A breakwater in front of the piers at Cape Vincent, is demanded by the commercial wants of the place, and it is presumed will ere long be built by the general government who cannot long neglect an improvement so obviously necessary.
So said Franklin Hough in his History of Jefferson County, in 1854. It turned out that the government could long neglect this improvement, but Nelie Horton Casler (in Cape Vincent and Its History, published in 1906) reported that agitation for the breakwater occurred at intervals over the next fifty years. In 1899, Congress at last set aside funds for the survey.
Cape Vincent Harbor’s lighthouses are often omitted from lists of the nineteenth century lighthouses of the Thousand Islands. Built in 1900, they were the last ones to be established in that century, on either side of the St. Lawrence. Another common oversight is to refer to the (singular) lighthouse, but there was originally a pair of lights. This error is probably made because only one of the lighthouses has survived. One author claims that the towers were built of concrete blocks, but this would not make sense for a structure that was intended to be moved, and is inconsistent with the remaining tower that can be seen today. It does appear that the towers were covered with different materials at different periods in their history.
Most sources list the date of construction as 1900 and the year of lighting as 1901, but the story is more complicated than this suggests. The history of the lighthouses begins with the construction of the breakwater, which was built in phases over several years. Casler writes that “in 1900 the first section was built, and at present Messrs. Hendrick and Saladin of Oswego are engaged in completing the third section.” The completed structure runs parallel to Cape Vincent’s Broadway Street, offshore between where the Horne’s ferry docks at the foot of James Street, and as far east as William Street.
In 1901, red lights were established at each end of the then-completed portion of the breakwater, and John Larock was transferred from Crossover Island Light to become the first lightkeeper. The lights were located twenty feet from the east and west ends of the breakwater. While the lightkeeper initially had to obtain his own accommodations in town, he did have the use of a rented boathouse to store the boat that he used to access the breakwater. The following year, the Lighthouse Board decided that a dwelling and boathouse must be constructed.
It was in 1904 that the temporary lights were replaced by a pair of small, wooden light-towers. The two were identical, eleven-foot square, twenty-five feet in height, and painted white. Each tower was topped with an octagonal lantern room, and they continued to show a red light.
These small wooden lighthouses were quite different from the other lighthouses built on the American side of the Thousand Islands earlier in the century. They were certainly considered to be less critical to navigation, based on their location, and the relative ease of moving the structures was likely also a consideration, as will be shown. The towers were each fitted with a fifth order Fresnel lens, the second smallest size of Fresnel lens made. These smaller lenses were typically used to show the line of a channel, or placed at the entrance to a harbor. They were also used as river navigational lights to mark small shoals and islands, and to mark breakwaters.
Images showing both of the lighthouses are not common, but postcards did start to appear almost immediately. James E. Stanley was Cape Vincent’s sole professional photographer at the time Casler’s book appeared, and to him she credits one of the earliest photographs taken. A colorized postcard of his image shows the two towers, the west tower in the foreground and the town in the far background. Other postcards from around the same time give glimpses of the individual towers, and a bit more detail of Cape Vincent’s shoreline.
In 1906, as reported in the 1907 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, the eastern tower was moved 500 feet further east to mark the end of a recently completed extension of the breakwater, and was placed on concrete piers. A 500-foot lifeline was also installed for use by Keeper Larock in the event of stormy weather.
At the end of March, 1910, Keeper Larock was transferred, and replaced by Ralph H. Scobie. Keeper Scobie resigned after only three months, however, and William Wybrando (possibly Wybrandt) took over the position in July 1910. The record does not show why Keeper Scobie resigned, for he remained with the lighthouse service for many more years, retiring from Fair Haven lighthouse in the spring of 1941 at the age of 65, after a reported 30 years with the Lighthouse Service. It may have been a temporary placement, while a permanent keeper was sought for the position.
Three photographs from 1911 provide a good snapshot of that time. All from the National Archives, the first shows the extended breakwater. In comparison with the Stanley photograph, which was taken from roughly the same angle only a few years earlier, the east light tower is now much further in the distance. The other photos show more detail of each of the towers. At this time, both towers appear to be covered with aluminum or other sheet metal, presumably to increase their resistance to weathering.
When William Wybrando resigned in 1912, Halsey Crapo was appointed on September 1st, to become the longest serving lightkeeper at this light station. He started his last day on June 5, 1929; after performing his normal duties at the lighthouse that Wednesday morning, he returned home for lunch. Not long after eating his meal, Crapo is said to have complained of chest pains. Despite a doctor’s aid, he died an hour later. His replacement, Frank Sellman, was to be the last lightkeeper at Cape Vincent Harbor.
The final phase of the breakwater construction was completed in 1915 - making 2015 its centennial. The breakwater was now 1,381 feet in length, and the eastern light tower was moved yet again, another 250 feet to the east, to mark the end of the completed structure.
The social and political climate was changing by 1939. A world war had begun, although the United States was not yet engaged, and the government transferred responsibility for lighthouses from the Lighthouse Department to the U.S. Coast Guard. 1939 also saw the first significant change to the Cape Vincent Harbor lights, when the oil lanterns were converted to electricity. The late 1930s to the mid-1940s marked a period during which many of the Thousand Islands lighthouses were being converted to electricity, on both sides of the river. Once the conversion was made, Keeper Sellman was transferred, and the era of the lightkeeper at Cape Vincent Harbor was over.
Modernization and progress led to the installation of two white skeleton steel structures in 1951, replacing the small wooden towers - much to the disappointment of area residents. The Fresnel lenses were also removed at this time. The breakwater remains lighted to this day, but the classic towers of old are long gone.
One tower was acquired by a local man, an artist and a veteran of World War I. He moved the structure to his farm, where his children had many happy years using it as a playhouse. Gradually the structure deteriorated, however, and it was eventually demolished.
The other wooden tower has survived. Owned by the Town of Cape Vincent, it was moved to stand at the south edge of town, on the west side of Route 12E. While the tower is not open, visitors can stop to admire it, restored to closely approximate its original appearance.
All photographs provided by the author.
By Mary Alice Snetsinger, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Alice Snetsinger is a conservation biologist now working in Kingston. She grew up in the United States and Canada, and worked for four years at Thousand Islands National Park. She became interested in the 19th century lighthouses of the Thousand Islands in 1997, and has been researching them ever since. Mary Alice provided TI Life with articles about Wolfe Island’s Lighthouses, Fiddler's Elbow, Lindoe Island Lights and the Ogdensburg Harbor Light; click here to see them all.