Pirates, Pioneers and Progress, Pt. 2
Story by Julian Putley
Beef Island today is best known as the location of the Terrence B. Lettsome Airport, but it is also known for its fabulous beaches, luxury villas, shops, art galleries and eateries. In a multi-part series, author Julian Putley looks back at Beef Island's earliest days.
In Part One of the Beef Island story we explored the island's history as far back as the pirate era of the early 1700s when Black Sam Bellamy had his hideout in Trellis Bay. Eccentric characters, sailors, writers and visionaries are all portrayed in our story as are the BVI's stalwart laborers and artisans who formed the islands' backbone.
Adventurers Wladek and Mabel Wagner, having arrived in the USVI in 1949, visited and then had the vision to develop Trellis Bay into a sailor's paradise after they happened upon it while searching for a protected anchorage. With unerring tenacity they built a slipway for hauling large yachts, they built guest cottages and a fine stone residence on what was then Conch Shell Point (subsequently demolished for the first runway extension in 2001). Finally they built a yachtsmen's club on Bellamy Cay and were awarded the contract to build, first a raft with docking facilities, and then the first airstrip on Beef Island. The Wagners and their club were both employed during the filming of My Virgin Island, a legendary romantic tale starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes.
In 1954 the Wagners finally received the deed to Bellamy Cay (for a total price of $75.00) but the Trellis Bay slipway, which had operated since 1952, was to be moved, upgraded and rebuilt to accommodate larger and deeper draft vessels. It is almost unbelievable to think that all the necessary funds for this major development came from yacht charters aboard the Wagners' 77-ft ketch Rubicon. It was often Wladek with crew Henry Varlack and Glanville Penn of East End who ran the boat while Mabel stayed behind at Trellis Bay and home-schooled the children, Michael and Suzanna.
When the new slipway was finished the family's dream house was started. Located at Conch Shell Point it was named Tamarind House because a tamarind tree had to be removed to make way for the construction. Whilst the land was being cleared the foundations of an older house were discovered along with some stone defenses. Some artifacts from a bygone era were also found; cannon balls, glass bottles, a shoe buckle and a broken candlestick among others.
Two masons were hired from East End, Tortola; a carpenter, Lawrence Penn and two helpers, Hugh Varlack and Obel Penn. "These good, capable men comprised the main work crew and stayed with Trellis Bay throughout the years." When the construction was completed it was a fine stone house with a dedicated schoolroom.
The time had now come to start on the dream of a yachtsmen's club on Bellamy Cay. There was nothing on Bellamy Cay but scrub; a small hill had to be leveled and transportation was necessary, not only from Beef Island to the Cay but also from East End to Beef Island. Wladek Wagner was contracted to build the first ferry (actually a raft) from East End to Beef Island. It was operated by ropes through pulleys and was big enough to carry a vehicle. His right hand man was Obel Penn, who said: "In November 1956 I was given the task to build two wharfs, parallel to each other, one on Beef Island and one on the mainland. I completed them sometime in 1957. Then I was a part of getting the bulldozer across on the barge. The bulldozer was the first on the island." Now almost 90 years of age Obel Penn recalls much of Beef Island's early days.
It was an opportunistic moment when wealthy businessman Herbert Lee sailed into Trellis Bay. He was very impressed with the Wagner development and after some deliberation offered to finance the Bellamy Cay Club as a silent partner. What you see today as the Last Resort is little changed from Wagner's construction in 1956. This incredible innovator and visionary had to be a maritime yacht captain, designer, builder, electrician, mechanic, businessman and general solver of all problems in a remote corner of an undeveloped Caribbean archipelago. Mabel Wagner was a mother, teacher, doctor, cook, seamstress, record keeper, partner in life and business and… soon to be club manageress.
November 17th 1956 was slated as Grand Opening Day. A party was held with some 30 guests including the BVI's British Administrator Geoffrey Allsebrook. It was a great success.
Next came the building of the BVI's first airstrip. Famed aviator Sir Alan Cobham, who eventually retired in the BVI, suggested that an airstrip was an essential part of progress. His design, though, was considered problematic and a design by a Mr Carlos Garcia was eventually approved. Wagner was given the go ahead to begin construction of an airstrip, terminal building and accommodation for a customs and immigration official. Obel Penn was again put in charge of a team of men from the Public Works Department, a large bulldozer was barged over from Puerto Rico and the mammoth task of leveling and building the BVI's first airport began. Unfortunately there developed some bureaucratic wrangling and Wagner finally resigned. However, the airport project was almost finished and the final cost came in under budget. What an achievement!
