Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-09-12.
History of the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse
On Lighthouse Point, at the mouth of the Oswegatchie and St. Lawrence Rivers, stands the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse. Although the first lighthouse was built in 1835, it was not the first structure to be built on the point.
Fort de La Présentation, constructed in 1749 by Abbé François Picquet to serve as a mission to convert the Iroquois Confederacy to Catholicism, and to persuade them to side with the French as a war with the British Colony was looming.
The plan worked. In a little over five years Picquet's mission had attracted nearly 3,000 Onondagas, Cayugas and other Iroquois to side with the French. The group succeeded in defeating George Washington in the Ohio Valley in 1755, destroying Fort Bull near present day Rome, NY, and capturing Oswego in 1756.
By 1759, the French evacuated Fort de la Présentation and constructed Fort Lévis, further upriver on Chimney Island, to prevent a British attack on Montreal and Quebec. For the remainder of the French and Indian War, the fort sat abandoned. At the war's conclusion in 1763, control of Canada passed from the French to the British.
The British renamed the fort to Fort Oswegotchie, it would be used by the British during the Revolutionary War, and would remain under their control until 1796, when borders were redefined by Jay's Treaty.
American settlers, led by Nathan Ford, a land agent for proprietor Samuel Ogden, arrived that year. Their arrival drove the British allies out of the area, establishing the settlement of Ogdensburg.
In 1810, a Custom House was built to serve as a warehouse for the distribution of goods, and within a year, Ogdensburg's importance as a port increased despite the harbor being difficult to enter due to numerous shoals and cross currents.
In an effort to help vessels reach the port, the federal government sought to establish a lighthouse in Ogdensburg. In 1834, an acre-and-a-half of land was purchased from the family of Nathan Ford, near the site of the former fort. That same year, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of the lighthouse.
A year later, the lighthouse was complete. It consisted of a dwelling with a lantern. Inside the lantern, ten lamps outfitted with circular reflectors were arranged in a circular fashion. Although very few records exist of the lighthouse, an engraving by the W.H. Bartlett Company suggests that it was a frame structure.
A report by Lieutenant C.T. Platt dated November 26, 1838 listed the lighthouse as a "fixed light... placed upon the dwelling in which the keeper resides." The report stated that the lighthouse was kept "in the best possible order," but also pointed out that it was currently undergoing repairs, under an appropriation of $300.
Also pointed out in the report was that the river was running about three feet higher than its usual elevation, and should it continue running that high, it would overflow the banks rendering the garden useless. Lieutenant Platt also mentioned that the house was inaccessible from the mainland, requiring a boat for access.
A seawall, constructed some years previously, had provided adequate protection of the garden, but for some reason, a gap of sixty feet was left. Lieutenant Platt, in his report, asked for an appropriation of $60 to close the gap, and an additional $50 to raise the foundation of the wooden house.
The lighthouse continued to use a series of lamps and reflectors into the 1850s. After the establishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, most lighthouses were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens. The Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse received a fourth-order lens in 1855.
The following year, some general repairs were made to the keeper's dwelling and grounds of the lighthouse. By 1869, the dwelling with the attached light was in a state of disrepair. Plans were in the works for a new lighthouse and dwelling, however, the lighthouse had to serve through winter, so minimal repairs were made.
The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances dated 1869 had the following entry:
11. Ogdensburg - The keeper's dwelling and tower have been sufficiently repaired to make them habitable only for the winter, as they are not worth general repair. The barn has been reduced in size and turned into a boat-house. A new dwelling for the keeper, with tower attached of brick, of the same plan as that at Stony Point, is recommended. The cost of this is estimated at $12,000, if it can be built without using piles for the foundation; but, with piles, it will probably cost $13,000.
An appropriation of Congress on July 15, 1870 provided the Lighthouse Board with the $13,000 requested and by August 23, work had commenced. Upon completion of the tower on July 9, 1871, landscaping work would finish off the station.
