Established in 1899 on the west point of Carleton Island in the St. Lawrence River between the U.S. mainland and Wolfe Island on the Canadian border near Cape Vincent, New York, the Carleton Island Lighthouse is truly one of America’s lesser known and forgotten light stations.
Because the Carleton Island Light Station was not a typical looking lighthouse with a majestic tower, it has been widely overlooked by most historians. Many locals simply refer to it as “The Iron Man,” but, just like the better known and famous lighthouses, it served the same useful purpose and was staffed by dedicated lighthouse keepers and their families, as were all other lighthouses.
During its life, the Carleton Island Lighthouse, also known as the Mile Tree Point Lighthouse on Carleton Island, only had three lighthouse keepers. They were Charles H. Tucker from 1898 to 1904, Robert Allen from 1904 to 1909, and Hector V. De Grasse from 1909 to 1913. After that, the care of the light station was assigned to Halsey W. Crapo who was the lighthouse keeper of the Cape Vincent Breakwater Lighthouse. Keeper Crapo would only made occasional visits to the Carleton Lighthouse.
Lighthouse officials had apparently wanted a lighthouse on Carleton Island as early as 1853, and they even drew up plans for a tower with a lantern that stood on four legs. The design was deemed too short, and without Congressional funding, it was never built. Finally, by 1897 Congress approved the funding and in 1899 Maj. Symons of the Corps of Engineers appointed Henry S. Hammon to take charge of the construction of a light station at the site.
The construction took about six months, and when completed it consisted of a plain two-story keeper’s house, a small one-story building in the rear, a boat house, and a fixed white lens-lantern light that was suspended from a white mast that stood 86-feet tall. Reports at the time indicated that the water was secured from the river and a well, but the water was not suitable for drinking.
From Soldier to Cowboy
to Lighthouse Keeper
Before he became the first lighthouse keeper at Carleton Island, Charles H. Tucker had an interesting early career with the U.S. Army. Having joined the Ninth U.S. Infantry in 1873, he saw action in the field against the northern Cheyenne, in Colorado searching for the Ute Indians, and in other action along the Snake River. Discharged from the U.S. Army in 1883 at Fort McKinney, Wyoming, he became a cowboy and a scout on the range in Montana, Wyoming, and in the Dakota Territory. In 1885, he reenlisted in the U.S. Army and served for a while as the Orderly Sergeant for General Nelson A. Miles. He also became friends with then 2nd Lt. John J Pershing, who later became General Pershing, the commander of all American forces in Europe during World War I.
Somehow or another he found out about an opening in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and was able to use his military connections to secure himself the job as a lighthouse keeper at the Oswego Breakwater Beacon in Oswego, New York where he served from 1896 to 1897. With a pay increase, he transferred serve at the Cleveland East and West Pierhead Lighthouses in Cleveland, Ohio from 1897 to 1898. From there he went to the Carleton Island Lighthouse in Cape Vincent, New York where he served until 1904.
The Note in the Bottle
On a Sunday afternoon in late June of 1924, keeper Tucker noticed a bottle in the water that was floating shoreward. His first thought was that it had fallen off a rum running boat or that a rum running boat had sunk. But it turned out to be an empty pop bottle with a hand-penciled note inside. The note came from a man in Flint, Michigan who asked for anyone finding this bottle with the note to simply write back to him so he would know how far the bottle had gone. Keeper Tucker wrote down the man’s name and address so that he could write to him and then he tossed the bottle back in the water in hopes, as he said, “that it might reach someone in Europe.”
In a story about the pop bottle, the Oswego Daily Times stated in an article, “Those who are acquainted with the distances and the handicaps which the bottle would have to undergo say that it is almost impossible that it could have come so far within a period of 27 days.”
A story in the Cape Vincent Eagle on May 8, 1902 reported, “A number of choice fruit trees arrived at Mile Tree Point Light Station, head of Carleton Island, last week and were planted on the U.S. grounds . . . when this station was established, everything about the place was in primeval condition, but by hard work on the part of Mr. Tucker the surroundings have been materially improved and made pleasant. Mr. Tucker will continue the work of beautifying the place and before many years it will rank as one the finest of many in the country.”