The completion of the airstrip was timely in so far as a film company from the UK (Countryman Films) had recently decided to make a film of Rob White's book, Two on the Isle, his story of Marina Cay. It was to be called Our Virgin Island and today it can be viewed on YouTube. The crew and cast used the new Bellamy Cay Club and hired the Wagners and the Rubicon for several weeks during filming. The task was monumental: filming locations included Marina Cay, The Baths, Sandy Cay and Road Town. Wladek had to build another barge to tow all the equipment from filming location to location while Mabel had to provide catering services, accommodations and other special services while still being a mother and teacher to the children. The new airstrip was used to fly in all the equipment, cast and crew. Mabel speaks affectionately of stars Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes but not so kindly of the crew, many of whom were unbelievably difficult and demanding.
After nine years of intense, energy sapping work Mabel Wagner had a physical breakdown and was flown to England for total R and R. Wladek Wagner knew that a lifestyle change was sorely needed and after heart rending deliberations started negotiations for the handing over of the development the couple had so painstakingly put together. After their departure in 1958 Trellis Bay slipped back into "island time." Without the Wagners' energy and enthusiasm the slipway and boatyard fell into disrepair. The Bellamy Cay Club never really succeeded and the cottages were not rented. It was a case of the development being "before its time."
Today the two Wagner cottages house the Trellis Kitchen and Aragorn's Studio and Arts and Crafts Center. The old slipway office still stands and became Flukes, now a small gift shop. The Tamarind House became the Conch Shell Point restaurant but was later demolished to make way for the first runway extension in 2001. The Bellamy Cay Club became the Last Resort, one of the BVI's most renowned restaurant and entertainment centers.
In 1973 Tony and Jackie Snell took over the lease of Bellamy Cay and renamed it the Last Resort. They had already built up a reputation for sumptuous buffet dinners with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at their previous location in Little Jost van Dyke. Over the years the Last Resort became a "must stop" spot on the charter yacht circuit. Tony's irreverent shows became increasingly popular. The island supported several lost or injured animals: Jackie was a caring animal lover. There were also a series of donkeys and singing dogs that would partake in the show. Their advertisement ran: "Gargantuan Buffet, Hilarious Show, Nice Ass," referring, of course, to the donkey.
Tony was a World War 2 veteran and Spitfire pilot. He was shot down over enemy territory, captured and eventually escaped to Switzerland. After the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Having learned several different musical instruments he soon became a talented performer and entertainer and travelled the world doing stand-up comedy routines and shows. He met his wife, Jackie, in New York where she was an art director for Harper's Bazaar. Sadly, both Jackie and Tony are no longer with us; Tony died in August 2013. His daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and Ben took it over for 13 years, but currently the restaurant is closed but may reopen in the near future under new management.
Beef Island has seen other innovators and adventurers. Pioneering mariner and charter yachtsman Ross Norgrove took up residence on Beef Island when a debilitating disease left him bound to a wheelchair. If ever there was a man of the sea it was Ross Norgrove. During a career that encompassed voyaging many thousands of sea miles and then writing five books on cruising, chartering, rigging, shoestring sailing and tropical living, Norgrove ranked high on the list of sailing gurus. From an early age he became a licensed radio operator, trawler master and finally master mariner, unlimited tonnage. Back in the early days of yacht chartering in the 1960s Norgrove, with diminutive wife Minine, were a regular sight in the BVI's anchorages on their schooner White Squall.
Another world famous yachtsman was multihull designer, Dick Newick. He ran the Trellis Bay slipway in 1959 after the Wagners' departure. Little is known of his time on Beef Island but he became an international celebrity designing many race-winning multihulls. He spent much of his life in St Croix. Sadly, he sailed away to Fiddler's Green in August, 2013.
Beef Island has seen many changes over the decades and is likely to see many more. There are further development plans and murmurings of an airport expansion. But everyone's fervent hope is that the wonderful character of Trellis Bay will not be lost and that the natural environment will be preserved.
Note: Wladek Wagner was an early circumnavigating yachtsman, the first Polish national to achieve such a goal. His voyage around the world began in July, 1932 and his dedicated mission took seven years and three boats. His story is told in his book, By the Sun and Stars published in 1986. The story of the Wagners' pioneering days in the Virgin Islands is told in Mabel Wagner's fascinating book, Lest I Forget published in 2012. Email for a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also available at Island Services in Road Town and on Amazon.
In Part 3 Julian will explore Beef Island from the 1970s to present.