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Sun., Oct. 4
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Willard Cook, Rock Island lighthouse keeper


After little more than 10 months in Mr. Lincoln’s army, Willard L. Cook came home to Jefferson County in 1862, concerned that his future, as he put it, “was not pleasant to contemplate.”

The Ellisburg native was minus his right arm, the limb having been amputated after the Second Battle of Bull Run. He saw himself “the bread winner of the family,” with a wife and four children ages 5 to 13, disabled from working his carpentry trade and “not knowing enough of business matters to gain a livelihood for himself and family,” as he wrote in a third-person account of his life.

But he adopted a motto for life: “As the best you can in the circumstances you are in.”

After kicking around from one job to another for about seven years, he finally found his place in life — keeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse near Clayton.

The question from kin and acquaintances was predictable: With only one arm, someone asked him, “How are you going to get about on the river?”

He would show them.

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Willard Cook was born on July 30, 1823, one of 10 children of John and Abigail Littlefield Cook. After attending Ellisburg-area schools and graduating at 17 from Syracuse Commercial College, he married Charlotte Fox of Clayton, and between 1849 and 1857 the couple had two daughters, Abbie and Emma, and two sons, Orren and Byron.

Then came the divide between North and South.

In his memoirs he recalled, “In October 1861, being past 38 years old, (he) was in the full strength of manhood, felt as though he ought to do something for the support of the best government that the world ever had. There being nothing else that he could do, he enlisted into Company B of the 94th Infantry Volunteers” at Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor.

The regiment, 900 strong, dubbed the “Belle Jefferson Rifles,” moved out in March 1862, heading for its first detail at Washington, D.C. Even before leaving New York, the regiment suffered its first casualties. Five cars of its train derailed and plunged into the Hudson River, killing five men and dumping supplies in the river.

Eventually assigned to Manassas, Va., the unit on Aug. 9, 1862, participated in the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Later came the Battle of Groveton on Aug. 29, and then the next day, the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Cpl. Cook’s brigade was rushed into the fight, he wrote. During a Confederate charge, he suffered a gunshot wound in his right elbow, shattering it. Seeing his brigade in retreat, he scurried to a dry, deep ditch, entered it out of range of enemy fire and placed a bandage around the arm to stop the bleeding. Subsequently, he set out to catch up to the brigade. As evening bore down on him, he reached a cabin where he found three surgeons attending to the wounded. He waited beyond 10 p.m., after the surgeons took a dinner break, to have his arm amputated.

The following morning, the soldier, weak from blood loss, walked about three miles to Centerville, Va., and obtained a carriage ride to Washington, 30 miles away.

On Sept. 13, 1862, he became an honorably discharged one-armed war veteran, uncertain about his future.

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Applying his skills and soliciting the help of mechanics, Mr. Cook had a hook attached to the stump of his lost arm, which, he wrote, proved to be of good service.

He bounced around for the next seven years, tackling a variety of jobs. He was doorkeeper at the state assembly and a book salesman.

“He worked very hard to sell 30 books and deliver them in one-month time, just getting enough out of it to pay his expenses,” his memoir reported.

He was a town tax collector, a recording clerk in the Jefferson County clerk’s office and a census worker in the summer of 1865. That led to a short-term position in the state’s census department. His career odyssey brought another government job, clerk of the county election board, but soon he was again a traveling salesman. He peddled pictures and frames, patent rights for farm fence gates, books in Michigan and, finally, in the spring of 1868, steel engravings. He stuck with that for two years, earning a modest living. But the job called for travel around the state and into Vermont.

He got tired of being away from his family so much. And, “The expenses of a growing family of children that had to be fed, clothed and educated all together kept the finances of Cook in an embarrassing condition.”

There was another mouth to feed now, 2-year-old Elton Clarence; and their eldest, Abbie, now 20, had become quite feeble.

While in the Clayton-Cape Vincent region in December 1869, he met an old friend, Richard Esselsteyn, who was collector of Customs. He was introduced to another Customs official, and he inquired about possible employment.

“Very soon after, (Mr. Cook) received a letter from his brother Horace (Cook), saying that he could have the Rock Island Lighthouse, and that he had better come and see about it,” Mr. Cook wrote.

