By Nina York
The Centennial anniversary of the transfer from Danish to United States ownership of our Virgin Islands has arrived! Although the actual anniversary date is March 31, it is being commemorated on all three islands throughout 2017. A hundred years has brought many changes.
This significant milepost in our history took place while World War I was being fought primarily in Europe, but the United States faced the threat of war with Germany over these little islands, leading to their purchase for, at the time, the princely sum of $25 million. Aside from their natural beauty, the islands possessed little of value to the new owners except their strategic location. The United States rapidly transformed the quiet Danish colony to become a military post manned by U.S. Marines and Navy personnel.
As is often the case, the transition was not easy. The military rule continued until 1931. Sugar production lagged from low prices, and income from rum sales dwindled during Prohibition in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933. U.S. citizenship was not offered to the population until 1927. President Hoover’s naming the islands America’s Poorhouse had a lot of truth to it.
The Great Depression made itself felt here as well as on the mainland. A program to offer homesteads to the now greatly reduced native population was a bright spot. World War II had begun in Europe when the 25th anniversary of Transfer took place here. An image from that event shows the citizens gathering by the music pavilion by Fort Christiansværn on St. Croix – incidentally built in 1919 for the local military music corps.
After the end of World War II, which had not brought any direct attacks but still was a time of hardship for the islands, signs of brighter days were apparent. In the late 1940s, tourism became a new source of income, primarily from the U.S. mainland. At new hotels and guesthouses, visitors enjoying our spectacular beaches and colorful flora, along with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly population, transformed the economy that had depended on the increasingly unprofitable sugar cane industry.
The 1960s brought major change to the islands as the local leaders decided to phase out sugar cultivation. In its place, the island was to welcome heavy industry that brought us a large U.S. aluminum factory and establishment of Hess Oil’s deep harbor and huge refinery, reportedly the second largest in the Western Hemisphere.
A large work force, that had to be brought from other islands, involving special work permits and restrictions for the new hires, brought thousands to the island to work on the construction as well as the operation. This new influx of workers and engineers happened simultaneously with a large number of well-to-do continental Americans deciding to build or buy winter residences here, resulting in enormous growth and development. New homes, condominiums, roads, schools, shops, hotels, and restaurants mushroomed. There was barely time to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Transfer, but a major festivity did take place welcoming a large contingent of Danes, starting a new tourism source.
Twenty-five years later, the 75th anniversary of Transfer found the islands still recovering from the serious Hurricane Hugo that hit the Virgin Islands in September 1989. That event reversed earlier progress, but the resiliency of the islanders helped pave the way for better days. A new wave of visitors followed as structures were restored with the help of federal assistance. We have had our challenges but the pride and love of place among our people prevails.
Even after another shock hit the island in 2012, at the closing of the oil refinery on St. Croix, there is still income from rum export, the reopening of the storage facility at the refinery location, our agriculture is increasing, our internet broadband connection is impressive, and tourism remains strong on all the major islands.
What 100 years, as an unincorporated territory under the United States with U.S. citizenship and freedom of movement for its people, has brought us is definitely progress as well as security with modern communication technology as well as major airlines connecting us to the rest of the world.
The Transfer Centennial Kick-Offs began in January and events continue with Historic Tours, Concerts, Cultural Expos, Receptions, Recognition Dinners, Parades, Galas, Lectures, Symposiums, Visiting Ensembles and Choirs, Arts and Crafts Fairs, Storytelling and Folklore, with Centennial Closing Ceremonies in December. St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix are all offering many opportunities to participate in marking this milestone in our territory’s history!.
For programs and events, visit www.vitransfercentennial.org