Reading the newly released Kindle version of an academic book published last September has dispelled my reservations about the accuracy of Mabel Wagner’s recollections of her late husband’s involvement with Caneel Bay Resort on St. John (see part 11 of my series on the Wagner family in the Feb. 15 edition of the Beacon), except for one strange anomaly I mention in a footnote to this commentary.

The book is environmentalist Judith Towle’s A Caribbean Awakening – The Dawn of an Environmental Movement in a Sea of Small Islands, which documents the evolution of awareness of environmental issues in the eastern Caribbean. Ms. Towle’s late husband, Dr. Edward Towle, was the first president of the Caribbean Conservation Association from 1968-1974.

The Towles were the founders and leaders of the non-profit Island Resources Foundation. Like Ms. Wagner, Ms. Towle wrote the book — which she and her husband originally had intended to write together — some years after his death, supplementing their records with her own eyewitness accounts and comments. However, she also had access to an independent source: the Rockefeller Archive Center in New York.

Mabel Wagner’s book

I summarise below the main episodes in Ms. Wagner’s book that I have previously excluded.

By March 1952, the external structure of the Wagners little cottage in Trellis Bay had been finished, but it still needed work on its interior before they could move ashore (as recounted in part seven of my series, published in November 2023). The Wagners left their children with Hubert Frett and the regular crew of their yacht Rubicon to work on completing the boatyard. To take their places, they recruited two visitors to East End to accompany them on a trip to St. Thomas to buy some food and other supplies.

However, the new crew had seen their employment as a cheap way to reach St. Thomas and deserted them there. The Wagners were determined to manage by themselves and rebuffed opportunists wanting work. Then they heard that Laurance Rockefeller had bought Caneel Bay, St. John and that his manager was disposing of a Chrysler 110-horsepower engine from the diesel generator being replaced by an electric one for the new resort.

An engine

Mr. Wagner sent the manager a note expressing his interest in collecting the old engine on their way back to Tortola. When they reached Caneel Bay, they found it already waiting for them on a trolley. The manager said the engine was a gift to Trellis Bay, whose marine railway he hoped to use one day. He was puzzled to watch the two Wagners struggling to pull it aboard with the main halyard and spinnaker boom.

Ms. Wagner writes that their success was cheered by onlookers from a Rockefeller yacht. Ms. Towle reveals that Laurance S. Rockefeller and his wife were travelling around the Caribbean in a small motorboat at the time, so that yacht was probably the one on which James Stillman Rockefeller Jr. made his unexpected appearance in Trellis Bay (as recounted in part eight of my series, published on Dec. 13, 2023). His plan to take a trip around the world may have been inspired by stories of Mr. Wagner’s own circumnavigation.

‘Environmental heroes’

Ms. Towle profiles three men she describes as Virgin Islands “environmental heroes:” Laurance S. Rockefeller, who she lauds as a “businessman, philanthropist and conservationist” since his vision of the development of tourism replacing agriculture as the main economy was instrumental in the creation of national parks in VI; Joseph “J.R.” O’Neal; and Euan P. McFarlane.

While Ms. Wagner viewed Mr. O’Neal simply as a Road Town merchant (as recounted in part five of my series, published on Oct 11, 2023), Ms. Towle calls him “a visionary for forests and parks,” citing his supervision of several mahogany reforestation projects on Sage Mountain, Tortola and on Gorda Peak, Virgin Gorda. The BVI Ordinance 1961 was passed in accordance with Mr. Rockefeller’s wish to donate land for parks, not for government. Mr. O’Neal was appointed the National Parks Trust’s first chair.

The Wagners encountered Mr. McFarlane after his appointment as “plantation manager” in the early development of Caneel Bay. When Mr. Rockefeller bought his first land there in 1952, it had a simple camp-like hotel with rustic cottages that were developed in the late 1930s. His resort was initially called Caneel Bay Plantation when it opened on Dec 1, 1956.

Mr. McFarlane later moved to Virgin Gorda and worked on projects in the VI funded by Mr. Rockefeller. His “tremendous contribution to the development of the BVI” was recognised by politician H. Lavity Stoutt, who was minister of natural resources and public health when he bestowed honorary belongership on Mr. McFarlane and his wife on behalf of the governor-in-council.


Ms. Wagner says that while nearing her son Michael’s birth on April 3, 1951, a contractor from Chicago who had just built a large aqueduct in Puerto Rico hired Rubicon to anchor at the Rockefeller resort Caneel Bay for his family to use while staying there as his wife was a keen sailor. However, Laurance Rockefeller had not seen Caneel Bay until over a year later (as recounted in the seventh part of my commentary series).