Area fourth-graders explore Fort Christian


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ST. THOMAS - People walking past the centuries-old Fort Christian should not be surprised if they hear the sound of children's laughter echoing from within the fort's walls.

In the last week, more than 220 fourth-grade students from St. Thomas schools visited the fort, which has been closed off to visitors since May 2005.

Between 1971 and its closure nearly a decade ago, the fort, which dates from the mid-1600s, attracted about 5,000 visitors annually. Since the closure, the fort has been a silent landmark.

This week, not so much.

"They were pirates, and tsunamis and skeletons," said Juan Rodriguez, 10, enthusiastically after finishing the tour of the fort with his class from Gladys Abraham Elementary School.

Juan was one of the fourth-graders who has been lucky enough to get a guided tour of the fort's interior.

The tours, organized by the St. Thomas Historical Trust and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, are hoped to set the stage for tours that later will be open to the public.

Representatives of both the trust and the department said that no date had yet been set to open the tours to the public, though they are hopeful it will happen some time this year.

Until then, the trust plans to take students from every fourth-grade class on St. Thomas through Fort Christian, which the youngsters have only ever seen from the outside.

"One of the messages that we are trying to get across is that this is your history," said Michael Sprowles, a staff archaeologist with the St. Thomas Historical Trust.

During the tour this week, the Gladys Abraham students went from room to room, learning about the fort's changing role in history - as a fort, as a jail and as a hospital - throughout the centuries.

At each turn, they absorbed dark stories while gazing at the rooms, many of them still in need of extensive repair.

"It was my first time, too. He even described what they used as solitary confinement," Margo Mike, a fourth-grade teacher from Gladys Abraham, said about the tour conducted by Levi Farrell, the fort's curator.

The students gawked at the walls where a notorious prisoner once scrawled his thoughts on the walls of his cell. They walked through the former church room, where the skeleton of a man was found alongside the skeleton of an infant. They looked around the area where a crooked governor used to allow pirates to illegally sell liquor to the soldiers.

"It was fun. We learned a lot of information that nobody knew," said 10-year-old Nour Attia.

The fort was built by the Danes in the mid-1600s and named after King Christian V. The territory's capital, Charlotte Amalie, is named after his wife, the queen, Farrell said.

The fort was built to defend the Danish settlements on the islands and to protect St. Thomas Harbor.

In its early days, the fort was used as a governor's residence. It also was used as a church, community center, police station, court and jail. In 1983 it ceased being the local jail, Farrell said.

Now the plan is to turn it into a signature destination for tourists, as well as a historical landmark for residents.

"We're trying to get it done," he said. "We want the public to be able to see it too."

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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