The smaller of the two islands in St. Thomas ’s harbor, Hassel Island was once connected to St. Thomas via a narrow isthmus. There are several historic ruins on the 135-acre island, including British fortifications and the remains of a 20th century marine railway. Most of the island is owned by Virgin Islands National Park (340/776-6201), but there are no visitor facilities.
Hassel Island is forested by dense, drought-resistant cacti and grasses, and the coastline is rocky and mostly impenetrable. A few residences are visible along the coast facing St. Thomas—although they are not widely used today.
The Danish government first separated Hassel Island from St. Thomas in 1860, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the channel by dredging in 1919. Originally called Hurricane Hole, the island later came to be known as Hassel Island after its owners, the Hazzel family.
On the northern tip, close to where ferries pass on their way into the harbor, are remains of the earliest steam-powered marine railway in the Western Hemisphere. Opened in 1844, the marine railway lifted large vessels out of the water for cleaning and repair. It used technology that, while common today, was brand-new in the 1840s. St. Thomas  was one of the first ports to install a marine railway, which testifies to the island’s importance in the realm of shipping. The marine railway operated almost continuously for 120 years. From 1911 until 1954 it was operated by the Creque family of St. Thomas. During World War II it was leased to the U.S. Navy. The last recorded ship was hauled out there in 1965.
Other ruins on the island include early-19th-century British fortifications, dating back to their brief occupation of the islands during the first Napoleonic war. The British built Fort Shipley, or Shipley’s Battery, on the highest point of the island. Recent archaeology has also found evidence that people diagnosed with leprosy, cholera, yellow fever and other feared diseases were sent to Hassel Island to live, and die.