Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-09-21.
History of the Sister's Island Lighthouse
The Sister's Island Lighthouse, sometimes called the Three Sisters Island Lighthouse, comes from the collection of three tiny islands along the St. Lawrence River, on which the lighthouse sits. The three islands were originally connected via wooden bridges, which have since been upgraded to concrete breakwalls.
Vessels have been sailing the St. Lawrence River as early as the mid-1500s. Navigation was difficult at best due to many submerged rocks and shoals. Improvements over the years led to an increase in shipping traffic which spurred the federal government to construct many new aids to navigation along the river.
One of the first lighthouses constructed was the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse in 1827, where the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario meet. Then came the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse in 1834, the Rock Island and Sunken Rock Lighthouses in 1847, and Crossover Island Lighthouse in 1848.
The Lighthouse Board had attempted to construct a light on one of the islands as early as 1859. An appropriation on March 3, 1859 requested $4,000 for "a beacon-light on one of the Sister's Islands, in the St. Lawrence River, below Alexandria Bay."
Consent to purchase the Sisters' Islands was given by the federal government on April 18, 1861, however, gaining clear title to the string of islands was delayed causing the funds from the 1859 appropriation to revert back to the U.S. Treasury.
An new appropriation of $10,000 was made by Congress on March 2, 1867, however, it would still take another two years before clear title to the islands was obtained. After nine long years, the federal government purchased the three islands from Charles and John F. Walton for $142.33.
Although the Sisters Island Lighthouse sits on the American side of the waterway, it was built to mark a difficult, narrow channel between the string of tiny islands and the much larger, Grenadier Island. By September 1870, the new lighthouse was constructed.
Although original plans called for it to be built of brick, stone was substituted instead due to the exposed location of the tower and the difficulty obtaining the best quality of brick for the amount appropriated. The limestone used in construction, quarried from Kingston, Ontario, was also used in the construction of the nearby Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse that same year.
A two-story dwelling was constructed on the easternmost island, while wooden bridges connected the three islands together. The tower protruded from the middle of the northern slope of the roof, extending an additional story, capped by the lantern. From the tower, a fixed white light illuminating an arc of 360-degrees was shown from a sixth-order Fresnel lens. The tower was lighted for the first time on September 15, 1870.
By 1874, the exposed location of the station was showing itself. The Lighthouse Board had asked for $700 to construct a retaining wall to protect the dwelling and tower. The appropriation was made on March 3, 1875. Not only was the causeway constructed, but stone breakwalls were built to connect the three islets.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1875 had the following entry detailing the work carried out:
501. Sister Island, Saint Lawrence River, New York - The appropriation of $700, made March 3, 1875, has been expended in constructing a retaining-wall of masonry, 67 feet in length, with earth filled in behind it to the general level, and protecting the northwest side of the dwelling and tower. The rough causeways of piles and boards on trestles, which have heretofore been the precarious mode of connection between the three islets, have been removed, and substantial dry-stone causeways, 230 feet long, substituted.
A few changes were made throughout the years. In 1880, a platform and steps to the dwelling were built, and shelving for oil and battens for hooks were put up. In 1884, a well was sunk through the granite. A sufficient supply of fresh water was found at a modest depth of nearly 26 feet. The keeper was supplied with a pump to obtain the water.
1885 Sisters Island Lighthouse (National Archives)
Repairs continued throughout the years. Most years, only minor things needed attention. However, in 1887, the plank decking of the landing crib needed to be replaced. That same year, a hatch was installed in the kitchen floor to allow the space underneath to be used as a cellar.
Enhancements to the station continued in 1895 when some 80 running feet of wooden walk were built. The following year, the superstructure of the wharf was rebuilt and the boathouse was rebuilt and enlarged. Not only would it accommodate the keeper's boat, but it would also store coal, wood, and supplies, as well as include a workshop as well.
In 1899, the boathouse was once again enlarged to provide room to store fuel. That same year, the masonry wall along the eastern shore was repaired and rebuilt. To provide extra protection to the small island, additional stone riprap was placed around its borders.
An iron oil house was erected in 1902 atop a concrete foundation. In 1905, a stone wall was built around a portion of the island to provide better protection from the river, and several wooden walkways were replaced with concrete.
On June 28, 1929, the lighthouse was automated. Keeper Ralph Scobie was transferred the Fair Haven Lighthouse, near Rochester, having been replaced by an acetylene light. At that time, the fixed white light was changed to a white flash, every three seconds. In 1932, the color of the light was changed to red.
With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation took over all aids to navigation along the river. The Sisters Island Lighthouse was replaced with a buoy. To defray the costs, it was rented on an annual basis by William N. Barbour, Jr, of Chaumont, NY for twelve dollars per month.
Once the Coast Guard confirmed that the property was no longer needed, it passed the details on to the General Services Administration. The GSA offered the property, free of charge, to any federal, state, or local government, and by September of 1966, all groups had turned them down.
With no interested government entity coming forward, General Services Administration put the 24 foot by 48 foot lighthouse and the three-tenths of an acre island up for auction. By July of 1967, fourteen interested parties had come forward. Thirteen were from New York State and one was from Canada.
Later that year, the General Services Administration accepted a bid of $6,594 from Edward Wolos and Emil Gavel from Pequannock, New Jersey. Members of the Wolos family still own the lighthouse today.
Note: The lighthouse is private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- thousandislandslife.com website.
- "14 Buyers Interested in Sisters Island Lighthouse," Staff, Watertown Daily Times, July 29, 1967.
- "Island Lighthouse Declared Surplus," Staff, Watertown Daily Times, September 9, 1966.
- "Jersey Men High Bidders on Station," Staff, Watertown Daily Times, November 2, 1967.
Directions: This lighthouse sits in the middle of the shipping channel of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Where it is located, it is impossible to see from land. I took the Empire Cruise Lines tour to Singer Castle which is upstream from the lighthouse. The cruise line passes very close to the lighthouse, and on both sides as well. It is probably the easiest way to photograph the lighthouse short of having your own boat.
Access: The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower and grounds are closed.
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