Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association
 

Construction & History
of Rock Island Lighthouse Station


Written by Mark A. Wentling; last updated 7 June 2013
 

        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." The only image of the first lighthouse known to exist was published in Benson Lossing's 1868 work entitled "A Pictorial Field-book of the War of 1812":

 
The first lighthouse on Rock Island, as sketched by Benson J. Lossing in 1858.


        The earliest publication to mention Rock Island Lighthouse was Franklin B. Hough's landmark work A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York, printed in 1854, which said: "Rock Island Light, opposite the mouth of Mullet Creek, was erected as one of the three beacons authorized in the St. Lawrence, by the act of March 3, 1853; the other two being Sunken Rock, near Alexandria Bay, and Cross-over Island, in Hammond." Since a beacon existed at Rock Island as early as 1847, the "authorization" of 1853 Hough mentions probably refers to approval for refitting the towers, which eventually happened in 1855.
        On 15 May 1848, Chesterfield Parsons, former owner of the island, was appointed as the first keeper of the new Rock Island Station.
        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). 
        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.
        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.

        The light once held a sixth-order fresnel lens, but following World War II, the station was deactivated and the old lens removed.  At one time the lamps were powered by a gasoline generator.  In 1988, the station was converted to use solar power. Today, the tower emits a white light, but is no longer officially used as a navigational aid.
        Several other buildings were added to the station through the years, most of which survive today, making the station unique in the region:  a carpenter's shop (1882), generator house (1900), and boathouse (1920). The fieldstone smokehouse (1847), now identified as the painthouse, may have originally been the oil house, and is the only structure to have survived from the earliest period.
        In late summer 1976, the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in Washington, D.C., announced a transfer of "surplus property"—the Rock Island Light Stationto the Thousand Islands Park Commission.  The property was then valued at $50,000 and was described as "a 50-foot-high light tower, frame lightkeeper's dwelling, workshop, boathouse, paint locker, generator house and concrete seawall."
        On 14 November 1978, the Rock Island Light Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (reference #78001855), providing recognition and protection of the site.  During the summer leading up to the announcement, the Thousand Islands State Park and Recreation Commission began a rehabilitation program at the site which included painting and installing a new roof on the lighthouse, cleaning iron work and removing dead trees and brush from around the island.
        From 2010 to 2013, extensive repairs and renovations were made to all of the buildings and grounds.  On 4 June 2013, the grand geopening of the station as Rock Island Lighthouse State Park took place under the auspices of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, which owns and manages the site.  The island and its buildings are open to the public for touring.


References

Benson, Lossing. The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812. New York: Harper, 1868. Image of Rock Island ca. 1855 adapted from scan created by Bill Carr at wcarr1@nycap.rr.com, available at http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~wcarr1/Lossing2/Chap29.html#e069a. Visited on 12 December 2001.

Clifford, J. Candace and Mary Louise Clifford. Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses. Alexandria, Va.: Cypress Communications, 2000.

Haddock, Jonathan.  The Picturesque St. Lawrence River. a.k.a. A Souvenir of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River. Alexandria Bay, NY: Thousand Islands Club, 1895.

Hough, Franklin B., A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Watertown, NY: Sterling & Riddell, 1854. p 214.

Tinney, James and Mary Burdette-Watkins.  Lighthouses of the Seaway Trail.  Sackets Harbor, NY: Seaway Trail Foundations, Inc.

Rock Island Lighthouse Site File. Records of the U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouse Service. Lighthouse Service Site Files, 1790-1939. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Rec. Grp. 26 E66, Stack 11 E 4, Row 13, Compartment 76, Shelf 2, Box 138, Folder NY 101.

Correspondence dated 28 November 1978 from Larry E. Gobrecht, National Register and Survey Coordinator to Mrs. Bessie E. Walldorff, Orleans Town Historian.  Orleans Town Historian's Office, Sunrise Ave., LaFargeville, New York.

Correspondence dated 7 February 2001 fromTracy DuFlo, Producer at WPBS-TV for "Lighthouses of the Seaway Trail" video (2000).

Correspondence dated 20 February 2001 from Thomas Mitchell, Thousand Islands Region Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

"Park Commission Given Lighthouse."  Watertown Daily Times, 1 September 1976.


"Rock Island Lighthouse Now in National Register."  Watertown Daily Times, November 1978.


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Online at: http://rockislandlighthouse.org/construction.html