History is a big draw in St. Croix: planes are filled with Danish visitors who come mainly to explore the island's colonial history. Of course, like the rest of us, they also make sure to spend some time sunning at the island's powdery beaches, getting pampered at the hotels, and dining at interesting restaurants.
Until 1917 Denmark owned St. Croix and her sister Virgin Islands, a fact reflected
in street names in the main towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted as well as the surnames of many island residents. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some of those early Danish settlers, as well as other Europeans, owned plantations, all of them worked by African slaves and white indentured servants lured to St. Croix to pay off their debt to society. Some of the plantation ruins—such as the Christiansted National Historic Site, Whim Plantation, the ruins at St. George Village Botanical Garden, and those at Estate Mount Washington and Judith's Fancy—are open for easy exploration. Others are on private land, but a drive around the island reveals the ruins of 100 plantations here and there on St. Croix's 84 square miles (218 square km). Their windmills, greathouses, and factories are all that's left of the 224 plantations that once grew sugarcane, tobacco, and other crops at the island's height.
The downturn began in 1801, when the British occupied the island. The end of the slave trade in 1803, an additional British occupation (from 1807 to 1815), droughts, the development of the sugar-beet industry in Europe, political upheaval, and an economic depression all sent the island into a downward spiral.
St. Croix never recovered. The end of slavery in 1848, followed by labor riots, fires, hurricanes, and an earthquake during the last half of the 19th century, brought what was left of the island's economy to its knees. In the 1920s, the start of prohibition in the United States ended the island's rum industry, further crippling the economy. The situation remained dire—so bad that President Herbert Hoover called the territory an "effective poorhouse" during a 1931 visit—until the rise of tourism in the late 1950s and 1960s. With tourism came economic improvements coupled with an influx of residents from other Caribbean islands and the mainland: St. Croix also depends on industries such as the huge oil refinery outside Frederiksted to provide employment.
Today suburban subdivisions fill the fields where sugarcane once waved in the tropical breeze. Condominium complexes line the beaches along the north coast outside Christiansted. Large houses dot the rolling hillsides. Modern strip malls and shopping centers sit along major roads, and it's as easy to find a McDonald's as it is Caribbean fare.
Although St. Croix sits definitely in the 21st century, with only a little effort you can easily step back into the island's past.