In 1904, Charles Tucker was transferred to the Oswego Harbor West Harbor Pierhead Lighthouse where he served until his retirement in 1929. He retired to St. Petersburg, Florida where he passed away in 1933. His body was brought back to Oswego, New York for burial.
The Hero Keeper
In 1904, Robert Allen came to Carleton Island Lighthouse after having been a keeper at Michigan’s Grand Island North Lighthouse. Unfortunately, not much is known about the four years that he was stationed at Carleton Island Lighthouse. But he did have an amazing career at his next assignment which was at the Presque Isle Beacon Range Lighthouse in Erie, Pennsylvania where he was stationed from 1909 to 1930. While stationed in Erie, he was credited with a large number of daring water rescues, one for which he was awarded a Lifesaving Medal.
Interestingly, Robert Allen’s son, Melvin Allen, followed in his father’s footsteps for bravery and heroism. In 1923 the Carnegie Hero Commission awarded Melvin Allen the Carnegie Medal and $1,000 in cash for heroism for his rescue in Duluth, Minnesota of Raymond J. Miller of the Steamer Delaware.
The Last Keeper and Change
By the time Hector V. De Grasse came to Carleton Island Lighthouse, he was an experienced lighthouse keeper who has served as an assistant keeper at Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse from 1903 to 1904 and then as an assistant keeper at the Buffalo Breakwater South End Lighthouse from 1904 to 1908 when he was promoted to head keeper to serve at the Strawberry Island Lower Cut Range Lighthouse where he served until 1909 when he was able to secure the position as the head keeper at Carleton Island Lighthouse.
Although Carleton Island was not a typical looking lighthouse like the other lighthouses where he had served, it was a much more desirable and the perfect station for a family. But, like all good things that must come to an end, so it did after nearly five years of living at the lighthouse.
At the end of 1914, a government-assigned work crew, under the direction of William C. Heilberg, Jr., an assistant mechanic technician with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, arrived at Carleton Island and erected a new 85-foot steel erector-set style lighthouse with an acetylene light at the top that would automatically turn on at dusk and off at dawn. The new lighthouse would be operated by a Sun Valve and would be able to run for a year by itself with no attention.
The government announced that the Carleton Island Light Station would be closed and that Hector De Grasse would be transferred to Buffalo, New York to become the assistant lighthouse keeper at the South Buffalo Light Station. This must not have set well with Hector De Grasse. Now, instead of being a head keeper and in charge of his own light station, he would now as assistant keeper. Rather than take the new assignment, Hector De Grasse quit the Lighthouse Service.
Caretaker and Dispute
The government then assigned the care of the Carleton Island Lighthouse property to Harley Crapo, the keeper of the Cape Vincent Breakwater Lighthouses. The only thing that keeper Crapo had to do was to service the Carleton Island Light once a year and maybe make a visit once in a while to make sure the abandoned structures were okay.
None of this sat well with keeper Hector De Grasse’s son, who requested that he and his family be allowed to purchase the keeper’s house so that the family would be allowed to continue living there. He told the government that if they owned the house, the family would be able to keep watch on the light. He figured that this would be better than abandoning the closed up house and leaving it to the elements. The U.S. Lighthouse Service, for reasons unknown, rejected his offer.
In 1922, the Lighthouse Service announced that the lighthouse property on Carleton Island, which was about two acres of land that included the former keeper’s house would be sold to the highest bidder by sealed bid. The government would only retain a small strip of land from the boat house to the tower. However, for whatever reason, it wasn’t until 1924 that the property was sold into private ownership. Eventually, it was decided that the light from the Carleton Island Lighthouse was no longer needed and it was discontinued altogether.
For unknown reasons, the old skeleton tower was left standing after it was abandoned. Today, an eagle’s nest occupies the spot on top of the structure where the beacon once was.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2017 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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