The seawall, which provided protection for the station was raised throughout its length, top soil and loam was brought in to raise the grade, a picket fence enclosed the dwelling and small garden area, and shade trees were planted on the land side.
To provide a cost savings, the same lighthouse design employed at Stony Point near Henderson, New York one year prior, was utilized. The lighthouse tower at Ogdensburg would be thirty-nine feet, eight inches tall, which was 6 feet 8 inches taller than the lighthouse at Stony Point.
The dwelling and tower were constructed of dark gray square-cut, rough-faced limestone, harvested from a quarry in Kingston, Ontario. This was the same material used in the construction of the Sisters Island Lighthouse, also in the St. Lawrence River.
By 1880, general repairs were needed at the station. The dwelling was painted inside and out, the boat ways and landing were rebuilt, and the boathouse was repaired. Besides repairs, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year called attention to the nearby Windmill Point Lighthouse in Prescott, Ontario.
The report pointed out that since the Windmill Point Lighthouse was established in 1873, it served the same purpose as the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse. The author of the report noted:
"Two range- lights, placed on the prolongation of the dredged channel leading into Ogdensburg Harbor, would be of great use to commerce, and if established, the harbor light could be discontinued. The cost of putting up the ranges would be $2,755.55."
Although the issue of range lights were brought up in that report, little seems to have been done as subsequent annual reports make no further mention of range lights, and the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse would stay in use until 1961.
Ogdensburg Lighthouse circa 1885 (National Archives)
As an illuminant, kerosene produced a much brighter light, and replaced whale oil in 1875. The only downside to it was its volatility. Where whale oil could have been kept at the base of the tower, or a cellar of the keeper's dwelling, doing the same with kerosene would have been much more dangerous.
To provide safe storage of the volatile substance, oil houses were constructed on light station premises. Typically, the oil houses or sheds were constructed of a fire-proof material, such as iron or brick. For the Ogdensburg Lighthouse, materials, most likely iron plates, were purchased in Cleveland, and transported to the station aboard the lighthouse tender Haze in 1893.
In 1884, the retaining wall which protected the site was reconstructed. The wall was 502 feet in length, 3-1/2 feet tall, and 3 feet thick. The following year, a well was drilled to provide an adequate supply of water for the keeper and his family. The well, was sunk through clay, gravel, and sand, to a depth of 116 feet and the keeper was provided a deep-well pump.
To improve the quality of the of the light, the Hains lamps in use inside the Fresnel lens were replaced with three Funck-Heap tubular lamps in 1892. That same year, the old stone kitchen was replaced with a new frame one, the roof was extended, and other general alterations were made to improve the keeper's dwelling. The work was completed by October, 1892.
At some point, between 1885 and 1903, two gabled dormers were added to the sides of the sloped roof of the keeper's dwelling. This work may have been carried out in the alterations that took place in 1892.
In 1886, an elevated branch of the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdensburg Railroad Company was brought to the water's edge at a spot in front of the lighthouse. It was here that cars were offloaded to a ferry to be taken across the river to Prescott, Ontario.
What wasn't clear, was if the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdensburg Railroad Company ever obtained permission to set up the track. In 1904, a survey of the station was made, and the following year, legal proceedings were started against the railroad. An entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1905 captured the details:
41. Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence River, New York - In the matter of trespass by the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdensburg Railroad Company, the proper measures are being taken to institute legal proceedings against that company as trespassers on the United States lands at this station. Three granite monuments for marking the boundaries of the light-house lot have been delivered here. Minor repairs were made.
In 1900, to increase the tower's visibility, its height was increased to sixty-five feet. This was achieved by adding additional brickwork between the original limestone tower and the lantern room. (The addition is visible in the picture above and is painted white.) That same year, to increase the arc of visibility of the light, a 270° Barbier & Fenestre Fresnel lens replaced the previous 180° Fresnel lens.