Mr. and Mrs. Cook took a horse and cutter at their Belleville home and set out for Clayton. Arriving there, he learned that Mr. Esselsteyn had been campaigning for him. But it wasn’t a simple “you’re hired” situation. He was instructed to get up a petition of as many influential people as possible to endorse his merits.

His petition was forwarded to the collector of Customs at Sackets Harbor, David O. DeWolf, who could make a recommendation to the chief district Customs officer. Mr. Cook had an immediate ally. Mr. DeWolf had been quartermaster in the 94th Regiment, a buddy in the outfit.

“Mr. DeWolf took up this case with a hearty good will, and assured Cook that he was just as sure of the position of lightkeeper as he was to live till the next April,” Mr. Cook recalled.

Late in the winter of 1870, a Customs official arrived in Cape Vincent to announce that Mr. Cook was to become Rock Island lightkeeper after the first of April.

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As the family prepared for island life, they moved their belongings in March to temporary storage at Port Orleans, now Fishers Landing. Finally, on April 1, the items were packed aboard rowboats for the half-mile run to the keeper’s house on Rock Island. The St. Lawrence was still iced over, a good 8 to 10 inches thick, so a channel had to be cut to make way for the craft.

His next mission: Show people he’d be able to manage handling a boat.

“No trouble about that,” he wrote. “He set his inventive genius to work, and soon had a plan evolved, that worked very well in practice, so well that Cook subsequently became an expert oarsman,” he boasted.

He simply fixed a staple in the oar used by the disabled right arm, and his hook became a substitute for the lost hand, enabling him to row a boat successfully.

A different issue faced the new man on the job: “The new keeper was entirely ignorant of the duties of the position.” No printed instructions were anywhere to be found in the lighthouse, which dated back to 1853. So he and his son Byron set out in an old skiff, heading two miles downriver to visit the last keeper, Joseph Collins.

Mr. Collins’s wife made the return trip with them and enlightened Mr. Cook about the routine that would be his.

From his little perch on the St. Lawrence, Mr. Cook was able to view the development of Wellesley Island, today’s centerpiece for the Thousand Islands Bridge crossing to Canada.

When he first saw “Well Island,” as he referred to it, the island “was nearly all covered with original forest trees. There were only three poor old houses and one of them a log house in sight of the lighthouse, making (the region) a lonely place to be shut up in for the family who had just moved from Belleville, where they enjoyed the privilege of good religious society and good schools. In fall of 1874, Thousand Island Park Association was formed, and they purchased 700 acres of wild land at the head of Well Island and a semi-wild farm of 200 adjoining. In spring 1875, they began building their park. Enabled family to attend many Sunday preaching services by celebrated Divines, also very many intellectual feasts of popular lectures and concerts, all of which made life on the lighthouse island endurable in the summer pleasure season.”

Sending the children to school “was a source of anxiety and with expense and extra work,” Mr. Cook wrote. During the summer they were boated to the mainland and brought back after school. “It worked well in good weather, but was bad in stormy rough times. The worst feature of the schooling enterprise was in the winter. Toward fall of the first season a plan was suggested by the wife that they move to Clayton for winter schooling. A permit was needed from lighthouse inspector to move off island. He (Mr. Cook) wrote request, and the favor was granted, about a half month before time for closing. The family was moved, and the light keeper stayed and kept the light til navigation closed,” Mr. Cook wrote.

Clayton school trustees needed some convincing to go along with the arrangement, however. Concerned about the residency issue, they maintained that the Cook children could not attend Clayton schools. His writings do not indicate where they had been getting their schooling. Mr. Cook wrote to the superintendent of instruction in Albany. Quickly, Clayton was obliged to accept the Cook children.

Moving off the island in the fall and returning in the spring “was a good deal of trouble, as it was done when river navigation was at its worst,” he wrote. And the expenses in Clayton, he revealed, were “about $50 a year.”

In his first eight years on the river, he would later chronicle, Mr. Cook was absent only 25 in-season nights. “The first absence was in November 1870 of four nights to attend the last sickness and funeral of his mother,” he wrote.

Apparently the lighthouse keeper couldn’t take time for the June 20, 1871, birth of another daughter, Nettie, because, in his own words, “the second (absence) and last was in April and May of 1876 which was 21 days and nights taking care of his wife during her last sickness, which terminated in her death on the 7th day of May 1876.”

