Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-09-07.
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. To remedy some shallow parts, several canals were created, including the Lachine Canal in 1825, which helped turn Montreal into a major port.
Other improvements took place near Port Weller, Ontario in 1829 when the Welland Canal was excavated. It linked Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, between Port Colborne and Port Weller. Prior to this, to get cargo between the two lakes, vessels had to be offloaded, travel across a portage road, and then reloaded.
These improvements helped increase vessel traffic along the St. Lawrence River. While navigating the river, the shipping channel would cross over the international boundary between the United States and Canada near a small island, which became known as Crossover Island.
In a report dated November 26, 1838, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt, U.S. Navy, had expressed some thoughts about "increasing the advantage of commerce to the river." In the entry, he recommended several lighthouses be established.
Lieutenant Platt recommended a small Cape Cod style house with a wooden tower in the center and suggested that it could be constructed for just over $2,000. It would require some time, however, Congress would set aside the necessary funds on March 3, 1847 for three lighthouses along the St. Lawrence River.
The three lighthouses funded were Rock Island, just offshore from Fishers Landing, Sunken Rock near Alexandria Bay, and the Crossover Island Lighthouse, all in the Thousand Islands region of New York. The government purchased the three islands from Chesterfield and Mary Ann Pearsons and Azariah, and Mary Walton for $250.
The first appointment to the head keeper position took place on May 15, 1848, and was Chesterfield Pearsons, one of the early owners of Rock Island. Inside the lantern, Winslow Lewis's patented lamp and reflector system of six oil lamps with 14-inch reflectors were employed to provide the light.
Mr. Pearsons served for a little over a year, before being replaced by John B. Collins. Mr. Collins served until 1853 when he was replaced by William Johnston, whom was known as the "Pirate of the Thousand Islands." The nickname stemmed from his acts during Canadian Rebellion of 1838, when he led a party of 22 men which plundered and burned the British steamer Sir Robert Peel.
The antics of the group placed a bounty on their heads, leading to several arrests. Although there were no convictions, William Johnston went to Washington, D.C. in March of 1841 to seek a pardon from President Martin Van Buren.
He was accorded a meeting with President Van Buren, in which the President scolded Johnston and said that he would rather see him "shot or hanged instead of pardoned." As the meeting took place near the close of President Van Buren's term, William Johnston waited ten days, and presented it President Harrison, who pardoned him.
1858 lighthouse sketch by Benson J. Lossing
Upon coming back to the Thousand Islands, he was appointed the keeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse, just upstream from the point of where the Sir Robert Peel burned. He served until April 8, 1861, when the administration changed in Washington, D.C., and had replaced him with Samuel Stillman Spaulding.
The United States Lighthouse Board, established in 1852, moved the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys from the oversight of the U.S. Treasury department and put them under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood navigation.
Within several years of the group's formation, they sought to upgrade many of the lighthouses to the more efficient Fresnel lens. The Fresnel lenses were grouped by orders, with one or "first-order" being the largest, typically reserved for landfall lights, and the sixth being much smaller, typically applied to mark harbors or to guide vessels along a river, which is what Rock Island received in 1855.
By 1873, the Rock Island Lighthouse was in dilapidated shape, much like the Crossover Island Lighthouse. An entry in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of Finances for that year had the following entry:
488. Rock Island, Saint Lawrence River, New York - The tower and dwelling are in a similar condition to that of Cross-over Island. A new tower is imperatively necessary. The dwelling might be repaired; but it is not considered economical in the end to do so, as it would only be postponing the building of a new one a few years, and it would probably cost less to build tower and dwelling together now. An appropriation of $14,000 is required for a new tower and dwelling.
The entry was repeated again in 1874 and 1875. By 1878, the Lighthouse Board was calling attention to the desperate situation of the place. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1878 had the following entry:
552. Rock Island, Saint Lawrence River, New York - The buildings are very old, and at no distant day, must be rebuilt. The dwelling and out-buildings were painted. A new roof was put over the oil-room and a new door laid in it, and the walls lathed and plastered, and the station put in as thorough repair as it was capable of. A new lantern must be put on the tower which will cost $1,450.40.
Things finally changed in 1882 when an iron lighthouse was erected on a bedrock platform in the middle of the island. Much like the lighthouse on Crossover Island, the new tower, placed on a concrete foundation, was lined with brick to the first landing, and then lined with wood. Lockers were constructed in the tower for the storage of lamps. The lantern was equipped with a sixth-order Fresnel lens.
1885 Rock Island Lighthouse (Courtesy: National Archives)
The Lighthouse Board went on to urge that some ancillary work be done at the station. Their recommendations were to replace the walks and landings at a cost of $300, a buoy-house be constructed at a cost of $1,500, and a new keeper's dwelling be constructed, at a cost of $4,000.
The next year, the superstructure of the boat landing was repaired and connected to shore by a pedestrian bridge. The boat-ways were rebuilt, and routes to the home and tower were put up. By May of 1884, construction of the new Victorian keeper's dwelling was underway.
