Tuesday, May 3rd, was our first day of true sunshine on St. John. We awoke to beautiful skies:
and decided to hike to Reef Bay (approximately 5 miles). Let’s just say that it was a day of copious sweating.
Reef Bay, and the trail hike to get there, is a favorite destination on St. John. According to a website I was looking at today, there are three ways to get to Reef Bay (there is no direct car access): park on Centerline Road, which offers a pull-off with approximately 4-5 parking spaces, and hike down and back up (you lose about 900 feet, which isn’t a big deal unless it’s 85 degrees with 85% humidity), take a tour with a USVI park ranger who will take you down the trail, allow you some beach time and then shuttle you on a boat to take you back to Cruz Bay or charter a private boat. Hmmmm….they must not be aware of option four: Reef Bay via Lameshur Bay Trail.
Unlike the Reef Bay Trail, Lameshur Bay Trail starts at…well….Lameshur Bay. You hike along the shore, up a hill or two…along a ridgeline or so…and then drop to the Reef Bay Trail. The gain? Negligible. The reward? A trail much less traveled than Reef Bay, with the same beautiful beach at the end. Nonetheless, it was a sweaty, sweaty. Sweaty. Day.
The slideshow below contains images from the trail.
The Reef Bay Estate was established in the early 18th century as a cattle and cotton plantation. It combined with the Par Force Estate around 1800 and both converted to sugar cane production. While the Par Force ruins retain little of their original structure, the Reef Bay factory is in good condition and still contains quite a bit of equipment.
On our way to Reef Bay we stopped by the Great House. The Great House, originally associated with the Par Force Estate, dates back to the early 19th century, though the stone foundation of an earlier wood building remains within its walls. The house was partially renovated in 1994 by the National Park Service. However, lack of funding cause them to abandon the effort, and the Great House has been left to fall to ruin. Even now it is easy to imagine the majesty of this home in its hey-day.
The trail took us to the Great House first. We then dropped down to Par Force before making our way to Reef Bay. Par Force was another eerie place. It’s not that the undergrowth is particularly thick, it’s just that the vine-y trees create such a curtain that you almost don’t see the ruins until you stumble over them. We stood in the rubble alone, listening to the whisper of the wind, the chirping of birds, the hush that seemed to lay over this once-vibrant plantation.
I left off the sugar plantation history lesson a few days ago with the discussion about the use of windmills to crush the cane.
In calm weather, or if the windmill was out of service, cane stalks were crushed on a circular platform called a “horse mill.” Oxen, donkeys or horses were harnessed to long poles and produced the power to turn the rollers used to crush the cane.
The next step in the process took place in the boiling house. In this room the cane juice was boiled down into a thick syrup that, when cooled, crystallized into crude brown sugar called “muscavado.” The juice was boiled in large copper kettles, beginning with the largest coppers and, as the juice condensed, it was ladled into successively hotter and smaller coppers. The heat was provided by furnaces fed with wood and crushed cane stalk. During the boiling process, lime powder or ash was added to the juice to help separate impurities by floating them to the top. These impurities were skimmed off the top and collected to be used in the rum making process or fed to the estate’s animals.
Knowing when to remove the condensed juice from the last copper was the job of expert “sugar cookers” who were among the most valued of the enslaved workers on a plantation. If the juice was left in the copper too long it would burn, but if removed too early it wouldn’t crystallize when cooled. When ready, the concentrated juice was ladled into shallow wooden cooling pans and, during the cooling process, the sugar was raked to avoid clumping and insure that uniform crystals formed.
Once cooled, the raw sugar was scraped into barrels that were taken to the curing house. These barrels, each holding up to 1600 pounds of muscavado sugar, were sealed and holes drilled into the tops. In the curing house the barrels were hung upside down and, over the course of a week or more, the excess liquid slowly drained. This sticky liquid was molasses and it was collected to either be sold or used in rum production. Once fully drained, the holes in the barrels were sealed and the barrels prepared for export. Once it arrived in Europe or North America the muscavado was further processed into refined white sugar.
We’ll talk rum on another day.
One thing I forgot to share about the other day was brain coral. Look back at some of my photos from Annaberg plantation. Notice the weird rocks on some of the corners? Looks like, well, brain. The husband and I scratched our heads over that for a number of days, trying to figure out what it was. I suspected some sort of coral, but coral in blocks? Couldn’t be! However, this was confirmed when we stopped by itty bitty National Park history museum in Cruz Bay. Brain coral is easily cut and becomes rock-hard when dried, so it was often used as cornerstones and around doors to its durability. Pretty cool, huh?
Well, this has turned into a long one, hasn’t it? And there’s still more stories to tell about this day! So, how about I tell you about the rest of it in another entry into the travel log? Then I can tell you about the shark. And The Tourist Trap. For now, let’s pause. Scroll back through the photos of ruins, marveling at what they are…and what they were… How I wish they had restored the Great House.