From Tainos to Rockefeller, Storied History of Caneel Bay Resort

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Chuck Pishko, center, regales a group of visitors and residents with stories of Caneel Bay’s past during a VINP seminar on the resort grounds.

Long before Caneel Bay Resort catered to some of the world’s richest residents, the property was home to the Taino people who supplemented their take from the sea by farming root vegetables on the nearby hillsides.

The history of Caneel Bay was the focus of a Friends of Virgin Islands National Park seminar led by local historian Chuck Pishko at the North Shore resort on Wednesday morning, March 24.

Pishko led about 25 people — including a University of the Virgin Islands professor and six graduate students — on a tour of the ruins on the property and shared the rich history of the area.

 

After the Tainos, who originally hailed from South America’s Orinoco River area, continued on to the Greater Antilles islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, the next group to reach Love City’s shores were the Dutch, explained Pishko.

 

“After Columbus left, and he didn’t stop here really anyway, the next group of people here were the Dutch, who held islands in the area but kept being driven out,” said Pishko.

One remnant of the Caribbean Dutch rule is the island Jost Van Dyke, the name of which reflects its origins. Soon the Danes decided to establish colonies in the West Indies and launched into the sugar industry, explained Pishko.

While expeditions from nearby islands would come ashore on St. John to fell its large hardwood trees and fish off its plentiful shores, it wasn’t until the Dutchman Peter Durloe established structures necessary to support sugar cane operations at Caneel that Love City was settled with business.

What remains of a daub and waddle house, built in the early 1800s, is located on the hillside behind the manager’s house which once overlooked the sugar cane operation. Caneel Bay Resort’s Equator restaurant was the site of a horse mill and Pishko shared a photograph of the mill from 1834.

Durloe ingrained himself in the upper echelons of St. Thomas society, marrying well and counting well-to-do Danish families among his closest friends. He eventually married four times and operated the lucrative Caneel Bay sugar plantation until his death.

Enslaved Africans toiled under extreme conditions in the boiler room, the remains of which stand today near the entrance to Caneel Bay Resort.

The Durloe family built their home most likely above Hawksnest Bay and ran the nearby plantation for four generations. After Peter Durloe III died, his widow married Lars Olsen, who would eventually squander the family fortune and high-tail it to North America. The Durloe family was able to collect only enough money from the auction of the Caneel Bay property to educate the two living sons back in Europe.

One son remained in Denmark and the other returned to St. Thomas, explained Pishko.

“It is said that all living Durloes throughout the islands are descendents of that one Durloe son who returned to the Caribbean,” he said.

When the Durloe family auctioned off the Caneel property, a French Huguenot living on St. Croix purchased the land. The Ruans stayed in St. Croix and ran the sugar plantation from there until the sugar industry eventually declined.

The next Caneel Bay owner was a Haitian man named Delinios, who lived on St. Thomas. Operations declined further, however, and the plantation fell into ruin. The last local to own the plantation was St. Thomas resident Abram Smith who would eventually sell it to the West Indian Company.

It was the West Indian Company that first operated a hotel at the site, building one cottage on each beach and operating the island’s first regular boat service. With its seven cottages, The Grand Hotel catered to St. Thomas and stateside visitors who enjoyed secluded stays at the property.

At the end of World War II, the West Indian Company sold the property to two brothers from Puerto Rico who also purchased nearby Dennis Bay. The brothers ran a charitable trust based in Rhode Island.

Nelson Adlrich, a senator from Rhode Island and Rockefeller relative, was instrumental in the trusts and the resort was finally purchased by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1952. It was run as a Rockefeller Resort and gained huge popularity, which the property continues to enjoy to this day under its current ownership, Rosewood Resorts.

Friends of VINP’s exciting seminar series continues throughout March and April. Upcoming seminars include a green building house tour with local architect Doug White, tropical gardening with Irene Patton and a coral reef boat tour led by marine ecologist Caroline Rogers.

To register for a seminar call Friends of the VINP at 779-4940.