History and museums, Natural sights
Water Island (Danish: Vand ø) was acquired by the USA in 1917 from Denmark but continued to be owned by a corporation until several decades later. Since 1996, it has formed part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a United States territory located in the Caribbean Sea. The island is of volcanic origin and lies to the south of Saint Thomas in the Charlotte Amalie harbor. Ferry service runs regularly from Crown Bay, Saint Thomas to Phillips Landing, Water Island; the ferry ride is about 10 minutes.
At 491.5 acres (1.989 km2) in size, Water Island is the smallest of the main U.S. Virgin Islands. It is administratively a part (subdistrict) of the St. Thomas District. Water Island is a residential island, with a population of 182 (2010 census) and no significant commercial establishments. A number of homes on Water Island are available to accommodate visitors. The main attractions are beaches, including Honeymoon Beach, plantation ruins, Fort Segarra, an underground fort partially constructed by the U.S. during World War II, and scuba diving site Supermarket Reef, in Limestone Bay.
The eastmost third of the island is a gated community, Sprat Bay Estates. This includes Sprat Point, a 30-acre peninsula and nature preserve owned by the United States Department of the Interior, and private Sprat Bay Beach, located between Sprat Point and Carol Point. All beaches in the USVI are public when approached from the water.
The earliest known Water Island settlers were Taíno in the 15th century. Water Island was named by Europeans for its natural ponds of fresh water. Many islands in the Lesser Antilles lack potable water, so Water Island was a frequent stop for pirates seeking to replenish their ships' stores of fresh water.
Danish claims to the island date to at least 1769. During the 18th century and early 19th century, the island was owned by several free blacks and mulattos who had cotton plantations and raised livestock. In 1905 the island was sold to the Danish East Asiatic Company.
While the rest of the Danish West Indies were purchased by the United States in 1917, Water Island was not purchased by the U.S. until June 19, 1944, when it was purchased for $10,000 to protect the submarine base on Saint Thomas during World War II.
From 1944 to 1950, the island was under the operation of the Department of Defense. Construction on Fort Segarra commenced in 1944 but the fort was abandoned incomplete in 1948. The United States Army's Chemical Warfare Division used sections of Water Island to test chemical warfare agents, including predecessors of Agent Orange, from 1948 until 1950. It was then turned over to the Department of the Interior and leased out, primarily to residential tenants.
Control of Water Island was transferred from the federal government to the territorial government on December 12, 1996, for the sum of $25,000,000.00 (the same amount the federal government paid for the entire U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917) making Water Island the "Last Virgin". In the late 1990s, the Department of the Interior began transferring Water Island land to the long-time residential leaseholders. In 2005, the U.S. Virgin Islands government announced plans to further develop Water Island, and to increase the amount of residential housing to deal with chronic shortages on Saint Thomas.
The Water Island Civic Association (WICA) was formed in the mid 1960s to help improve the quality of life on Water Island. Today, the association has over 100 members and it interacts and cooperates with the U.S. Virgin Islands government to help protect the environment on Water Island. Water Island residents pay to have the beach maintained and provide volunteers for clean-up efforts around the island.
One of the principal attractions of Water Island is Honeymoon beach, in Druif Bay, on the west end of the island. Initially Honeymoon Beach could hardly be called a beach. It was an area about 50 feet long strewn with vegetation and rocks and only extended about 10 feet from the water line. The trees and brush were removed, 200 truck loads of rock and gravel were hauled off, and the beach stone was broken up with a bulldozer. The sand was sifted to remove any remaining debris and a dredge was used to remove the seaweed and to deposit sand on the shore. Rows of palm trees were planted back from the shoreline. This was all accomplished under the direction of Walter Phillips, the Master Leaseholder in the early 1950s.
Fort Segarra was built as part of the United States' defense strategies during World War II on Water Island in the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. World War II seacoast batteries here were Battery 314 at Flamingo Point (1944, never completed) and an Anti Motor Torpedo Boat Batteries. In addition some barracks, watch towers, ammunition bunkers were also created near Carolina Point as well as an infrastructure of docks, roads, water, sewage and power systems. It was to be an underground fort and its purpose was to protect the submarine base on St. Thomas. The war ended before its completion and the project was subsequently abandoned. The uncompleted post was transferred to the Army's Chemical Warfare Division in 1948 for testing poison gas and chemical agents on goats and pigeons for several years. Following the conclusion of these tests, the Army transferred control of this area to the Interior Department in 1952.
Gun emplacements, tunnels and underground rooms which were created during the Second World War building efforts are still visible. The site is now open for viewing, and tunnels and underground chambers are open for tours. The area is monitored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and soil samples are monitored from the former chemical test sites to ensure "that no residual contamination remains from previous Department of Defense activities."