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St John Trails: L'Esperance Road

St. John Virgin Islands Trails: L'Esperance Road

Excerpted from St. John Off The Beaten Track © 2006 Gerald Singer
L'Esperance Trail Map
L'Esperance Trail Map

The L’Esperance Road runs between Centerline Road and Reef Bay. The top of the trail can be found at a point about 0.3 miles east of the Cathrineberg Road. The foundation of an old house can be seen at the beginning of the road. Park here if you arrived by vehicle.

The L’Esperance Road dates back to Danish colonial times and runs from Konge Vey, now Centerline Road, to the Reef Bay shoreline. The road provided access to L'Esperance, Sieben and Mollendahl Estates and a means for the plantations along the route to ship their products via ox carts to Reef Bay where they could be loaded onto sailing vessels for export.

Until the 1780s, Konge Vey did not connect Cruz Bay to Coral Bay because of a deep fissure or rift in the island at the saddle between the two hillsides where the Reef Bay Trail is now located. Called “the Defile,” this fissure was so steep that it was impossible to ride across it on horseback, let alone by donkey or ox cart. Because it could not be crossed, roads led from the two sides of the defile down to both the north and south shores.

During the 1780s, work began on a bridge over the defile. The tall stone retaining wall of that bridge can still be seen on the north side of Centerline Road across from the entrance to the Reef Bay Trail. With the construction of the bridge travel between Cruz Bay and Coral Bay could be made directly on the King’s Road and the roads leading down the mountainsides became less important as thoroughfares.

The L’Esperance Road, however, was still well-used as it was the road to not only Estates L’Esperance, Sieben and Mollendahl, but also, if one was coming from Cruz Bay, it was the road to Reef Bay, Little Reef Bay, Par Force and Lameshur and John‘s Folly.

The L'Esperance Road was passable by four-wheel drive vehicles until the 1950s, when it started to grow over. Some of the owners of the “inholdings” (the term used to designate private property located within the National Park boundaries) paid to have the road bulldozed in the 1970s, and it remained in good condition until 1995, when Hurricane Marilyn closed off the road with fallen trees, which became covered with catch-and-keep and other vines and vegetation. Through the efforts of the Trail Bandit and local hikers, the road was cleared and again passable all the way to the Reef Bay Trail.

The L'Esperance Trail was improved in 2007 by volunteers from the Student Conservation Association and was designated an official National Park Service trail that same year.

From Centerline Road to Estate L’Esperance
From the Centerline Road intersection, the L’Esperance Road descends the western side of the Fish Bay Valley in a moist forest environment where you will pass through stands of genip, guavaberry, turpentine, bay rum and mango trees.

st john trails: bridge
Bridge over Fish Bay Gut
st john trails: grave
Fish Bay Gut

L’Esperance Ruins
A ten-minute downhill walk takes you to a spur trail leading to the L’Esperance Ruins. The remains of a beautiful stone bridge crosses the Fish Bay Gut, which is one of the three south shore guts that has permanent water to some degree or another. The presence of the gut was what made the estate viable. A spring near the water works was able to provide at least some water even on extremely dry years.



The old estate contains the ruins of the original horse mill, a storage building, estate house and sugar factory.

st john trails: greathouse
st john trails: greathouse


The residence, or greathouse, had a gallery on the lower level. The upper story, which was of wood frame construction also had a gallery.




st john usvi trails: cookhouse


The cookhouse is nearby as is the cookbench. Beyond that is a structure that probably housed the overseer and beyond that is in the remains of a Dutch oven.

There are two horsemills. One is located below the greathouse and is mostly in its original configuration. The stone retaining wall on the lower side is still intact. The other horsemill is located across the trail as you come in. This horsemill was apparently abandoned when the new one was constructed. A slave village was located below the horsemill where at one time there were 16 slave houses. The sugar factory building can be found below the estate house. Off to the right of the factory is the rum still with its cistern for cooling the distilled mash. The can house where the rum was bottled is adjacent to the rum still and cistern.

st john trails: grave
Grave at of Heinrich Tonis
st john usvi trails: grave
Grave of Louise Sommer 1861

This grave (shown at left) found at L’Esperance belongs to Heinrich Tonis, the great grandson one of the original owners of Estate L’Esperance, Claus Tonis, A wealthy Dutch merchant who first took up the plantation in conjunction with the Governor of the Danish West Indies, Eric Bredal. This is one of the oldest marked graves on St. John.


History of the L'Esperance Estate

Early owners of L'Esperance befriended the Moravians who had come to preach on St. John and it was on this estate that the first St. John meeting of the Moravian Church took place some time during the 1740s.

