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, …
… 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.
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’!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/