TRUNK BAY – “It Was Our Home”

TRUNK BAY – “It Was Our Home”

Trunk Bay…The name, the place, the photos and artworks all evoke visions of an Island Paradise. Condé Nast Traveler deemed it one of the top 10 beaches on the planet, National Geographic says it has no equal. Everyone who loves St John and its natural splendor has a special memory of this idyll bay with its pristine turquoise waters, sugar soft sand and lush vegetation. But, …

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… how many can say that it was once their home. Yes, entirely and exclusively. The Denham-Boulon family can and we should be forever grateful for its transfer to the Virgin Islands National Park Service in the late 1950s.

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Their journey began in 1927 when Paul Boulon Sr., who had a refrigeration business in Puerto Rico, was on a trip to the Puerto Rico Fishing Club on Denis Beach.  Paul was told of a lovely piece of land that was currently owned by the Danish Bank. The 100 acre parcel included all of the beachfront and non-beachfront property of Trunk Bay. Interested in building a summer retreat,  Paul purchased the entire parcel for song (It is said $5000). At this point, I believe all of us wish time travel was a real ‘ting’!

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Paul and his wife, Erva Hartwell Boulon, whose father relocated to Puerto Rico in 1908 as Chief Meteorologist for the Caribbean with the US Weather Bureau, began building their future summer vacation home at Trunk Bay the following year.  While the main house was being constructed, the family of six – including their four young children – Erva Claire, Paul Jr, Ralf and Jack – enjoyed summer vacations camping on the beach in a construction shed with a lean-to kitchen, cooking over an open fire and charcoal pots. A portion of that building is still there at the end of the beach. 

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During the early 1930s, the two-story 6 bedroom, 3 bath main house was built on the top of the hill. Paul Sr. designed the main house and had all the materials shipped by boat from Puerto Rico. It served as the family’s summer residence until 1941 when WWII put a halt on traveling.  

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Erva Hartwell Boulon returned in 1944 and with the help of her sons, converted the untended treasure into a guesthouse which she ran until the late 1950s without electricity. There were no paved roads at that time and travel was limited to horseback and boats. The North Shore Road, from Trunk Bay to Cruz Bay, used to be a dirt trail, more suitable for donkeys than cars.

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In fact, in 1952, there were only 6 vehicles on island and 750 residents. Most traveling was done on foot or by Tortola Sloops, the traditional sailing vessels, built in the Virgin Islands, that once carried cargo and passengers throughout Virgin Islands waters.

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In 1956, the Boulon family sold appx 59 acres of non-beachfront property to Laurance S. Rockefeller in connection with then proposed Virgin Islands National Park. The remaining beachfront property was sold by the Boulons to the Park Service in 1957, keeping only the 3 acre peninsula on the east end known as “Windswept” for themselves.

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The Trunk Bay Estate Guesthouse was closed in 1960 when the beach became part of the Virgin Islands National Park, although much of the family still resides in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Rafe Boulon and his wife, artist Kimberly, raised their children and continue to live at “Windswept”. Kimberly has provided a live webcam with views of Cinnamon, Maho and Francis Bays as an effort to support the conservation of the Virgin Islands National Park.

Rafe has called Trunk Bay home since his 2nd day after birth on St. Thomas. His family’s house was the current ranger residence which was destroyed by hurricanes Irma/Maria. Its ruins are still clearly visible midway up the hill on the east end of the beach. Rafe recalls swimming with an abundance of fish and turtles that used to inhabit his back yard. Trunk Bay is named after the largest sea turtle in the world, the leatherback, locally known as ‘trunk turtles’. Sadly, they are now on the critically endangered species list.

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His gaze is pensive as he contemplates what may have become of St John had it not been gifted to the National Park Service, “Every beach would have a large resort on it and there would be condominiums everywhere”. Rafe is concerned about the growing number of visitors and damage to Trunk Cay which by law is closed to foot traffic. Most visitors do not realize that it is a bird sanctuary. He is currently writing a book about his memoirs of growing up on St John during an era that was so different from today.

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Erva Denham is dismayed by the current disregard for Virgin Islands customs and hopes visitors will take the time do a bit of research about their vacation destination. These islands have a long history of respect for manners and propriety. Do not be taken aback if you are met with a random “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon”. It is expected that we all begin a conversation with this friendly greeting. St John is home to many lovely families who have been residents of this island for generations. Everyone in town and at business establishments are expected to be properly covered.  

As for their beloved Trunk Bay, the family asks only that you tread softly upon the sand, taking nothing but pictures and leaving only footprints.

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You can find more information about their life on an unspoiled St John in the wonderful stories on Bish Denham’s Facebook posts and Blog https://bish-randomthoughts.blogspot.com/2019/08/iwsg-memories-and-writing.html?m=1.

I would like to thank Rafe Boulon and Bish and Erva Denham for sharing their wonderful photos and stories.


