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The Secrets of Crab Island: Part VII a
Caretakers of the Island
Care·tak·er (ker′tāk′ər) n. ...2. a person temporarily carrying out the duties as of an office.1
We do not know if Caleb Nichols ever submitted his bill to the government. We do know that the island needed some work after the US military left the island in 1814. We also know that before the battle, the island had at least one building on it and that it was actively farmed. Moreover, we know that the US military left behind something very special on this island- the gravesite of some 150 men.
Crab Island is about 40 acres in size. Nichols' bill tells us that three acres were meadow (and were mowed); another four acres had been a garden before the island was taken over by the military. Had the rest been cleared? Probably not, the army was also billed for some "50 Cords of wood" and another "10 sticks of Timber for the use of the Fleet" so there was at least something of a woodlot.
The fate of the graves
We can assume the location of the graves was ignored right from the beginning. Plattsburg, like all the surrounding towns and cities, was anxious to put the war behind them and get down to the important business of promoting growth and prosperity. Some five years passed. Finally, in 1819, we get some idea of what sort of stewardship the island and its military cemetery had received. Noted writer Benjamin Silliman, traveling from St. Johns to Burlington aboard the steamboat Congress made this graphic and haunting observation as he passed Crab Island:
It is possible Silliman may have been using a bit of artistic license here. Regardless of whether he saw these things or was told of them, it seems obvious there is an element of truth here.
The island's owner must have simply ignored the gravesite, shockingly so, it would seem. It would appear the island was not farmed again. Was it inhabited? Did anyone move back onto the island? It does not seem so. One can only imagine what it would have been like to live on a tiny island, knowing that such a place was just beyond the meadows and gardens of the homestead. We can assume these early owners did nothing to honor the dead buried under the shallow layer of soil on the island.
It was 1843 before the officer's graves in Riverside Cemetery received headstones. A group called the Clinton County Military Association collected public donations to purchase tombstones for the graves. Nothing was done to mark the mass grave on the island.3
Caleb Nichols died in 1858; the island was inherited by his brother's children. In 1867 it was purchased by William Mooers and Smith Weed for $1500. Finally; the island was getting public attention. Years of newspaper editorials clamored for "something to be done about the graves." In 1891, the partners sold the island to the US government for a mere $500. Ostensibly, the government was going to do something with the island.
Early efforts to honor the fallen
On January 30, 1895 Capt. George E. Pond, Asst. Quartermaster at Plattsburgh Barracks, wrote the Quartermaster General in Washington "relative to locating the graves and erecting a monument to the memory of Soldiers and Sailors of the War of 1812, buried on Crab Island...there were buried at one time 136 bodies, and from the fact of the island having been a general hospital, not only for the desperately wounded men of the naval engagement, but also for the sick and wounded of the land forces, there must have been a great many more there buried of whom no record exists...It has not been occupied since the war of 1812 and is now thickly grown with timber and underbrush. There are a number of long, low, mounds on the island, supposed to be the graves of these man, though nothing exact is known about them. I propose to open those mounds in the Spring and to determine and mark the graves." 4
We do not know if these mounds were ever "opened" by the army. We do know the army eventually followed up on Pond's recommendation "to honor the memories of these brave men who gave their lives in their country's service..." Pond requested that "a special appropriation be asked of Congress of $15,000. of which $10,000. be expended in suitably marking the graves and erecting a monument, and $5,000. in clearing up and parking the island and building a wharf to accommodate boats of moderate tonnage." 5
Here was a request that the army erect a monument of some sort. The graves were going to be "suitably marked." It would be some time before the monument was erected. The island continued in the public eye, largely as a result of frequent mention in the Plattsburgh Republican. This prompted what appears to be the last known sighting of the graves. In 1901, a group from the Catholic Summer School went to the island expressly to find the burial site. Reportedly, the gravesite was found.6 Here was an opportunity to mark the location. Sadly, it appears nothing was done at the time.
