He was actually looking for a farm in the area at the time, and then he started thinking about lighthouses.
Born and raised in the Rochester area of New York, growing up along the Genesee River just a stone’s throw away from the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, John Urtis says, “I always had an attraction to the water, lighthouses, the river and such.” This could account for his time in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. But his time spent in those venues was not on the water but in the air, as a pilot and a flight instructor. His flying took him away from his birthplace and now has him stationed at Dulles Airport on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. as a pilot for United Airlines. But he wanted to come back to upstate New York.
It was an accident
“It was an accident,” John says about his recent lighthouse purchase. He was actually looking for a farm in the area at the time, and then he starting thinking about lighthouses. Crossover Island Lighthouse popped up on a computer web search and a year later he bought it, closing on it in October of 2002. “I bought it and then closed it up for the season” says Urtis.
Crossover Island and its 1882 lighthouse are located (barely) on the United States side of the St. Lawrence River, near Chippewa Bay, just northeast of the famed Alexandria Bay area in the 1,000 Islands region. That puts it roughly halfway between Cape Vincent (by Lake Ontario) and Ogdensburg, NY.
Urtis says he took one look at it and decided to make an offer. He adds, “The biggest problem was trying to find a lending institution to approve the loan — it was a nightmare.” The sticking point for a lot of his potential lenders was there was not a police and fire station within a five-mile radius of the island. After calling dozens and dozens of places nationwide, he was able to secure a mortgage with a bank in state.
John is also a professional photographer and a partner in a marketing company. He says, “I’ve been all over the world doing wildlife photography. This place is the best.” Urtis has trademarked the name of the island and lighthouse, so anything done needs a copyright approval for items like artwork, photography, etc. Urtis wants to use destination marketing to attract motion picture producers and others to the area. He says the 1,000 Islands region is one of the top ten places for boating and he wants to get the word out for tourism. He had a couple of movie offers for use of Crossover Island but had to turn them down because the sale wasn’t final at that time.
Urtis explains that at one time there was potential for a marketing agreement with an attraction nearby, but he would have had to change the appearance of his parcel to meet local, state and federal regulations. “Fences, portable johns, structures modified, handicap access accommodations... would have ruined the candor of the island... The island is so pristine... it would have cluttered it up because the island is so small,” says John. He adds, “So my big goal coming out here is to do something to benefit the area with this island, but in the right way.”
The whole goal
Urtis states, “The whole goal is to keep this place as pristine as
possible, maintain the island in its natural state.” For instance, the
original cistern is in excellent condition and may be reused in the future. An inspector said that for an 1800s era structure, the keeper’s house is in fantastic shape. To that end, John has been doing his research homework to further his efforts to make the place as
historically accurate as possible. He plans to restore the interiors of the island’s structures to original designs and rebuild outdoor structures that no longer exist. Much of his first year there was spent cleaning up the brush and landscaping. For the time being John uses the place as a summer home, but he’s looking forward to expanding that time to spring through fall. He might even try a winter there sometime.
A labor of love
Urtis says the work has been hard and tough, but very rewarding. He says he is “blessed to be here.” He goes on to say, “To own a
property like this, you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades,” including welding, plumbing, carpentry, electrical, and more. He adds, “You can’t just run down to the local hardware store... It is hard to get people to come out here to fix things, and very pricey too.” But he did have to have somebody come out to the island, Urtis recalls. “I had a guy come out to spray for spiders and it looked like the Marines were landing with the way the spiders ran from the spray.”
“It is a tough schedule between coming out here to do work and doing my regular job of piloting an airliner, but I love it, doing it myself, working hard,” John says. Some of the things he first had to tackle himself inside the former lightkeeper’s house were rewiring the solar electric system, plumbing (toilets) and propane leaks. “Fire is the biggest safety concern here. Fire is the number one enemy on the island, and you have to be extremely careful.” But that is not the only safety concern Urtis has. “When I’m alone, “ he says, “I wear a lifejacket when walking around the perimeter of the island.”
For John, all this hard work is a labor of love. “It is so gratifying to be working the island by hand as much as possible, like it was done long ago,” he says. Mr. Urtis is working on the paperwork to have the lantern relit as an official private aid to navigation and wants to replace the sixth order lens it once had but now is nowhere to be found.
Just like long ago
John Urtis paints a portrait for us of life at Crossover Island Lighthouse. “When people come out to the island, there are no TVs, no radios and such. People are forced to actually talk to each other and have fun, eat by candlelight, play games, just like long ago... Living out here has been one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life!”
Please remember that Crossover Island and the Lighthouse are private. There is no public dockage.
This story appeared in the
November 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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