|Rock Island, NY|
Description: By act of Congress on March 3, 1847, $6,000 was appropriated for three lighthouses to mark the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River. The next month, Crossover Island, Sunken Rock, and Rock Island were purchased from Chesterfield and Mary Ann Pearsons, and Azariah and Mary Walton for $250 to serve as the sites for the three beacon lights. The Rock Island Lighthouse, a one-and-a-half-story brick dwelling with a lantern centered on its pitched roof, was constructed that same year, and on May 15, 1848, Chesterfield Pearsons, the former co-owner of the island, was appointed first keeper of the light.
Pearsons cared for the beacon’s array of six oil lamps and associated fourteen-inch reflectors for just over a year before being replaced by John B. Collins. The next keeper, William Johnston, was certainly the most notorious to serve at Rock Island. In 1838, the British were facing an armed uprising against their rule in Canada known as “The Patriot’s War.” William Johnston was a loyal Canadian citizen until the War of 1812 when he fled to the United States and served as a spy for his new country. Intimately familiar with the labyrinth of passages in the Thousand Islands, Johnston was declared Admiral of the Patriot Navy of the East and led a band of American sympathizers against the British. On the night of May 29th, Johnston and thirteen of his men, painted as Indians, commandeered the British steamer Sir Robert Peel. Additional men to help crew the Peel had been promised, but when they failed to appear, Johnston maneuvered the vessel into the stream and set it afire. After drifting a short distance, the steamer became lodged on a small island, since known as Peel Island.
In 1855, the lantern atop the Rock Island Lighthouse was refitted and equipped with a sixth-order Fresnel lens, which provided a stronger beam for mariners. The original combination dwelling and tower continued to serve until 1882 when it was replaced by a two-story, eight-room Victorian dwelling with a detached metal tower placed on a high spot near the middle of the island. Sunken Rock and Crossover Island also received similar towers the same year.
The new commodious dwelling was definitely appreciated by the keepers. The new iron tower, however, had a problem – its height was not great enough to make the light visible over the keeper’s dwelling. Although this deficiency may not have been the cause, the three-masted schooner Vickery did run aground near the lighthouse on August 15th, 1889. Due to the abundance of confusing cottage lights that lined the river, the vessel’s captain stopped at Clayton to take on board a pilot, but not fifteen minutes after departing that town, the Vickery struck a shoal at 10:30 p.m. Enraged with the pilot, the captain drew his revolver, but the first mate deflected the captain’s shot and tossed the revolver overboard. As the vessel was quickly settling, the crew abandoned ship and spent the night at the lighthouse hosted by Keeper Michael Diepolder.
The raised tower still must not have been considered adequate as in the spring of 1903, five workmen constructed a conical brick base just off the northern side of the island and installed the old iron tower on top of it. This new 50-foot tower was connected to the island by a walkway made of rubble stone and concrete. Around this time, the tower received a fourth-order Fresnel lens.
In 1909, an article appeared in a Utica newspaper touting the fine table that Willard Cook, a “one-armed optimist,” had crafted in his eighty-sixth year. Cook lost his right arm during the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, but was still capable of accepting an appointment as keeper of Rock Island in 1872. Besides being an optimist, Cook seemed to possess a good sense of humor as indicated by his entry in the logbook for July 16, 1872. “Weather hot and dry. Flies still continue to inspect the light nights and do not pay any attention to the placard of instruction to visitors, but will persist in lighting and walking on the glass of the lantern, to the great annoyance of the keeper, who has used all the gentle means he is master of, for their removal.” The newspaper article concluded by noting that Cook had led a busy “life that might well be emulated by many who are not handicapped as has been this plucky, optimistic old gentleman.”
Rock Island Lighthouse was electrified in 1931, when generators were installed inside the 1900 steel oil house and an electrical conduit was run to the tower. Coastguardsman Dennis Carroll served as the final keeper, leaving the island in December of 1956. The New York State Office of Parks and Recreation acquired Rock Island in 1976 from the U.S. General Services Administration as surplus property and has since installed interpretive signage on the island and opened it as a state park. Besides the tower, dwelling, and generator building, the island still has a carpenter shop (1882), boathouse (1920), and fieldstone smokehouse (1847), making it the most intact former U.S. light station on the St. Lawrence River.
Restoration of the structures on Rock Island began in 2010, using federal and state funds, which has allowed commercial boat tours to the island to be offered.
Located in the St. Lawrence River between Fishers Landing and the western
end of Wellesley Island. The lighthouse is owned by New York State Parks. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during tours.
The lighthouse is owned by New York State Parks. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during tours.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Laurent Ronc, used by permission.