Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers
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 Frank K. Ward, 1940-1952
    Written by Mark A. Wentling and David Ward


        Frank K. Ward, born in 21 March 1909, was a son of George Ward who was a career lighthouse keeper. George's father, James Ward was a keeper also, as was George's father-in-law Horace Holloway. George served as keeper at Detroit River Light, Crossover Light, Horse Island Light and Keeper at Oswego Harbor Light. Besides Frank were his two brothers, Edwin and Oswald who also became keepers. Edwin was a career lighthouse keeper stationed at Tibbits Point Light and at Sodus Point Lights, both on Lake Ontario. Oswald served at stations at Buffalo and Rochester, NY.
These men, as well as thousands of others, were dedicated to the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which existed until 1940. U.S.L.H.S. servicemen served on both coasts and all the navigable rivers in the country. There also were floating light houses, called lightships, anchored on the ocean in locations where land based lights were not effective. At least one, in the mid 1930's, anchored off the mid-Atlantic coast, was lost with all hands during a bad storm.
        In 1939 with an act of Congress, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. Frank, like all the active Keepers, was given the option to enlist in the Coast Guard or become civilian employees of the Coast Guard. Frank took the enlistment option in 1940.
        In the spring of 1940, just before the Coast Guard replaced the Lighthouse Service, Frank, while keeper at Crossover Light, was appointed keeper at Rock Island Light. Prior to Crossover, he had served at Lorain, Ohio Harbor Light as Assistant Keeper and before that he was Assistant Keeper at Cleveland Light—his first appointment after joining the Service in 1929.
        At Rock Island Frank relieved John Belden who had served many there many years. It was here Frank enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and was given the rating of Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class based on his experience and time in service. Most other Keepers who joined the Coast Guard received an enlisted rating. By enlisting, Frank became the last U.S. Lighthouse Service Keeper at Rock Island.

        Frank and his family were stationed at Rock Island from 1940 to 1952.

        As a member now of the Coast Guard, he continued his duties as Keeper which included responsibility for maintaining all the aids to navigation assigned to the station. Further, he performed maintenance and preventive work on all the buildings, on the station launch and on tower, including polishing the brass which held the Fresnel prisms which beamed a bright light seen for miles up and down the river.

        There were floating buoys and crib lights to be kept in very reliable condition, too. The 32-volt electric power for the Rock Island Light was supplied by special batteries charged each morning by one of two motor generators. The technology involved was quite advanced for the time. The floating lighted buoys anchored with huge Concrete blocks called "sinkers" were fueled by two large on-board cylinders filled with a compressed flammable gas. The Cutter Maple was responsible for placing the buoys in the spring and pulling them out, usually in mid-December. They had to be pulled as the ice breakup could move them off station and possibly cause them to sink. Some were wintered on the large buoy dock at Rock Island and some at the depot at Cape Vincent. Maintaining the Station launch took considerable time including laying it up for the winter and putting it in operation in each April. Every evening Frank made sure each light was operating. Fortunately all could be observed with his keen eyes from Rock Island.

        Frank's eldest son David Ward has fond memories of life at Rock Island: "Dad was a conscientious man, always making sure the station was in good shape and functional. He was a loving Dad, full of fun and was well liked by our Fishers Landing neighbors. I was very close to him and spent about all of my free time with him. It was especially great to accompany him as he performed the lighthouse work on the island and attending to the aids to navigation located from upriver from Clayton to Wellesley Island light downriver from the TI Bridge. I arose to accompany him those times he got a telephone call in the middle of the night from District HQ in Cleveland advising that a steamer had reported a light out. One time it was a floating lighted buoy; too dangerous to tie up to, I nosed the launch up to the buoy and Dad jumped onto it. I circled the boat around him until he motioned for me to pick him up. We enjoyed fishing and hunting, and attending the Fishers Landing community activities held during the winters. Dad was a "jack of all trades." He was a good carpenter and very skilled with his hands. He could repair just about anything. It was fun being with him as repairs were made to the launch and around everything on the station."