Recognition at last
Soon, however, the island was receiving some of the attention it warranted. In 1903, a 100' iron flagstaff was erected on the south end of the island. The flagstaff was very distinctively designed, much like what one would find upon a naval vessel. One of several such masts in the country, it consisted of two main sections joined together about halfway up the mast. On Sept. 15, 1903, Captain [Oliver?] Edwards, the Quartermaster at Plattsburgh Barracks, wrote the Adjutant that he "had received but one bid... for the foundation and erection of flag-staff... and that it was "four hundred and six dollars and fifty cents." This amount was over the original appropriation by some one hundred and forty-six dollars. Edwards then shared some interesting details about the character of the island when he wrote, "Mr. Wilcox (W.G. Wilcox of Plattsburgh, the sole bidder) states that he has made a careful estimate and does not care to undertake the work for any less than the amount bid. The erection of the flag-staff will be attended with considerable difficulty, owing to the distance from the main land, necessity of clearing ground to start with and the fact that in order to reach the depth required for the foundations it will be necessary to blast through solid rock, as the whole island is underlaid with a limestone rock at a depth of two or three feet below the surface." 7
Wilcox's statement takes us back to the mystery of the graves. One wonders what sort of burial the soldiers received in 1814 if bedrock is found but "two or three feet below the surface?"
The flagstaff was erected on October 21 under the watchful eye of Colonel Adams of Plattsburgh Barracks. Crab Island finally had some sort of memorial commemorating its importance to the nation. The island was a military cemetery- finally; the Stars and Stripes would fly over the island on important occasions.
It was another three years before Congress turned its attention to Crab Island again. When they did, however, the results were significant. On June 12, 1906 an appropriation was passed instructing the Army to "prepare the ground and suitably mark the graves of soldiers and sailors buried on Isle Saint Michel, commonly known as Crab Island (an appropriation of) the sum of $20,000, or such portion of as may be necessary." 8
It appears work began by the end of the year. The island was cleared in many places ("parked" was the term used). A series of paths were cut in the woods, crisscrossing the entire island. By August of the following year, an attractive Caretaker's Cottage had been built about midway between the north and south ends of the island close to the western shore. It was not a large building, some 28' by 34', but contemporary photos show a lovely building with many windows and a small porch facing towards the lake.9 Several outbuildings were erected, including a storehouse and wood and coal sheds. A large concrete pier was erected on the western shore, within view of the cottage. It would seem Crab Island was going to receive the attention it warranted.
Sadly, however, it would appear this was not the case. On September 26, 1907 George Pond, now a General, again felt the need to write his superiors about the situation on Crab Island. His words are telling: "The efforts that have been made to park the island do not amount to anything and never will unless the assistance of the Bureau of Forestry is secured." He mentions the real need to clear trees and says he believes the bureau "would be very glad to tell... how the poison ivy, which is a veritable plague there, can be exterminated." There was a caretaker's house, but no one living in it. He mentions a need for a caretaker, and suggests that a retired soldier could take the job on, but they would need to be paid a salary. He stated "the only sensible and feasible thing to do is make this island a national cemetery." Interestingly enough, despite his earlier statement (January 1895) regarding a possible location of the graves, Pond now writes "the graves which have been neglected so long that it is not even known where they are buried." The Quartermaster General noted at the bottom of this letter, "it is desired that the matter be looked into by the proper branches and the QG furnished with a memorandum as to the plans..."10
Work of significance continued on the island in 1908. The paths in the woods were covered with a thin layer of stone, a windmill was built and most importantly, a monument was finally erected and a caretaker was hired. An impressive obelisk of Barre granite was erected just to the north of the caretaker's cottage. J.J. Fitzpatrick of Plattsburgh, the contractor, performed the work at a cost of $7,000. The obelisk, some 50' high, was supported by a granite base 23' wide. On each of the four faces of the monument was placed a bronze plate "suitably inscribed" as follows:
Monument Plaque Inscriptions
These bronze plaques are no longer on the monument. In August, 2003 they were removed from the OPRHP's Peebles Island warehouse and put on display at the Clinton County Historical Association Museum in Plattsburgh. Click here to learn the story of the plaques return.
The other significant event of 1908 was the arrival of a caretaker and his family. Thomas P. Connolly, a retired post quartermaster sergeant, arrived to take up residence in the new cottage...
Webster's New World Dictionary: Second College Edition, Revised School Printing. 1985: New York: Simon and Schuster. 215
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