He returned to duty three days later.

“Keeper’s two daughters left the station for their home, each taking with them a child of the keeper to live with them, thus leaving the keeper alone at the station to perform his duties as best he can.”

He occasionally reflected on being alone. On one occasion, he wrote, “The last month nearly have been spent alone, since the family moved to Clayton. Not a living human soul except the keeper has set foot on the island until today for over three weeks. That is solitude in good ernest.”

But he wasn’t always alone, like on July 16, 1872: “Weather hot and dry. Flies still continue to inspect the light nights and do not pay any attention to the placard of instructions to visitors, but will persist in lighting and walking on the glass of the lantern, to the great annoyance of the keeper, who has used all the gentle means he is master of, for their removal. Has even used hand and feather brushes as arguments to persuade them to leave, but all to no purpose.”

Or on May 10, 1875: “A wild duck flew through one of the plate glass of the lantern, breaking the center of the glass large enough to let the duck through into the lantern, where the keeper caught him. It injured the duck so badly that the keeper killed him the next morning, and also had to put in a new plate glass.”

A memorable day for him was Aug. 2, 1872: “Today President U.S. Grant and wife, General Sheridan and Mr. Pullman passed down the river at 8 o’clock p.m. in a steam yacht, destination to Pullman’s island near Alexandria Bay. It is understood that President Grant is out for a pleasure excursion and not to swing around the circle for the purpose of making speech. Such a wonderful man.”

There were other breaks in the monotony.

For instance, when he first took the job, there was no steamboat landing for passengers in the vicinity. “A steamer captain had a passenger route from Cape Vincent to Alexandria Bay and made arrangements with Cook to take passengers off his boat (onto a skiff) and set them ashore. The boat was to blow her whistle in time for Cook to get out there with his boat to take such as wanted to go ashore. The plan worked well with no mishaps.”

But there was the occasional challenge, like the day when a very short 300-pound man needed the assist, along with his invalid wife. Mr. Cook always had a ladder handy, particularly to assist the ladies.

“It was a risky piece of work to take them down out of the steamboat into a skiff. The river was smooth. A sailor got down into the skiff and held it steady. Others held the top of the ladder and steadied it while (the couple) descended to the skiff. All done safely.”

And there was the day when “a sailor was knocked overboard from a schooner, freighted with lumber, about a mile above the station. The vessel was bound across the river in a fair wind. The captain didn’t stop vessel to pick up the man, but threw off some lumber for him to cling to, lowered the yawl boat, and sent two men to rescue him and take him to the lighthouse, considerably exhausted. The three stayed until the man was rested, then went down the river to catch up with the schooner.”

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Mr. Cook married a widow, Jane Connant Taylor, on Sept. 26, 1876, less than six months after Charlotte’s death.

“Keeper married today ... on board the Steam Yacht Hermie while running below Fredrick Island towards Fishers Landing at 12 o’clock p.m. Took dinner at Grand Central and returned to light house after dinner to be ready for duty as light keeper.”

Mr. Cook’s carpentry skills helped bring in some extra cash. He bought an oar plank and went to work to make a good pair of oars.

“From this beginning he took up the work for a pastime,” he wrote. “He followed oar making as a source of revenue until his strength failed by reason of advancing age. Not long after he began to make oars, he was rated by river oarsmen as the best oar maker on the river. Made about 150 pairs, sold for up to $4 a pair.”

He proudly revealed that one pair of his oars accompanied a boat that was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1876 for the nation’s centennial celebration.

Mr. Cook retired as keeper of the lighthouse in February 1879, after nearly a decade on the job. He was 55. He and his wife made Fishers Landing their retirement home for the next 22 years, until Feb. 24, 1901, when the second Mrs. Cook died. The following year,

Willard Cook married Dorcas Caswell, “a Connant widow,” he wrote. He died on Feb. 14, 1916, and she died 15 months later.

Our appreciation goes to Kevin A. Kieff, director of the regional state office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for suggesting Rock Island Lighthouse and assisting with source material, and to Mark Wentling, whose website is a wealth of information. Also, the book “Whispers From The Past” by Harold I. Sanderson served as a reference regarding the 94th Infantry.

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