Frank Ward with wife Sally and son David at Crossover Island

Frank and David at Rock Island tower

Herbert Ward and "Jeff" on Rock Island

David, Herb, Frank, and Sally Ward at Fisher's Landing in 1943


         Frank's wife, Sara "Sally" (Robbins) Ward, of Clayton, once recounted an incident which occurred during their tenure at Rock Island Light:

        "A frantic woman once came to the door wanting him to locate her husband, a local fisherman who had failed to return home after a day on the river.  Mr. Ward was able to find him, stranded on an island after his boat had been swept away by the wake of a large ship passing by."

        Frank Ward is probably most remembered in Thousand Islands lore for the events of April 15, 1951, on which he played a heroic role in a tragic boating accident. His son David, who assisted him that day, gives this account:

        "This is what happened that windy April day on the St. Lawrence River off Fishers Landing, NY:

Mr. Virgil Barton, next door neighbor and owner of several cottages and a half dozen Dundee 14 foot boats and a couple of other makes came over to our house concerned that he saw one of his Dundees coming toward the Landing in rough water.

There were three men who had rented the boat and outboard motor coming in from Grennel Island which is located about three miles south west of the Landing. The water temperature was probably in the mid to upper 30 degrees as the ice had recently cleared out. Dad, Virgil and I stood at the river bank in front of our house watching them making their way in. It was a chilly day with the wind up to at least 15 knots from the WSW. As they came across the head of the Isle of Pines they entered the roughest part of the river. The wind pushed the water against the head of the island causing waves to proceed from the island against the waves coming in from the Southwest which made for very choppy water.

As we watched, our concern for the men was realized. A wave pushed the stern of the boat around about ninety degrees. It quickly swamped and rolled over. The men were dressed in heavy clothing and they had further loaded the boat down with cottage gear. Clearly, the small boat was overloaded. One man was large and heavy, another of medium build and the third appeared lighter and was drowned.

Dad always put Coast Guard launch 25705 (the first two digits on CG boats and cutters always indicate the vessel's length) in the water as soon as ice left the boathouse slip. Sometimes he had to saw the ice and push it out of the slip in order to be able to launch the boat as early as possible each spring. It was good that she was in and operational that day as no other boats of size at Fishers Landing were in the water.

So the three of us jumped in our car and rushed to the boathouse, blowing the horn all the way to alert neighbors of the emergency. We quickly got away from the boathouse and headed toward the accident scene. I was running the boat and as we came on the accident scene, Dad hurried to the forward deck and prepared to take hold of the nearest man. Two of the men were hanging on to the capsized Dundee. The third man had just let go and was drifting face down past us about six feet under water, a sight I shall never forget.

Dad, lying on the deck, four feet above the water with the bow actively rising and falling with the waves, managed to reach over and grab a man, who turned out to be the heaviest, with one hand. With the other he unlashed the Danford anchor beside him. The wind and current caused us to rapidly drift down river until the anchor took hold. We stopped about 200 hundred feet up river from a shoal that has a blinker light on it to warn small craft. Virgil and I had gotten hold of the other man. We stood near the transom on the starboard side with Virgil holding one of the man's arms and I the other. Unfortunately, the two protruding rub rails running parallel along the side of boat prevented us from lifting him into the boat.

So, cold and soaked the men were totally helpless....

Dad had the worst case, hanging onto the man now with both his (Dad's) hands. He would have had to have a hoist lift this poor fellow up onto the deck. Imagine the strain he experienced as the launch worked with the seas. Dad's chest lay painfully across the oak trim mounted on the gunnel. Dad later told me his fellow kept saying "don't let go." It's estimated we were in this situation about an hour waiting for help to come.

Harry Chalk of Chalk and Son's boat livery own a forty foot enclosed boat used to ferry folks to and from their island cottages. Mom called Harry and told him of our situation. His boat was named "That's Her." She was still laid up on timbers in Harry's boathouse. As he hurried to prepare its engine and launch the boat, men from around Fishers Landing were arriving to assist. They made good time getting the boat in the water and the engine running. Several men jumped aboard. Shortly, they were along side our launch. Two rushed forward to relieve Dad and managed to move his man aft past the cabin, and with the help of more men lifted him into the launch. Others lifted our man into the boat.