St John Historical Society ‘Life in Five Quarters’, a Presentation by Rafe Boulon; Summarized by Vicki Bell www.StJohnHistoricalSociety.org

Destination USVI Magazine, Volume 20, 2022, ‘My Grandmother’s Footprints: the legacy of Erva Hartwell Boulon by Bish Denham

NOAA Fisheries https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/leatherback-turtle

My Island Kitchen by Erva Boulon, VI Printing Co., 1969

Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park https://friendsvinp.org/trunkbay/


26 thoughts on “TRUNK BAY – “It Was Our Home””

  1. We have been coming to St John for over 20 years. We love it for the peaceful aura and more so, being close to nature. We embrace the culture of the people who still retain so very much of their history because, they share their home with us. We continue to love the historical blogs which define the longtime residents.

  2. What a wonderful history lesson. I’ve been coming to St. John with my family for over 21 years. It’s like a second home to us.

    I do have one suggestion, all villa owners, The Westin and any other hotel on the island should make it a priority to let guests know, NO GLASS BOTTLES ON THE BEACH.

  3. I truly enjoyed this story of the history Trunk Bay. My husband and I are true St. John lovers. Our first visit was in 1998. Have returned many times and hope to again very soon. Thank you for this meaningful and interesting history!

  4. I’d love to hear about the practical side of those early years. Running water (hot or cold), food sources, daily life in general.

    • We spent a lot of time on St John with Fred Pfeiffer and Donna Wilson. We thought about buying their place but decided it took too long to get there. We loved the place though

  5. This is a wonderful piece of history. We’ve been coming to STJ since 1999 and look forward to teaching our young girls more about St. John (and USVI/BVI) customs and history with each visit we are able to enjoy as a family. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for the well-told history lesson. From the comments, we can see that we aren’t the only ones who have appreciated this look into the past. We truly love St John, and have made more than 20 visits over the years. We see it changing, but it it still the best island in the Caribbean! The people who live there and who share their island with us are wonderful. We visitors owe it to them to respect St. John and help to preserve its beauty.

  7. I appreciate this article so much and the history it shares. Something I and a couple others have noticed is the amount of change that has gone on in such a short time. The timeline of this story is essentially my lifetime. To think that in the beginning my lifetime one family owned Trunk is amazing. It points out that change is not new to St John and even with that change people are still falling in love with it each year. The island seems to be managing it well.

  8. My wife and I have been coming to St. John also, for over twenty years. I believe our first visit was in 1990 or 2000. We have met many people, some who are no longer with us, seen changes occur on island and to the water – some good, others not so much. When the hurricanes come we worry and fret over both strangers and people we know. Unfortunately, I know that we will never have the chance to live there but honestly I love that place more anywhere else.

  9. A great lesson of the history of this part of STJ, my first visit in 1978 took me on the then unpaved N. Shore and this beach.

    The other lesson in this article is what the family is observing as a change in some of the current visitors and their lack of respect for STJ and the folks that call her their home . We should never forget the need for respect for STJ and what continues to draw us to her shores.

    Thank you for great article

  10. I, my wife and family started coming to St. John in 1992. We fell in love with the island and my wife cried when we left, so we started coming for our winter and summer vacations. We explored the whole island and certainly all of the beaches. My wife is gone now and I am sure she still comes to the island.

  11. I am so grateful that the Boulon family was able to do what they did. I might not have discovered the island had it been like so many others, with resorts on every beach. As a visitor for over 20 years, with a short break since 2020, I pray the island can stay closer to this than becoming over commercialized. (I despair at what has become of some areas..(like the obscenity of Maho) but I hold fast to the hope that most of the island will not change.

  12. My favorite story so far! I love hearing about the history especially the people behind the island, so to speak. I hope we see more of these stories. Thank you.

  13. I too have been coming to St. John since the early 70’s both by boat and camping.
    I hope that the current stewards and decision makers of St. John will have the same foresight that people like the Boulons had, and I hope that the people making the choices today will be looked upon with similar admiration and respect 70 years from now.

  14. Thank you for sharing. My family has a long history of over 100 years in St John as well. My cousin and educator in St Thomas has documented the family history and indigenous languages of the islands. Great to hear stories like this.

  15. Loved to hear of the history of Trunk Bay. St. John is one of our favorite places to visit. So glad the Denham-Boulon family gave to our future, St. John is a National Treasure.

  16. My parents, brothers and I came to St. John in August 1968. We camped at Cinnamon Bay. We fell in love with the island. I’ve been there 8 times. I love the island so much that in 2000, I returned with my 2 sons and my Mother. The boys fell in love with St. John as I did.

  17. We are relatively new to this paradise, having been there once and will be coming again. We hope to be frequent respectful visitors and thank you for this little piece of history .

  18. Fantastic and fascinating family history, Bish Denham. And so nice of you to comment. Are you still on St. John? In any case, my wife first camped at Maho in 1991 and we later brought our daughters many times. Our favorite beach is Oppenheimer; we must have 50 pictures on that rope swing by the old Oppenheimer house/community center. Take care and thanks again to you and yours!

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