History of the Rock Island Lighthouse, Thousand Islands, NY

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Visiting historic lighthouses seemed to become a trend during my recent vacation in the Thousand Islands. While taking a clear-bottom boat tour out of Clayton (which I highly recommend, and will post about soon), we had the opportunity to stop for an hour on Rock Island and explore the lighthouse, as well as its surroundings. Rock Island is a lovely little spot, obviously quite rocky, right in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, visible from Thousand Island Park and Fineview. Rock Island is designated as a National State Park, and therefore very well taken care of. It was a beautiful spot to stop for lunch, and a great place to relax on the rocky beaches and watch the river.

The lighthouse at Rock Island was commissioned in 1847 as a means of navigating ships through the St. Lawrence River – which with many geological sub-aqueous anomalies, can be quite treacherous. As with many lighthouses, the current structure on the island is not the original – it was rebuilt in 1882. The river is a strenuous force upon such architectural features.

“In 1847, Chesterfield & Mary Ann Persons and Azariah & Mary Walton, joint owners of several of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, sold Rock Island, Sunken Rock Island (a.k.a. Bush Island), and Gull Island (a.k.a. Crossover Island) to the United States for $250 for the purpose of erecting lighthouses. The first lighthouse was erected on Rock Island in 1847 and was described in 1895 in Haddock’s The Picturesque St. Lawrence River: ‘Rock Island, 7 miles further up [from Sunken Rock]; keeper’s dwelling of brick, white, with a low tower on top; dome black; height, 39 feet; built in 1847; refitted in 1855.’

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In 1882, the combination keeper’s dwelling and tower were replaced by separate structures. A conical iron tower was erected on a bedrock platform at the center of the island, having the foot of its base approximately 15 feet above mean river level. Similar towers were erected on Sunken Rock Island and Crossover Island, such that today both stand as examples of what Rock Island Light looked like during this period. A few yards away, a one-and-a-half story Victorian shingle-style dwelling was constructed, facing north, and surrounded by a concrete seawall for protection. A blueprint made circa 1885 depicts the new structures and their relative positions. The photograph at right, published by Haddock in 1895 shows what the new tower looked like. (According to an anonymous diary at Hawn Memorial Library, Clayton, New York, the man standing in the doorway is M. J. Diepolder, who was keeper from 1886 to 1901).

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After the tower was erected at the center of the island the rate of shipwrecks in the vicinity increased, since the house, trees, and other lights from the mainland obscured pilots’ perceptions of the beacon. On the night of 15 August 1889, the three-masted schooner A. E. Vickery struck a shoal near the station and sank, resulting in no loss of life, but causing great financial loss to its owners. The crew were rescued and attended to at Rock Island Station. In the fall of 1894, work was performed to raise the light tower approximately five feet from its position in the center of the island, so it could be seen over the roof of the dwelling. It was set atop a solid octagonal wall of red granite laid in Portland cement mortar beneath.

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It was finally thought best to move the light tower to an unobstructed location. At the turn of the century, construction began on a walkway, consisting of masonry rubble coated with concrete, that extended from the north face of the island into the river. At its end was added a partially submerged platform upon which a 15 foot wide conical brick base was built. In 1903, the old iron tower was then taken up from its place at the center of the island and placed atop the brick base, thus maintaining more or less the height of the previous light above water level. It is this “stacked” tower that exists today, such that visitors see the 1882 doorway situated on the second story of the tower, as shown in the postcard image at upper left.” (source)

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A great gallery of historic images of Rock Island can be viewed here. Interested in reading the recorded Captain’s Logs from the Rock Island Lighthouse? Check them out here! (Another great resource on the Rock Island Lighthouse website). The site also provides an informative illustrated timeline of Rock Island.

View Rock Island from above below:

The Clayton Island Boat Tours showed us several sunken wrecks during the tour, one of which being the A.E. Vickery, just off the edge of Rock Island.

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“The A.E. Vickery sank August 17, 1889 when it struck a shoal while entering the “American Narrows” destined for Wisers Distillery at Prescott, Ontario, Canada, the makers of Wiser’s whiskey.[3] The boat now rests near Rock Island and it is a favorite underwater diving attraction in the Thousand Islands.[4]” (source)

If you find yourself in the Thousand Islands with a free afternoon, definitely take the Clayton Island Boat tour and make the stop on Rock Island to tour the lighthouse and walk around the small, beautiful island. Bring a lunch! It’s a picturesque spot, entrenched in New York history and brimming with Thousand Islands charm.

Below is a Vine video I took while on Rock Island, another attempt to bring historical sites into the immediate attention of the public through social media. Unmute it to hear the sounds of the River against the rocky shores!

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Further Reading:
Very informative Rock Island website
Construction and History (Rock Island Lighthouse)
Rock Island Image Gallery
Captain’s Logs – Rock Island Lighthouse
Illustrated Timeline – Rock Island
Rock Island State Park webpage
– Rock Island Wiki Page
Clayton Island Boat Tours
Rock Island Lighthouse article in Thousand Islands Life

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3 responses to “History of the Rock Island Lighthouse, Thousand Islands, NY

  1. Pingback: Discovery of 19th Cent. Schooner – Lake Ontario | Imponderabilia·

  2. Pingback: SAA 2014 “Blogging Archaeology” – November | Imponderabilia·

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