, the steamship that brought the photographer and several others to the Virgin Islands on this particular journey. Each of the three islands was documented, with the majority of the photos representing St.Croix.

In addition to photos of St. Croix’s rolling landscape and vistas that are still recognizable today, the images depict the essence of life in the V.I. in the early 1900s.

Gibney shared photographs of men working in a yard in Frederiksted, a large group of people walking to church, and an inkberry tree — the traditional Christmas tree of the Virgin Islands — decorated for the holidays inside a private residence.

Several photos of cotton plantations were presented, including plantation owners checking out their crops and women in long sleeves, long skirts, and head scarves working with harvested cotton inside a plantation building.

“Cotton was in heavy production when these photos were taken,” said Gibney. “On St. Croix, cotton was as economically important as sugarcane.”

In one of the images, a gentleman sits on a rocking chair — “ubiquitous during that time,” explained Gibney — on a balcony lined with potted plants, while photos of residences capture traditional architecture of the time including arched cisterns and gingerbread detail.

“St. Croix had wealth, unlike St. John,” said Gibney.

The few photos of St. John depicted the home at America Hill — “one of the few places you could stay overnight,” said Gibney — along with views from America Hill of Maho Bay to the east and an undeveloped Peter Bay to the west. An image of Hurricane Hole showed extensive pasture where cows had grazed, and the 1910 photographer captured a breathtaking view looking from Bordeaux Mountain toward the island’s East End.

Photos of St. Thomas depicted a working coaling station at Hassel Island, warehouses — each with their own wharf — lining the waterfront at Charlotte Amalie, and aspects of everyday life including men making a fish trap from vine and a woman washing laundry at the shore.

“It’s a really, really valuable collection,” Gibney said of the photos, which she plans to donate to the SJHS archive once the society constructs its planned permanent home at Gifft Hill.