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Searchlight Runs Recalled, by Robert H. Rogers

Note: This is an account written by the late Robert H. Rogers, telling of his experiences operating the searchlight on the excursion steamboat “St. Lawrence” in the Thousand Islands during the summer of 1897, where he served as electrician. He was born on Point Salubrious, near Chaumont, NY, on his grandfather’s farm.

Rogers was employed by the New York Air Brake Company in Watertown for about five years as a draftsman and tool designer. Then for 41 years he was an electrical engineer for General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY. His wife, Hattie, was the daughter of Captain William Brooker, a Thousand Islands steamboat captain. They spent their summers aboard their cruiser, “Nixie II”, at the Thousand Islands, with Clayton as home port.


The “St. Lawrence” was always a lucky craft, in spite of the misgivings of those who saw her launched at Clayton, from near where the Town Hall now stands. What worried them was that she hung up on the ways (a bad omen among sailors) and had to be pulled into the water by another steamer.
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A visit to the Thousand Islands in the early 1900s wasn’t complete without a cruise aboard a steamboat - especially the St. Lawrence. Photo courtesy Richard Palmer collection

Through the week we made the searchlight trips by Calumet Island and down through Eel Bay and the Canadian channel, to the “Bay,” then up the American channel to Clayton. Sunday nights we made the trip in reverse. We often had 800 passengers aboard. While day excursions were run and service rendered in connection with trains, the Saint Lawrence was best known for her searchlight runs, which thrilled thousands during her long life on the River.

Regarding the operation of the light, the rule was never to throw the beam near the bow, except on signal from the bridge. The signals were hisses of steam from the whistle; two for starboard, three for port and one for dead ahead. Spotting spar-buoys and other official markers, dock corners at landings and picking up private markers, called for frequent use of these signals. The private marks were white painted boards, the size of bed slats, anchored at strategic places by the Folger Line for its own use. These markers had to be spotted quickly, as there was little time to spare, while swinging in and out among granite ledges.

The whistle, whose chime note was known and loved by natives and visitors alike, was only five feet from my head, but I soon became oblivious to the normal blasts for landings, passing signals and salutes, but the hisses always registered.

Near T.I. Park where rocks could be seen close aboard on both sides, an elderly lady remarked: “They don’t need to show off, we might better be out in the channel where we belong.” Even a brief study of navigation charts makes one wonder how such a large boat could get around where many an “outboard” comes to grief in these later years.

Post Card steamer St lawrence
A popular postcard in the Thousand Islands of the Steamer “St Lawrence” on its searchlight tour. 
Photo courtesy Richard Palmer collection

On a Sunday night we were coming up the Canadian channel, in a blinding thunder and lightning storm, when the Captain called for the light ahead. I plunged the beam down over the bow onto a lumber-laden scow, at anchor without a light. Quick work at the wheel, hard over to starboard, then to port, bent us around the hazard. The lamp was snapping with static, but my hair had stood up without that help.

Since 1897 was in the middle of the “good old days” (and nights) among the Thousand Islands, our trips were most enjoyable. The occupied islands were outlined in colored lights, illuminated fountains played, fireworks and cannon blasts added to the excitement and we valued any and all. Hundreds of beauty spots sprang to life, under the magic of the powerful light beam, in a way never seen by day.

A sudden flash into a cove would often cause a pickerel (no pike in those days) or a Muskie, to jump out full length in alarm. Night birds were confused, as were young couples in rowboats, when the beam came their way. Down near Ivy Lea there was a bank of dense foliage that came down to the water’s edge, where boats and occupants could be shown as magnified black silhouettes high up on the green background, which was lighted by reflection from the water. Near Grand View one night we met up with a dense fog. The Captain “held her nozzle again the bank” until the lines were taken to trees and there we stayed until 3 a.m.

Just before leaving the depot dock at Clayton, a couple of businessmen came aboard from the train. One said. “This does not look like a river to me.” The other replied: “Of course not, this is Alexandria Bay.” The wheelsman, a native of Clayton, put them right, in short order.

A feature that added much to the enjoyment of all of us was the small orchestra, consisting of an Italian from Syracuse who played a harp and his two youthful sons who played violins. Their music was lively and lilting with indications of Gypsy origin, it was happy and cheering.

The 48-inch parabolic mirror had to be polished every day and while up in there, with the lamp facing the afternoon sun, I nearly had an ear burnt off. At the focus the heat was 144 times that of a four-inch burning glass. The old dynamo had no modern improvements and it sparked like a 4th of July celebration. Often I had to slide and run down the ladders and stairs, to the main-deck fore-peak, to “stone” the commutator. This operation consisted of holding a fragment of grindstone against the offending member. By the end of the season the commutator looked like an oversize apple core and by itself, it provided light for that part of the deck.

Eel fly time was bad, on top of the pilot house, as the pests swarmed to the light from the States and Provinces. It took much sweeping to keep the deck safe. The wind was cold late at night toward the end of the season but oilskins served to keep me reasonably comfortable without interfering with activities.

We would tie up at the depot dock about 11, keeping the house lights on until all was snug aloft and below. After turkey sandwiches and coffee, the night watchman came aboard with his lane, the plant was shut down and all was quiet.

Written by Robert H. Rogers

Steamer St. Lawrence
Searchlight is clearly visible above the pilot house of the “St. Lawrence.” Richard Palmer collection
The paddle wheel steamer St. Lawrence (U.S. Registry No. 116002, Canadian Registry No. 141757) was built by Simon G. Johnston and was launched at Clayton, N.Y. on May 24, 1884, and completed in Kingston. She was 154 feet long, 26 feet wide, 7 foot depth and measured 312 gross tons. She was owned by the Thousand Islands Steamboat Company out of Cape Vincent. She was later sold to the Folgers of Kingston who also owned several other steamers, and was completely remodeled. It was licensed for 647 passengers in 1897 and operated into the 1920s as a tour boat. It was scrapped in 1926.

Compiled by Richard F. Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times” called "On the Waterfront."  His latest book is the biography of Captain Augustus Hinckley, famed Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River mariner, as well as a review of the maritime history of Clayton, NY.  He is also a regular contributor to the Maritime History of the Great Lakes website and is frequently consulted by people searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario.

Editor’s Note:  Have you information about Robert H. Rogers?  Over the past year, Richard Palmer has compiled a number of references pertaining to history in the Thousand Islands.  This article was found as an old undated newspaper clipping.  We are hoping our readers will know more about its author.

We have discovered F.D. Rogers’s 1897 book, published by the Thousand Islands Publishing Company. The book is available online through the Making of America Series

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