In my Oct. 11 commentary “Trellis Bay chronicles continue,” I described how Polish Captain Wladek Wagner met Haldane Davis while building Witches Brew at Bar Bay, East End and bought land around from him on Trellis Bay. He envisioned Trellis Bay as a beautiful yacht haven, with a boatyard, guest cottages and clubhouse, with the first stage being to build a slipway, sawmill, workshop and little cottage.
To turn his dream into a reality, he gradually hired an enthusiastic team of strong young men from East End, many of whom I could later call family. Their traditional boatbuilding skills matched the skills in building and seamanship that he gained in his youth in Poland. Hubert Frett was tasked to clear the bush from first section of land along the shoreline.
Mr. Wagner’s brother Manek emigrated to Canada, so Richard Penn became the first crewmember of Mr. Wagner’s yacht Rubicon. Rubicon was not built for passengers — so Wladek ploughed back the income from day charters into improving its safety and comfort for trips down the islands to as far as Port of Spain, which made it more profitable. While Wladek was away, his wife Mabel stayed with various friends in St. Thomas who were eager to take turns at hosting her and their daughter Suzanne, but she missed seeing him.
Between charters, Mabel’s movements were often confined to watching the project’s developments from Rubicon while cleaning, painting and refreshing her for the next charter and looking after Suzanne. However, she also learnt basic craftsperson’s tasks and how to steer boat, with hands that had been trained to play the piano. For his part, Wladek willingly took his turn at changing the baby’s nappies and mixing her formula
Waste not, want not
When Wladek heard that the remains of a marine railway built by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC) lay on a disused rum distillery, he asked to see its owners, the Paiewonsky family, originally from Ukraine, who had bought the business of A.H. Riise & Co. in 1928. The elderly father and his two sons were delighted to meet someone from a country neighbouring Ukraine and invited him to “take whatever you need when you’re ready.”
In late summer 1950, Richard and Wladek unearthed a strongly built concrete foundation with three rows of rails and the intact carriage and winch for hauling vessels. They used sledgehammers and other strong tools to free the wheels and wooden beams and ripped up the rails. It took several trips in the small dinghy to load them on to a weighed-down Rubicon. Afterwards, Mr Paiewonsky offered them the pick of some standard British tools they found in old machine shop — a real treasure trove.
St. Thomas was changing, and Wladek tapped into and contributed to it. Some wealthy US tourists who were attracted by the duty-free shopping and the historical look of the warehouses and houses on the hillside decided to make their homes there, but viewed as eyesores the debris from its prosperous industrial past, such as an RMSPC coaling station.
Harvey Bissell of the Bissell Sweeping company had modernised the RMSPC blacksmith’s house on Hassel Island, across the bay from Charlotte Amalie. He was impressed by the tidy way they left the site and asked Wladek to remove the unsightly old RMSPC wharf in exchange for 60 percent of the timbers there — another great boon for Trellis Bay. He hired Henry Varlack and Glanville Penn to help him.
Wladek felt frustrated during his men’s occasional absences during inclement weather, but Mabel sympathised with them as they had to row across the channel between East End and Beef Island and tramp through prickly bush swarming with mosquitoes before they could start work and had to return home the same way after a tiring day.
Around the end of 1950, Wladek noticed that Hubert had uncovered a fence that deviated from the boundary line, and he asked Haldane Davis to contact Reginald Penn, the caretaker of the neighbouring land. Work had to be stopped while its owner was informed of the dispute. Several months later, Mr. Penn brought Mr. J. Rowan Henry, a bright young lawyer from Antigua, to settle the issue.
Mr. Henry decided that the fence would have to be straightened anyway no matter who had erected it in the first place, so they agreed to settle the dispute amicably. Wladek paid $50 to the neighbouring land’s owner, measured out a straight boundary line, then built a new wooden fence along it and cemented an iron bar into the shore by Conch Shell Point.
Witches Brew was destroyed by a hurricane, but a painting of it used to hang on our apartment wall facing Buck Island, reputed to have been the site of the Virgin Islands’ first airstrip. The artist had given it to us as a wedding present in 1983.
Wladek moved Rubicon to a safer anchorage at Trellis Bay in January 1950. Coincidentally, it was later that year that I heard about the art collection commissioned by the last king of Poland which had been donated to an art gallery near my school after he had been forced to abdicate, as recounted in my July 20 commentary “Remembering the Wagners.”