The following year, an iron hand rail was put up on the inside of the tower, however, only as far as the height of the original tower. Materials to extend the rail were left at the site, to be installed once the new brickwork became sufficiently hard.
In 1903, extensive work was carried out at the station. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year tells the story:
41. Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence River, New York - The boathouse and storehouse was moved across the light-house lot and set on a foundation of concrete piers. The ice house was moved and set on stone piers. Some 318 square feet of cement walk was built. A circular stone wall was built to grade, capped with large stone, and surmounted with an iron fence. Some 61 feet of circular iron fence 36 inches high, with two gates, was built on a stone foundation. The old wooden bridge across the ditch between the lot and the railroad was replaced by a stone wall in which was laid a 24-inch tile for drainage. Some 60 feet of land tile was laid to drain water away from lot, and 20 feet of vitrified pipe have been laid beneath concrete walks. A hollow and knoll were brought to grade, involving the displacement of about 900 square feet of material. Some 60 cubic yards of loam was used to grade up. About three-quarters of the lot in front of the dwelling has been covered with this loam and graded.
Ogdensburg Lighthouse circa 1903 (National Archives)
By 1920, most of the brickwork of the tower had been covered over by a concrete-like material, most likely to improve its resistance to the elements. This act, gave the tower a more uniform appearance, however, a lot of the intricate decorative details were lost. A few years later, kerosene was replaced by electric lamps in 1924.
Documents suggest that Daniel Hill, who was transferred from the Crossover Island Lighthouse to the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse in 1932, was the last keeper. At the close of the season in November 1933, Mr. Hill was transferred to the Huron Lighthouse in Ohio.
Nonetheless, other Coast Guard documents list Harold Cook as the lighthouse keeper of the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse, serving until 1942, when the lighthouse was automated. During WWII, most lighthouses were darkened, and at the conclusion of the war, Ogdensburg was never relit.
The station was used for residential purposes for nearly two decades with the understanding that the renters would act as caretakers of the property. It was formally discontinued as a lighthouse on July 1, 1961. When the Coast Guard no longer had a use for the property, it was turned over to the General Services Administration.
In 1964, the General Services Administration offered the property, appraised at more than $24,000, to the City of Ogdensburg, for a mere $900, a proposition which the city turned down. The property was purchased by Thomas and Laurel Roethel when their sealed bid of $2,400 was accepted.
Their plan was a fix up the place for use as a summer home and to one day relight the tower. Upon his passing in 1987, ownership of the lighthouse passed to his son, Blair Roethel, who moved in with his family, and continued renovating the structure.
In a protest of high taxes as fees he paid to maintain the historical structure, which was a tourist attraction for the City of Ogdensburg, Blair Roethel, filed the necessary paperwork with the city to have the structure demolished in 2007.
The move sent town officials scrambling for a way to stave off the destruction. A reprieve came from the Department of Environmental Conservation, which said that the plan failed to include asbestos removal and structural reviews, and denied the permit.
The bluff drew media attention to his plight, which allowed the Roethel family to build ties with charitable groups to help defray the costs associated with maintaining the structure. On October 8, 2011, Blair Roethel had fulfilled his father's dream when he had the tower relit as a private aid to navigation.
The Roethel Family plans to continue renovations, and possibly one day, open the Ogdensburg Harbor Lighthouse for tours.
Note: The lighthouse is private property, please respect the owner's privacy 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.
- "Ogdensburg Shines Again," Nora Janack, Lighthouse Digest, March/April 2012.
- "North Country Remembered," Staff, Watertown Daily News, November 13, 1976.
- www.thousandislandslife.com website.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on private property. The best viewing spot is from the Ogdensburg Boat Launch. From Highway 37 in Ogdensburg, take State Street north to the end. It will end at Riverside Ave. Follow Riverside Ave. west to the a park with the boat launch ramps. From here, you will be able to see the lighthouse across the Oswegatchie River.
Access: The lighthouse is privately owned. No access is permitted.
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