Much like the Crossover Island Lighthouse, rather than excavating to build a cellar for the dwelling, the cellar was built upon the rock. Materials from the old keeper's dwelling were reused where possible to cut costs and the dwelling was completed that August.
Several other tasks were carried out in 1884 to finish up the station. To provide water for the keeper's family, a well was dug through the granite rock to a depth of 36 feet. To correct drainage, the grounds around the station were graded. And lastly, a 14 x 22-foot boathouse was erected.
By 1890, to improve the visual aspect of the island, Lighthouse Board brought in earth to fill the vacancies in the rocks, and some other work was done. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
1024. Rock Island, St Lawrence River, New York - The walk leading from the tower to the outhouse, a distance of 80 feet was entirely relaid with new material. The dry stone wall along the slope, on the west side of the island, which is 132 feet in length, 3 feet in height, and 2 feet thick, and which protects the dwelling from the encroachment of the water, was relaid in cement mortar. The depressions on the island were filled with 270 cubic yards of earth and the bare rock was covered with fertile soil which greatly improved the appearance of the station. Various minor repairs were made.
In 1891, a 13 x 14-foot addition was added to the west side of the dwelling by enclosing the stoop area, which allowed it to be used during the winter months. Also, to stop the encroachment of the sea, a timber crib, 41-foot in length, 5 feet high, was constructed across a cove on the west side of the island.
Although the new lighthouse was better than its predecessor, there will still complaints. The light from the tower had been obscured by the roof of the dwelling in the direction of the Thousand Islands Park. To try and remedy the shortcoming, a small light was shown from the veranda of the dwelling. This illumination, many times, was hard to pick out against all the other lights from houses along the river.
To improve the situation, a five-foot solid octagonal red granite wall, laid in Portland cement, was built, and the cast-iron lighthouse set upon it, increasing its height 45 feet. Raising the tower up rendered the light on the veranda unnecessary, and it was discontinued at the close of the 1894 navigation season.
Other changes came in 1898 when an ice house and wood house were rebuilt. In 1899, an oil engine with an attached pump was furnished to supply the station with water, as well as to protect against fire. That same year, to make the tower a better daymark, its color was changed from brown to white at the beginning of the navigation season.
Extensive work was carried out in 1902 to the boathouse. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
49. Rock Island, St Lawrence River, New York - The boathouse was moved onto a new stone-filled crib, which is provided with a slip for the keeper's launch; boat ways were built and windows were repaired; a sidewalk on one side and one end of the boathouse was built and some rock in the slip under water was blasted out to provide depth for the keeper's launch.
As the importance of the St. Lawrence River grew, so did the importance of navigation. In 1903, the tower was moved about 180 feet to the water's edge to bring it closer to the shipping channel. Workers constructed a brick substructure, 20 feet high, on a concrete base. Once complete, the iron tower was set upon increasing the height to 50 feet. The original doorway, now framed in as a window, is still visible half-way up the tower.
To tie in the tower to the mainland, a 70-foot-long masonry causeway was built, covered in cement, and fitted with a hand railing for safety. Other cement walks were renewed and additional plank walks were constructed at that time.
Due to the build-up of residences along the river, there were many lights visible all night, leading to confusion among mariners. In 1904, the color of the Rock Island light was shifted from white to red to help it stand out. At that time, the lens was upgraded to a larger fourth-order Fresnel lens.
The following year, due to the volatility of kerosene, an iron oil house, capable of holding 540 gallons of oil, was erected on the island, away from the tower and keeper's residence for safety.
The light would stay red until April of 1931, when its color was changed to green. In 1939, the same time the U.S. Coast Guard took over the aids to navigation, the station was upgraded to electricity. At that time, the oil house was no longer employed to house mineral oil, it instead was outfitted to house a couple of electric generators.
The lighthouse would stay in use until December 31, 1955, when it was decommissioned. In 1976, the Rock Island Lighthouse was listed as "surplus property", and was transferred to the Thousand Islands Park Commission. Two years afterward, on November 14, 1978, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1988, a solar powered light was installed in the lantern by Manny Jerome and the tower was relit as a decorative light. On May 31, 2000, Mark A. Wentling, a great-great-great-grandson of Keeper Michael J. Diepolder, formed the Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association. With it, he hoped to document the lives and histories of the keepers.
Starting in 2010, the site underwent a $1.5 million restoration, which took place over three years transforming the island into the Rock Island Lighthouse State Park. Tours to the island leave nearby Clayton, New York daily during the summer months.
Here is a list of keepers that served the station:
For more information on this lighthouse, please visit: http://www.rockislandlighthouse.org.
Directions: Since this lighthouse sits on an island off shore, the best viewing area for this lighthouse is from Fishers Landing just off of Route 180 at the St. Lawrence River or from Wellesley Island. There are several boat tours that operate out of Clayton and pass by the light.
Access: Grounds and dwelling / tower open in season.View more Rock Island Lighthouse pictures