Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-09-01.
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 in 1829 near Port Weller, Ontario 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 Great 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. 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.
His report requested:
Three beacon lights on the river St. Lawrence, at the passage of the "Thousand isles," one at the head of the Narrows, one at Low Rock islet, below Alexandria, and one at the shoal below Crossover island, New York.
It would take nearly ten years, however, Congress would finally set aside the necessary funds on March 3, 1847. 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 (Rock Island, Gull Island, which would be renamed to Crossover Island, and Bush Island) from Chesterfield and Mary Ann Pearsons and Azariah, and Mary Walton for $250.
Lieutenant Platt had recommended a lighthouse on Bush Island, nowadays known as Sunken Rock, just offshore from Alexandria Bay. It was to mark the entrance to the narrow passage where the shipping channel runs between Wellesley Island and the mainland.
During the summer of 1847, an octagonal brick tower, with a height of 31 feet, was constructed. From the lantern, a fixed white light was shown through a series of lamps and reflectors. After the establishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, most lighthouses were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens. Sunken Rock Lighthouse received a sixth-order lens in 1855.
A report in 1869 on the lighthouse's condition stated that the no repairs had been made during the last year, and that most likely, none would be needed during the next year. Less than ten years later, the reports weren't as optimistic, and a recommendation for a new tower was made.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse for 1878, had the following entry:
517. Sunken Rock, Saint Lawrence River, New York - This station is in fair order. The tower is of brick, sheathed outside with wood and shingled. It is an old and a rough structure, in bad repair. The lantern is of an old pattern with small panes. A new tower and lantern are recommended. There is no dwelling for the keeper, who occupies a house of his own in Alexandria, half a mile from the light. An appropriation of $5,000 is recommended to rebuild the tower.
The report of 1879 had again recommended a new tower and renewed the petition for an appropriation of $5,000 to carry out the project. A year later, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had stated that some slight repairs were made, and that "the tower is past economical repair and should be replaced by an iron one." However, as repairs were needed to the boat landing, the cost was upped to $6,024.
It would take two years, but a new lighthouse would finally be put up. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1882 had the following entry:
570. Sunken Rock, Saint Lawrence River, New York - A new iron tower was erected in place of the old one. The new tower rests on a floor of concrete, which was placed over the former foundation of the old tower. It was lined with brick to the first landing, and above that with wood. Lockers and a bunk were built, and the exterior of the tower was provided with a copper smoke-pipe. The superstructure of the ice-breaker and the landing should be renewed at an estimated cost of $600.
This lighthouse, was an exact replica of the lighthouses on Crossover Island and Rock Island. No keeper's residence was built as there was no room on the tiny island.
Sunken Rock Lighthouse
The following year, per the request in the entry, the superstructure of the ice-breaker and the landing were rebuilt. Also at that time, as the boat house was in dilapidated condition, a new one was built. As the keeper had to live nearby in the town of Alexandria Bay, a section of the boathouse was partitioned off and fitted with a bunk to be used as a watch room.
To increase the tower's effectiveness as a daymark, at the opening of the 1899 navigation season, the tower was painted white. Similar tasks were carried out at the Rock Island and Crossover Island Lighthouses.
A letter dated December 10, 1904, from the Secretary of Commerce and Labor to the Secretary of the Treasury called into question the lack of residence for the keeper at Sunken Rock:
The light-station at Sunken Rock, St. Lawrence River, New York, consists of a tower and boathouse located on a rock about half a mile below Alexandria Bay. There is no keeper's dwelling there nor land owned by the United States upon which one can be built.
The keeper and his family live in a small house on the bank of a creek about half a mile from the light. Except that, there is no place for the keeper to haul up his boat when he leaves the light. It is inconveniently located, there being no road open to it. When the keeper moved into this hired house it was the only one vacant near the river. He is now looking for some more suitable dwelling, for which he expects he will have to pay at the rate of about $120 a year, and this from his salary which is $580 a year, thus leaving $460 a year for his services.
The Light-House Board is of opinion that good men will not long remain in positions under such conditions. It thinks that the interests of the service and efficiency of the station would be promoted by building a dwelling, with a boat-house, for its keeper upon United States land, on the river bank, as near the light house as is found practicable.
It is estimated that for $5,000 a site could be purchased on the shore in the vicinity of the light, and that a dwelling and boathouse could be built thereon. The Light-House Board recommends, and in that recommendation this Department concurs, that an appropriation of that amount be made therefor.
It seems that no progress was made as the letter appears in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the years 1905 and 1906 as well. By 1908, the lack of housing was still being brought up in subsequent reports... "The keeper, whose salary is $580 per annum, with an allowance of 30 cents a day for rations, pays $96 per annum house rent."
Despite being requested for several years, there are no records that a dwelling was ever constructed for the keeper. In the 1930s, electricity was brought to the lighthouse, which increased the candlepower, intensifying the light.
Although the lighthouse at Sunken Rock had prevented many shipwrecks in the narrows of the St. Lawrence River, it didn't help on the night of November 20, 1974. The Roy D. Jodrey, a self-unloader built in 1965, loaded with 20,500 tons of ore pellets, was upbound on the St. Lawrence River heading to the Great Lakes Steel plant, in Detroit, Michigan.
Around 10:40PM, as the ship approached Pullman Shoal, the captain felt uneasy about his course and ordered the ship be turned hard to the port side. Before the ship could respond to the captain's request, the vessel had collided with a channel marker and Pullman Shoal. The ship immediately began taking on water, and within minutes, it had settled 4 feet and gained a 10-12 degree list on the starboard side.
As the captain knew that the ship was in trouble, he beached the vessel on nearby Wellesley Island. The ballast pumps couldn't keep up, and by 2:55 AM, the rising water in the engine room shorted out the emergency generators, killing power to the ballast pumps. A little over 5 minutes later, the ship was resting on the bottom of the river.
Later on a failed attempt to discern to possibility of salvaging the ship's cargo resulted in a diver's death, the vessel was stricken from the shipping registry. Today, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation currently owns the Sunken Rock Lighthouse. It was modernized with solar power in 1988.
Directions: This lighthouse sits in the middle of the shipping channel of the St. Lawrence Seaway just off shore from the City of Alexandria Bay. In Alex Bay, you can go to the end of James Steet, and easily get some photos with either a 250mm or 500mm telephoto lens. If you would like to see the lighthouse much closer, there are several boat (Empire / Uncle Sams) tours that launch from Alex Bay.View more Sunken Rock Lighthouse pictures