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Connolly family outing: The pier at Crab Island. Photo courtesy of the Connolly family.

The Secrets of Crab Island: Part VII b

Caretakers of the Island: The Connolly family

By James P. Millard

When Sergeant Thomas P. Connolly brought his family to live on Crab Island, much had been done to transform the small 40-acre military park. The monument had been erected; the island covered with a series of paths, the impressive naval style flagstaff now had someone to raise and lower the nations standard daily.

The Connolly family at the new Crab Island Monument.Connolly was hired on October 1, 1908, at "$600 per annum, with quarters and fuel."1   In 1909 the island was officially named MacDonough National Military Park. This park was the full-time residence of the Connolly family.

Thomas (b.1854) and Elizabeth (b.1865) Connolly had eight children. During the seven years they lived on Crab Island their descendants believe six of those children arrived upon this earth. It is likely that one of them was born on the island. The Connolly family has graciously provided some rare photos of the family at the time they lived there. The photos are old and yellowed; some are torn or have sections missing from them. And yet, they are truly wonderful images; they conjure up for this writer a phrase I have used before on this site- "ordinary people doing some pretty extraordinary things."

Life on Crab Island

We do not know much about what life was like for the family during those seven years. Nevertheless, we can imagine, and we can feel fairly comfortable our imaginings are not too far off the mark. Crab is at least a mile from the shore as the crow flies. Official military documents state it was 2.5 miles from the mainland- that must have been to the Plattsburgh Barracks dock or wharf. If Elizabeth did have six of her children while they lived on the island, one wonders what sort of anxiety they must have known during all the time she was with child. Imagine having to go to shore in that state to have the baby... or to have it on the tiny island?

The photos show a large family with several young children. We can be sure that those children came home regularly suffering from poison ivy- it was fittingly called "a plague" in the documents that have come to light. This writer can verify that the "plague" is still there. Despite the most strenuous efforts of the island's present-day "caretaker", (you will read about him later) the island is still covered with this deceptively harmless looking curse. I admit to a secret desire of my own that the vandals who have damaged the monument have experienced some sort of retribution from the island's most favored crop.

The island must have been a very lonely place. One can imagine the family sitting out on the cottage porch and seeing the lights of Plattsburgh in the distance. A mere mile or so of water can be quite a deterrent to the extension of warm hospitality. Winters on Lake Champlain can be especially difficult. The cold winds whip up the valley and chill to the bone anyone unfortunate enough to be outside. The valley receives less snowfall than the mountains on each side. Yet, the snow that falls is often seen coming to earth horizontally as it is whipped up by the prevailing winds causing near-zero visibility.

Did the family remain on the island during those seven winters? Again; we are not certain. It is possible the army expected the Caretaker to remain there year round. Inspection reports complain of water facilities that did not work in the winter, necessitating the chopping of holes in the lake ice for water. It is likely it was this family that did the chopping. Connolly family oral tradition has the children being home-schooled on the island until the ice formed each year, and then traveling over the ice to reach school.

We will probably never really know much more about what life was like for this family during those years just prior to the First World War. Crab Island likes to keep its secrets to itself. In 1915, for reasons not yet known, the Connolly family left Crab Island for the last time...



The Connolly family
at Crab Island
circa 1914





The photos above ( all courtesy of the Connolly family) are thumbnails, clicking on them will bring up a large size image in a new window. They are, from left to right:

1. Stairs of the caretaker's cottage- Martin, Mary, Tom, Elizabeth (Mother), and Philip Connolly.

2. Sitting on the front steps of the caretaker's cottage- back row: Martin, Margaret, Thomas. Center row: Philip, Thomas P., Elizabeth, Marg. Front row: Isabel, Joseph, Catherine.

3.,4.  Swimming inside the pier at Crab Island- foreground: Margaret, Mary, Martin, Thomas. Background: Mother Connolly.

5. Caretaker Thomas P. Connolly outside the cottage.

During the period when the Island had a full-time resident caretaker, we might reasonably assume the National Military Park was experiencing its best days. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Witness another document from Plattsburgh Barracks:

On February 3, 1912, 2nd Lt. Oliver Dickinson (Asst. Quartermaster) filed a "Crab Island, N.Y. Nat. Cem. Inspection Report."2 The report states that the island still was not receiving the attention it required, despite having a full-time caretaker present.

Dickinson's remarked "this island is in a very much run down condition and which, because of the use to which the island is put, should be remedied." Among the specific problems noted were:

  • "The cottage is not sufficiently protected against the cold winter winds that sweep up and down the lake from north to south... the bathroom is useless because of no running water and this necessitates an outside privy, which is unsanitary and a menace to health."

  • "The windmill is so badly broken up that it is useless... water has to be dipped from the lake, a very evident hardship... particularly so in winter when a hole has to be chopped in the ice for this purpose."

  • "There was an abortive attempt to sink a well...about fifty yards from the cottage... carelessly covered over with old boards..."

  • "The walks around and across the island as represented on the map [see below] are mostly mythical, as the grass has grown up through the thin layer of small stones placed there some years ago to mark the walks, and these are poorly defined by the presence of these pebbles now."

  • "The cement topped pier is breaking up on top, whole sections having tilted up, and large cracks appearing, and in some spots the cement is all crumbled away."

  • "Outbuildings: These are an agglomeration of makeshift shacks and shanties...unsanitary shacks, located too close to the cottage and are altogether too small and entirely unsuited to their purpose..."

Map, circa 1909 showing the improvements at Crab Island.

This, but 3 years after the island was designated a National Cemetery (at least that is the understanding the military had at Plattsburgh Barracks). It's true we don't know for sure why the Connolly family left Crab Island in 1915. In light of conditions at the time, however, it would seem we could make a fairly "educated" guess. Very little was done to improve the island. It would appear Thomas Connolly was having difficulty getting the material support he needed to properly maintain the park. In 1915 a water tank was finally installed in the attic of the cottage. It wasn't enough to keep the Connolly family there. Sometime that year MacDonough National Military Park lost its first and only paid caretaker when the Connolly family left the island.

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1 Historical Data and Status of Isle St. Michel (Crab Island). Q.M.C.O. Plattsburgh Barracks document # 357719. May 2, 1912.
2nd Lt. Oliver A. Dickinson: Crab Island, N.Y. Nat. Cem. Inspection Report, 2-3-12. Office of the Quartermaster General, War Dept.  357719

Visiting Crab Island...
Crab Island is publicly owned land- the property of the people of New York. It is also a very special, unique place that merits respect and consideration. Keep in mind the island is covered with Poison Ivy. It is also the home of protected fauna and flora. Look, but do not touch. Metal detectors and digging are strictly prohibited on the island.

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