In 1797, when the sugar industry on St. John was at its peak, 71 people lived on the L'Esperance Estate, 92% of the land was improved, 156 acres were planted in sugar cane, 25 acres in provisions and 25 acres were used as pasture land where 38 cows grazed. Only 19 acres of the L’Esperance plantation were undeveloped and classified as woodland.

The following is a description of the Estate in 1805:

The Estate is situated on the Western of the island. In the middle between the North and the South side. The buildings and Negro houses lie in a valley surrounded by mountains on which the cane fields are laid out. Which are sheltered from the injurious north winds.... Two small rivulets run through the Estate, whereof one waters the Works. It has not been dry in the 30 years that I have been here.... It has agreeable to the opinion of those who understand it, water enough to supply a water mill, which I have not been able to build on account of the heavy debt which rests on the Estate when I bought it. The want of workers on it, dry years and lastly hurricanes. The lands are all, with the exception of a few acres good cane lands. The soil is mostly a black mould on clay bottom and in some places a grayish earth upon clay. To cultivate these lands properly would require from 40 to 50 more able Negros. In 15 years that I have been owner of this estate, the labor decreased by seven Negros by death…

Excerpt from a hand-written plantation report by Dr. D’Jurco Vriehous, January 12, 1805 provided by David Knight.

In 1830, the plantation stopped its sugar production operation and became a cattle and provision growing farm. This was a hardship for the slaves living on L’Esperance as they were removed from the plantation and from their families living on nearby estates.

By 1836, only ten acres of L’Esperance were developed and the population had fallen to 13.

L’Esperance was purchased by the municipal council for the residence of the local doctor for the island of St. John, Jacob D. Raphael. The law at that time required the plantation owners to pay two cents per person for the services of the doctor, who was called doctor two-penny.

Records from 1875 report L’Esperance to have been abandoned.

Royal Palm
A royal palm tree is visible from the trail near the estate house, which may be a remaining native species. There is some dispute as to whether the royal palm is native to St. John or whether it was brought in. One theory is that the royal palm, which has an edible heart of palm, was harvested by Tainos living on St. John. Because the tree is killed in this process, the species may have been almost completely wiped out over the centuries.

From L’Esperance to Sieben
Leaving L’Esperance and continuing the hike, the road follows the Fish Bay Gut and the environment gets moister and denser in an environment of large mango, genip, guavaberry and kapok trees. The road crosses the Fish Bay Gut and for those taking this route to Fish Bay, this is a convenient place to access the gut. The road turns east at the gut and you will pass through an area dominated by bromeliads, pinguins and anthuriums. As the trail winds around to a southern exposure, the environment becomes drier and the flora changes dramatically from forest to scrub. There was once a cattle operation here and you can still see the sections of an old barbed wire fence. Wild tamarind, thorny cassia trees, catch-and-keep and maran bush became the dominant species of plants because almost everything else was eaten by the cattle. The land has not recovered appreciably, although it has been more than 60 years since the last cattle were raised here.

Estate Sieben
The first path off to the right leads to the ruins of the old Sieben Estate. The plantation covered more than 150 acres. The extensive ruins include the remains of the sugar factory, rum still, estate house and various other structures. In addition to sugar, Estate Sieben was one of the few estates to grow coffee.

St. John Virgin Islands Trails: Seiban
St. John Virgin Islands Trails: Seiban
estate seiban st. john usvi
St. John Virgin Islands Trails: Seiban
St. John Virgin Islands Trails: Seiban
St. John Virgin Islands Trails: Seiban

There was reported to be two canons here at one time, with one supposedly still remaining somewhere in the thick bush. The canons were probably placed at Sieben when the governor and commandant of St. Thomas and St. John became the owner of the estate through marriage and Sieben became the St. John Governors residence. An old drill press lies by the side of the trail.

Some History of Estate Sieben
Estate Sieben was originally granted to Johan von Sieben, the Company’s secretary, by the Danish Crown in 1721. Sieben married into a prominent Dutch family. When he died in 1734 his widow remarried the Commandant of St. Eustatius, who had fled from Statia due to his involvement with illicit trading with pirates and the subsequent loss of a good deal of the government's money in the process.

The Story of Commandant Kaas as told to the members of the St. John Historical Society by St. John historian, David Knight 12/16/2007
A later owner of Estate Sieben, as well as Estate Mollendahl, was a gentleman by the name of Wencel Kaas. Kaas had a brother who lived in Cruz Bay and was the Commandant of the St. John Regiment, but was subsequently court-martialed. The story of the court-martial goes like this:

One of the troops, apparently under the influence of alcohol, made some disparaging remarks to the Commandant’s wife. She complained to her husband who had the soldier hauled off to the battery. The Commandant then ordered the drummer to bind the offending soldier with a drumstick shoved down his throat. The soldier choked to death. Commandant Kaas died before a verdict could be rendered in his case.