It was George W. Swallow that drowned. Fred Jurrier (Dad's man) unfortunately died of hypothermia either on the launch or shortly after being removed from the launch. I watched as he was hauled aboard and appeared to be alive. He was placed on the engine box for some warmth. Harry Hollensteiner was hauled aboard alive and survived. I do not believe there was time or know-how to perform artificial respiration. The anchor was lifted and we headed for shore.

Dad came into the launch's cabin and sat on a side thwart and lit a cigarette. He was tired but seemed to be OK. He asked if I was all right.

We reached shore shortly where many onlookers were as well as the Clayton, NY fire department firemen who began working on Mr.Jurrier.

The CG District Office sent a young seaman to temporarily relieve Dad. He and I, using the station skiff, dragged for Mr. Swallow's body, but we didn't find it.

Dad's ribs and associated cartilage were badly injured. Word quickly spread that Dad had suffered a heart attack which fortunately was not true. He was terribly sore and had bed rest for about two months at home. We got hold of a hospital bed and placed it in our living room. He maintained a good attitude, but was sad about the loss of life. He had just turned forty-two years of age.

There were various articles written about the accident over the years and included statements that his health was "never" the same again. It did take some time for the soreness to clear up, of course. He resumed his duties by July 1951 and spent his free time studying for the Chief Petty Officer exam, a two day affair taken on the Cutter Maple with the captain as proctor. Dad passed the rigorous exam and was promoted to Chief Boatswain Mate a month or so later."

Ward's letter of commendation for his heroic actions on 15 April 1951.


        Frank Ward's career with the Coast Guard soon took him away from the shores of the Thousand Islands, as son David recalls:

        "By early 1952 we learned that Rock Island Light Station did not rate a CPO. In June of 1952 Dad got orders to report to the Coast Guard Base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was decided that Mom and us boys would come home to the Landing after dropping Dad off at the CG Station in Milwaukee—the folks didn't want to cause us to change schools, among other considerations.

Before we left, Mr. John Van Ingen was appointed keeper of Rock Island Light Station to relieve Dad."


Frank Ward (second row, at left) with the Milwaukee crew, in formation.

In late 1952 while on duty at the Milwaukee Coast Guard Station, Frank was afflicted by a condition that took him to the veterans hospital there. It was serious enough that he was eventually placed on temporary retirement and returned home to Fishers Landing. He applied for and was granted regular retirement in 1957. As David continues:

        "He adjusted well and got a job as foreman of the carpenter shop at what is now Fort Drum, near Watertown, NY.

Dad enjoyed many productive years at Fishers Landing. I was impressed that, among other projects, he built a substantial boat dock attached to his property and later purchased two lots across from the house. He built a cobblestone cottage on one lot and he and Mom rented it during summers—it is now the Fishers Landing post office.

Unfortunately, he was afflicted with what was years later determined to be Crohn's Disease. He died from this terrible disease at age seventy-nine."

        Frank died Monday, 2 May 1988, in Edward John Noble Hospital's Skilled Care Unit, Alexandria Bay. The funeral was held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Foster-Hax Funeral Home, Pulaski, with Rev. Dale E. Austin, pastor of the Clayton and Depauville United Methodist churches, officiating.
         Mrs. Sara Ward remained at Riverview Apartments after her husband's passing. On Sunday, 22 July 1990, at age 81, she died at the House of the Good Samaritan, Watertown. Her funeral was held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Foster-Hax Funeral Home, Pulaski, with the Rev. Elizabeth Mowry, pastor of Park United Methodist Church, Pulaski, officiating.
        Both Frank and Sara are buried in South Richland Cemetery, Fernwood, Oswego County, New York.


Father and son, 1960.

>> See photos from the Ward Family's 2005 visit to Rock Island <<


All photos of provided courtesy of David Ward, with assistance from Alison Sherrow.

Correspondence with David Ward, (keeper's son), spring and summer 2003.

"FRANK K. WARD, EX-LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER, DIES". Watertown Daily Times, 3 May 1988.

History of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association. []. Visited 12 October 2001.

"SARA WARD, ONCE OF FISHER'S LANDING, DIES." Watertown Daily Times, 23 July 1990.

Tinney, James and Mary Burdette-Watkins.  Lighthouses of the Seaway Trail.  Sackets Harbor, NY: Seaway Trail Foundations, Inc., p. 41.

© 2000-2005, Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers Memorial Association.