When I was 10 years old, my mother sat me down at her parent’s porch table and showed me her grandmother’s notes written in the 1920’s in preparation for her application for membership in the National Society of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution. I drew my first pedigree chart that night. From that day forward, genealogy has been my constant passion.
By the time I got to high school, I was laser-focused on tracing my father’s side of the family tree, and interviewing anyone who could illuminate those branches for me consumed my free time. My grandmother, Barb O’Brien, told me that her family were “river people”: that her father Austin S. Carter had helped build the Thousand Islands Bridge; that her grandfather Floyd L. Carter had been a boatbuilder; and that her grandmother Ada Diepolder had once claimed to be the prettiest woman on the St. Lawrence (I guess modesty didn’t run in the family). But she didn’t know anything more about her grandmother’s folks – I had a new puzzle to solve!
My next call was to Reuben Carter, then of LaFargeville, a distant cousin my grandmother remembered from grade school; she thought he might know more about the family. He did. Reuben remembered that Ada’s father had been a lighthouse keeper at Fisher’s Landing. Fascinating – I had to know more! After I hung up the phone, a quick check of Child Hamilton’s 1890 Business Directory of Jefferson County on the Jefferson County GenWeb site yielded a name and a place: Michael J. Diepolder, keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse, Fisher’s Landing. I was no longer merely searching for a name from the past; I was embarking on a quest to discover a real place – a history I could touch.
My attempts to learn more about Rock Island Lighthouse and my great-great-great-grandfather, Diepolder, were quickly frustrated by a nearly total absence of information in any of the Jefferson County history resources I could find in print or online. Local libraries had a few newsclippings, but little else. None mentioned Diepolder, and Rock Island Lighthouse was usually mentioned in context of all the lighthouses in the area, but with few specifics.
My research finally got a kick-start soon after college. First, through an online search I discovered the Great Lakes Lighthouse Research; Thomas Tag - of that organization, queried his database and returned to me a complete list of keepers of Rock Island Lighthouse and their dates of service. In the process, I learned that in 1901 Michael had died at the station and that his wife Emma had taken over for him – the only woman ever to serve in a government-appointed position at the lighthouse. Second, I had moved to Washington, D.C., and lived within walking distance of the National Archives, where U.S. Government lighthouse records were stored. I couldn’t be in a better place at a better time.
It was at this point that I realized that Rock Island Lighthouse was not just about my family; it was about the families of the other keepers too. Perhaps they had forgotten the service of their ancestor at Rock Island like my family had; perhaps, like me, they had searched for more about the lighthouse and given up, discouraged by the lack of information. Out of a desire to honor the memory of the keepers and to help their families reconnect with the story of their lives I created the Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association in May 2000. My mission would be simple: learn everything about Rock Island and its keepers and publish it all online for others to discover -- http://www.rockislandlighthouse.org was born! Finding ways to advocate for and assist in Rock Island’s preservation would also be a driving goal – I wanted to make sure Rock Island’s future would be appreciated and respected.
Getting the word out was easy; I announced the new organization and its website via a message to the Jefferson County, New York, Rootsweb mailing list, whose membership consisted of people interested in the history of the area and the genealogy of its residents, with a plea for submission of any information related to the station and its keepers.
Response was immediate – and thrilling: Chris Andrle was the first to respond, donating a complete biography and portrait of the first keeper, Chesterfield Pearson. Next, Jim Eagan donated voluminous facts from his years of expert research on Bill Johnston, famed “pirate” of the Patriot War of 1837 and third Keeper (not the first, as most texts claim) of Rock Island Light. Then Nan Dixon, who with her husband Bill were administrators of the mailing list and single-handedly maintained Jefferson County, New York, GenWeb, the definitive online resource for local genealogists, offered a photograph of the fifth Keeper, Joseph Collins, and his wife, Mary Eddy (Mary later trained their successor, Willard Cook).
I compiled each donation into a biographical page dedicated to each keeper and added them to the website.
I was quickly growing a list of “members” interested in news of the each new discovery about the station, and addition to the website. To my great delight, Tom Mitchell, then Manager of Rock Island State Park, and Kevin Kieff, Thousand Islands Regional Director of the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Reservation (OPRHP), were two of the people who took notice. In 2001, I was honored by their request to write a brief history of the station for inclusion in a tourism brochure. Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association had made its move from online to print! More people would have the chance to know and appreciate the significance of the lighthouse and its keepers.
History was made real for me that fall, when Tom and Kevin granted my grandmother and I a tour of Rock Island. Even though the buildings had been boarded up for years to keep out vandals, we were given access to each structure. We turned the same knobs, walked the same stairs and peered through the same windows that Michael and Ada had, a century before us. This was real family history – and at last I was touching it. We left the island grateful to Tom and Kevin, and armed with new photos and stories for the website; a “virtual tour” of Rock Island and its lighthouse went online a few weeks later, and remains a favorite of visitors.
Since its beginning in 2000, the Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association website has been visited more than 15,000 times - the association remains primarily an online institution and a product of my free time.
Many more keepers’ families have come forward to share their stories and photos of their time at Rock Island: Like David Ward of Colorado, whose father Frank served there during World War II; David and his family visited the station with me in 2005 for the first time since his childhood (check out the photos on the site!). And like Nancy Trozze of Binghamton, who just recently inherited the belongings of her grandfather Eugene Butler, Rock Island’s tenth Keeper; she donated the first pictures we have of him after discovering the website during her quest to learn more about the lighthouse she had always heard about.
The mission to promote the preservation and appreciation of Rock Island endures. Using grant money from the New York State, interpretive signage was installed on Rock Island in the summer of 2006, naming every keeper and describing the history of the station. Through the generosity of Greg Smith with the OPRHP, I had the honor of supplying text and images for the signs, and in return he graciously included a pointer to the website on the main welcome sign. Now, everyone who visits Rock Island will see the names and faces of the Keepers who kept the light there, and have the opportunity to learn more. They won’t be forgotten.
There is still much more waiting to be discovered. A few months ago I discovered in a newspaper a portrait of Michael J. Diepolder, the man who had sparked my search and the the first I picture I had ever seen of him. As recently as October 2008, the oldest photograph yet of Rock Island Lighthouse (albeit from a great distance) was discovered, showing structures that existed on the island before the current house and tower were built in the 1880’s. Missing from the website are portraits of other keepers, like Jack Belden, longest serving keeper at Rock Island, and John W. Van Ingen, successor to Frank Ward – no doubt someone somewhere has these photos, tucked away in an attic or shoebox, waiting to be found. And still to be unlocked is the fate of Dennis “Pat” Carroll, the U.S. Coast Guardsman and last keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse before it was deactivated in 1956, whom Manny Jerome, dedicated volunteer caretaker of Rock Island for over 25 years, knew as a boy, helping Carroll haul fuel up from the supply boats to light the big lantern.
Perhaps Dennis or his family is reading this article now…or they’ll visit the website…or will see his name on the new interpretive signs….and in so doing reconnect with their piece of the history of Rock Island Lighthouse - with all of us!
By Mark A. Wentling, December 2008 www.rockislandlighthouse.org
Mark Wentling is a native of Sackets Harbor and attended Carthage schools. He has studied local and family history for nearly 25 years, and manages numerous projects to benefit other researchers, including the Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association, the Jefferson County NY Pioneer Portraits Project and Hounsfield History.net.