The Story of Alexander Frasier as told to the members of the St. John Historical Society by St. John historian, David Knight 12/16/2007
Alexander Frasier was the owner of Sieben during emancipation. He was one of a small group of English planters who had originally established themselves on Tortola. He had colored children Frasier had a long-standing relationship with one of his slaves who he later freed, a lady by the name of Anna West. There was a problem in Tortola. Even after emancipation there, free colored could not inherit land in the British colonies. So a number of the established planters on Tortola that had free colored children decided to reestablish themselves their families in the Danish West Indies so that their children would be able to own land and become planters.

When he died, on St. John in the year of emancipation, he left a small estate, but he died in testate, he had left no will. His probate stayed in the courts a long time. During the process the court advertised in the newspapers in England and in Scotland asking for heirs to come forward. Something that no shortage of potential heirs did.

The estate, however, was appraised at only $400 plus his compensation for the slaves on his estate who were freed at emancipation, which was $50 a slave, of which he had eleven, making the entire estate worth less than $1,000, which would surely be decreased by legal fees and court costs.

This, however, did not deter his many poor relations back in Scotland from pressing their claims. In the end, four distant relatives who were able to prove that they were the surviving heirs of Frasier’s mother, who had died just a few days after he did.

These four distant relatives back in Scotland divided up the proceeds of the estate, but back at Sieben, his common law wife and children were left with nothing. The census of 1841 documented them as: Alexander Frasier Jr., 19 years old, born on Tortola, occupation planter, member of the Jaeger Corps, the militia comprised of free coloreds, Archibald Frasier, 10 years old, born on St. John, attending school, member of the Moravian Church, John Frasier, eight years old, also born on St. John, a student and member of the Moravian Church, Henrieta Frasier, 19 years old, born on Tortola, member of the Moravian Church, seamstress, Anna West who had been his common law wife for 20 years, listed as his housekeeper.

The Estate After the Decline of the Sugar Industry
By the 1830s sugar was no longer being produced in the Sieben Mollendahl area and the estate was dedicated to provision farming, fruit trees and the raising of livestock. Its last private owner, Julius Sprauve, Sr., the first Virgin Island senator from St. John and who the school in Cruz Bay is named after, sold the estate to the National Park in 1954.

estate seiban st. john usvi
55-gal. drums used to irrigate
modern day cash crop


More recently, the Estate Sieben area was used as a clandestine marijuana plantation with the remains of the operation still in evidence.




Baobob Tree
The only baobob tree on St. John can be found here in Estate Sieben. In many parts of Africa, the baobob tree is thought to be sacred and magical. The first seeds from these trees were brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans. Although there is only one baobob on St. John, St. Croix has more baobob trees than any other island in the Caribbean.

baobob tree
baobob tree
baobob tree
baobob tree


st john trails: south shore view
View From Sieben


Great views of Fish Bay and the south shore of St. John can be had from behind the baobob tree.

Read Mr. Elroy Sprauve's account of his childhood at Estate Sieben



st john trails: great seiban
Stone Retaining Wall at Great Sieben
Great Sieban Map
Great Sieben

Great Sieben
An old Danish Road, the Great Sieben, connects Sieben to Fish Bay. The trail, recently opened by the Trail Bandit and local hikers, descends from the Sieben Ruins near the baobob tree and follows the contour of the Fish Bay Valley leading to a residential area of Fish Bay. The hand-built road constructed in colonial times has weathered the centuries well, as can be seen by the good condition of much of the stone retaining walls supporting the lower side of the road. The Great Sieben passes through shady moist forest with stands of guavaberry, West Indian Birch, genip and turpentine trees underneath which are bromeliads, anthuriums and love leaf.

From Sieben to Mollendahl
The main road crosses another ridge and once again begins to descend the valley. On the south side of the road, there is a cut for a property line marked with flags that can be used as a path. There is a cemetery there with above ground graves and cottages with galvanized roofs dating from when people lived there in the early part of the century.

