Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-11-06.
As early as the 1850s, commercial interests at Cape Vincent demanded a breakwater to provide a safe protected harbor. As its location was 2-1/2 miles from Lake Ontario, it was a convenient port for vessels to wait out storms, inclement weather, or darkness. Twin Cape Vincent Lighthouses would one day mark the breakwater.
Before the advent of the automobile, trains and steamers were the way people moved around. The express line of the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steam Boat Company made daily trips between Ogdensburg and Lewiston from June until October with a stop at Cape Vincent. From Cape Vincent, passengers could take a ferry to Kingston, Ontario, where they could connect to rail lines to all major ports.
The original breakwater project of 1896 called for a breakwater to run parallel to and 600 feet from the railroad wharf extending 1,600 feet with an estimated cost of $320,000. However, this project was scaled back on May 13, 1899. Modified plans called for a breakwater to run parallel to and 500 feet from the railroad wharf extending 1,500 with a cost not to exceed $200,000.
By 1901, construction of the breakwater was underway and by August of that year, two fixed red lights were installed. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1902 had the following entry:
54-55. Cape Vincent breakwater, southerly side of the St. Lawrence River, New York - Two fixed red lights were established on the completed part of the new breakwater which is being built in the St. Lawrence River in front of the town of Cape Vincent, N.Y. They were first lighted on August 31, 1901. They are about 25 feet above mean lake level, and are shown from lens lanterns supported by masts having a small house at the base of each. They are located one about 20 feet from the westerly the other about 20 feet from the easterly end of the breakwater. A boathouse has been rented for the care the keeper's boat.
This new station consists of two lighted beacons on a breakwater in the St. Lawrence River. It is in charge of a keeper who lives on shore in quarters he rents where he can find them, and rows to and from the light-station in a small boat. It is essential for the efficient and proper care of the station that a keeper's dwelling and boathouse be provided on land conveniently located, to be purchased by the Government. It is estimated that such buildings, including a proper site, would cost approximately $5,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of that amount be made therefor.
Cape Vincent Breakwater Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
Temporary lights were established on masts while the breakwater was under construction. Also, no progress was made on establishing a dwelling and boathouse for the keeper, and in 1903, the Annual Report once again included a recommendation for an appropriation of $5,000 for the dwelling and boathouse.
The next year, the temporary beacons were replaced with permanent wooden towers topped with octagonal wooden lanterns. That same year, a new 360° five-day fifth-order Fresnel lens replaced the one-day lens in the westerly beacon. Both lights continued to exhibit a fixed red light. The Lighthouse Board had again asked for $5,000 to construct a keeper's dwelling and boat house that year.
As progress in constructing the breakwater continued throughout the years, the east beacon was moved along as to continue to mark the outer end. By November 1906, as the breakwater had grown, the eastern lighthouse was moved some 500 feet the new end of the breakwater.
That same year, to provide the keeper some protection when traveling between the two towers, a life-line was constructed. The life-line consisted of 7/8-inch steel line, held up by two-inch wrought-iron posts set 10 feet apart, closest to the south side of the breakwater parapet. This life-line would provide the keeper something to hold on to or attach himself to in the event of heavy seas.
In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1908, a recommendation was made for an isolated fireproof oil house. It is unclear, however, whether it was ever made. In 1939, electricity was brought to the twin lighthouses increasing the intensity of the lights.
The lighthouses remained in use until 1951 when they were replaced with steel skeletal lights. Today, only one of the lights remains. It sits on the grounds of the Cape Vincent Highway Department on Route 12E.
While in Cape Vincent, there are many things to do. Just a short distance down the road, you can visit the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse where you can stay at the hostel, or if you are feeling adventurous, you can take Horne's Ferry over to Wolfe Island.
Directions: From Cape Vincent, take Route 12 E (called Market Street) south out of Cape Vincent. A little more than 1/2 mile out, you will see the lighthouse on the right-hand side of the road. It will be near Stone Quarry Road.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Village of Cape Vincent. Grounds open, tower closed.View more Cape Vincent Breakwater Lighthouse pictures