Soon after this you will come to an overlook with views of Fish Bay, the Fish Bay Valley, the Ditleff Point Peninsula and. on a clear day, the island of St. Croix.

l'esperance road st. john
Old House Hidden in Bay Rum Stand

Eastern Fish Bay Gut and the Bay Rum Stand
The road winds down to a beautiful bay rum stand that is growing alongside the gut that flows down to the eastern part of Fish Bay. Alongside the gut is a man-made wall and a fence. If you were to follow this gut down, you wound reach the Fish Bay Road in the vicinity of Guavaberry Farms Nursery.
Up the gut and to the west are the remains of an old shingle-walled house that was occupied until the 1950s. At that time, most of the houses in Cruz Bay were of similar construction.



st john trails: l'esperance
st john usvi trails:l'esperance road
Stone Oven


Next to the house are the remains of a cook house, a well, an oven and an old boiling copper. Look for bats on the ceiling, some of which may be nursing their young.



From the Eastern Fish Bay Gut to Mollendahl
The L’Esperance Road continues along the eastern ridge of the Fish Bay Valley. After passing a turnaround area for vehicles, the road turns right crossing the mountain ridge bringing you from the Fish Bay Valley into Reef Bay. The improved section of road ends shortly after the right turn, but continues as a foot path. There is an overlook with views of the Reef Bay Valley near the top of the path.

Between the bay rum gut and the turnaround is the entrance to the Mollendahl Ruins. Some 50 yards further along the trail you will come to another old house with a flat galvanized roof, which is now in a collapsed condition due to the effects of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Estate Mollendahl
Estate Mollendahl can be reached by a barely recognizable trail on the west side of the road, which can be found after you pass the gut and bay rum grove, but before the large genip tree and the collapsed house.

A Moravian Missionary gets a Hostile Reception
Unlike the early owners of L'Esperance who had befriended the Moravian, Estate Mollendahl proved to be a hostile place for Moravian missionaries. Jacob Detwiler, a Moravian missionary from St. Thomas had come to St. John to preach. Entering Estate Mollendahl, Detwiler asked permission from the overseer to speak to the slaves. His passionate and fiery sermon took the overseer by surprise upsetting him greatly. When Detwiler left the estate, the overseer and his assistant overtook the missionary on the road and beat him severely. Detwiler died shortly after on St. Thomas the cause of death listed as "brain fever."


st john trails: l'esperance
st john trails: mollandahl ruins
Ruins at Estate Mollendahl

The Ruins
The ruins include a sugar factory, rum still, horsemill and various other structures. The boiling house had about four coppers for boiling the cane juice. The horsemill lies above the factory with the lower part supported by a stone retaining wall.

The flat area immediately before the boiling bench held the lead lined box called the receiver, which collected the cane juice and regulated the flow of juice to the coppers by means of a spout. The holes in the wall are vent holes used to regulate the heat.

On the outside of the wall was the firing trench where fires were built under the coppers to boil the cane juice.The structure is rectangular which indicates that it predates the T-shaped sugar factories like Annaberg, which were built between 1780 and 1820. The first factories were all rectangular. The rum still and the storage house ruins can also be found nearby.

The estate was equipped with cannons, some of which still remain.

History of the Mollendahl Estate
Mollendahl was first established by a wealthy Dutch wine merchant, Gerhard Moll in 1721. By 1793. The Sieben Mollendahl Estate had 80 acres in cane, 60 acres in provisions and 150 acres in pasture land grazing 141 cows. About half the estate was unimproved woodlands. The population was 141.

By 1808, the production of cane was discontinued stressing livestock instead. A report in 1836 listed Sieben Mollendahl as having only 35 acres of pasture and a population of 18. In 1875, this had dropped to 16 acres of pasture with only nine inhabitants.

Between 1879 and 1913, the owners of the Sieben Mollendahl plantations transferred 49 acres to small land holders. In 1915, twenty-six people lived on 11 separate properties carved out of the old Sieben Mollendahl Plantation. The lots ranged from two to nine acres and in total 18 acres were improved. These subsistence farmers grew provision and fruits and raised a small amount of livestock.

From Mollendahl to the Reef Bay Valley Floor
Continuing down the trail, you will notice how this old Danish road was stabilized by a stone retaining wall on the lower side. Along the way down there are excellent views of the Reef Bay Valley and the shoreline. The trail continues to lead down into the valley and as you approach the bottom, there is a short spur that descends to the right and leads to the beach. The main trail continues, leading to the trail which crosses the rocky headland between Little Reef Bay and Genti Bay. The Reef Bay Sugar Mill Ruins will be to the east, or to your left and the beach at Little Reef Bay will be to your right,

See the St. John Historical Society Sieben Mollendahl Exploration Photo Gallery

More about the L'esperance road from the Blog

A Tale of Two Trails and a Dam: L’Esperance and Camelberg

St. John Trails: Interview with Bob Garrison “The Trail Bandit”

St. John Trails: Camelberg Trail

St. John Virgin Islands: The Great Sieben

St. John Virgin Islands: Estate Sieben