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The Secrets of
Crab Island: Part VIII

 
The Story behind the Flagpole
 

By James P. Millard

 

There are not many photos in existence of the original flagstaff at Crab Island. Those that do exist are recent and show the once-impressive mast decrepit, rusting, and in very real danger of falling to the ground.

It was back in 1903 that Old Glory first waved from high atop the 100' mast at the southwestern end of the island.

The staff was erected in October 1903 by the Wilcox Company of Plattsburgh at a cost to the government of four hundred and six dollars and fifty cents. This may not seem like much by today's standards, but in 1903 dollars, this was a princely sum. It was some one hundred and forty-six dollars over the original appropriation, the additional funds were insisted upon by the contractor due to the difficulty of the work.Upon completion, the impressive staff towered above the oaks and white pines surrounding the clearing. The flag of the Republic was raised; at last, there was something to remind those passers-by on the lake and on the shore of the sacrifice of those buried on the island. It was a fitting standard-bearer for Macdonough National Military Park.
 

Early military file photo of the Crab Island flagstaff.

Alas, even this proud symbol dedicated to the heroes of Plattsburgh would fall victim to ignorance and neglect. Within a few short years, Macdonough National Military Park was for all practical purposes abandoned. By 1915, there was no caretaker at the island to raise and lower the flag. We can not say for sure whether  the nation's flag ever flew from the mast after 1915. For the most part, except for a brief flurry of activity in the mid-1950's [covered else- where in this article] the island was left to revert back to nature.

          
Images showing the flagpole when it was still standing on Crab Island.

Finally, in July 1996 the inevitable happened. The flagstaff crashed to the ground as a result of powerful gusts during a summer storm. Not surprisingly, Roger Harwood of Plattsburgh, was one of the first to visit the island after the storm. By the time the mast came down, Roger had already been working on the island on his own for over 4 years, fighting a seemingly impossible battle to keep the poison ivy and brush at bay so that the area around the monument would be visible and accessible.

Quoted in an article by Jeff Meyers of the Plattsburgh Press Republican, Harwood stated,
"This island has a special place in my heart. This flagpole should either be removed and protected at a museum or restored and returned to the island."1

The task would be easier said than done...

The flagstaff sat in pieces on the island for a year before it was finally removed from the island. Local legend and maritime salvager Capt. Frank Pabst was hired to remove the broken mast from the island. Roger Harwood had already removed the smaller pieces so that they would not be stolen or damaged by vandals.

    



The mast was embedded in this concrete pad.




The site on Crab Island where the flagstaff previously stood.


There was much talk about preserving this important piece of local history and tradition. Would the Crab Island flagstaff receive the attention it warranted now, after its destruction at the hands of nature?

By the summer of 2001, the pieces were in storage at Point au Roche State Park. The photos to the left and below were taken by the author at that time. There did not seem much hope that the staff would ever be restored.

I traveled to the park with Roger Harwood at the time; he was crushed to see it in this state.

Crab Island flagstaff at Point au Roche State Park.

Shortly after our visit, another Press-Republican article appeared, again by Jeff Meyers. Entitled "Historic Flagpole in limbo: 1903 marker for Battle of Plattsburgh still lies broken," the story told how "the state has no immediate plans to repair a historic flagpole..." and quoted a state official as saying that the project didn't fall into the State Park's budget. The state had hired a conservator to take a look at the wreckage. A rough estimate of thirty thousand dollars (not including returning it to the island) was made to restore it to usefulness.2

Prospects for restoring the flagstaff were bleak at best.

Then, in typical Crab Island history "up and down" fashion there appeared a ray of hope. In March 2002, another Meyer's article heralded "Man takes a stand for flagpole."3 A New York State Electric & Gas employee, John Rock, had read the story of the flagstaff and taken up its cause to his superiors and state officials. The pieces were moved from Point au Roche to a location on South Junction road.

 

             
The pieces of the flagstaff awaiting restoration at Booth Construction.

Here, the flagstaff would be restored with a combination of volunteer labor and private funds. At last there seems to be hope that, once again, the flag of the nation they died for will fly over the final resting place of the heroes of Crab Island...

September 2002

John Rock* was determined. The flagstaff would return to Crab Island. Yet another individual was willing to work to accomplish what state agencies could not seem to do on their own.

Rock, a long-time employee of NYSEG, convinced his employer to take on the daunting task of restoring the rusted pile of metal to its former glory. The flagstaff, as seen in the images above, was in desperate shape. Broken parts had to be replaced, what could be salvaged needed sandblasting and restoration. The entire structure would have to be painted its original white color. The entire bottom section, consisting of a number of two-inch pipes surrounding one large pipe, was hopelessly rusted away and would need to be replaced.

The project began when NYSEG moved the pole from Point au Roche to the Booth property on South Junction Road (see above). Rock was somehow able to negotiate through the complicated relationship between the New York State DEC, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and Thousand Island Parks. The actual restoration work was overseen by officials of Thousand Island State Parks.

Over the summer of 2002, volunteers from NYSEG, Loya's Welding, Stay Brothers, and the community worked on the project. Their goal was to have the massive flagstaff on the island by the anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh- September 11.

Plattsburgh residents watched the project with much anticipation while local media kept the public informed. By the end of August, the work was essentially complete. Looking much like it did when new; the historic mast was ready to be moved to the island. Another enormous obstacle remained- how to get the 100' structure in place on Crab Island.

It is not easy moving a several ton, 100-foot long steel structure. Moving it across the stretch of Lake Champlain to the island and then erecting it in place required considerable planning and initiative. John Rock and his dedicated team of volunteers were up to the task, however. Their original hopes of having the pole on site by September 11 were dashed when it proved impossible to secure a large enough helicopter by that date.

On the morning of September 13th, largely due to the efforts of Plattsburgh Mayor Dan Stewart, a large Army National Guard twin-rotor Chinook helicopter arrived at Plattsburgh's City Beach to pick up the flagstaff. Earlier in the week, Luck Brothers had carefully moved the pole by truck to this place where the helicopter could land.

       
Volunteers work to prepare the Crab Island flagstaff for its journey to the island.
Photos courtesy of John Rock. Click on the thumbnail to see a large image.

Mayor Stewart had appealed to NY Governor George Pataki, who asked the National Guard to consider lending a hand. The Guard decided they could take on the job, using the experience as a training exercise. Residents along the lake watched in amazement as the huge helicopter carefully lifted the staff from its place near the beach. John Rock and Roger Harwood were on hand to photograph the historic flight. Harwood took local television news crews to the island in his boat. Rock went straight to the island to await the big moment. Incredibly, the skilled pilot was able to negotiate the dangling flagstaff into the clearing, avoiding entanglement in the huge oaks and pines that surround the small clearing. On the ground, NYSEG and Parks officials in hard-hats watched the dramatic scene.

       
The flagstaff's journey from the mainland to the island. Photos courtesy of John Rock.

On only his second try, the pilot was able to place the end of the mast into its setting on the ground.  Anticipation built as the crews prepared to secure the massive tower. Then, suddenly, heartbreakingly, something went awry. Just as the crew prepared to release the staff, a gust of wind broke the hoist. The top of the pole collapsed and came crashing to the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured as the massive top-section came down.

       
John Rock contributed these photos of the helicopter setting the massive flagstaff on the ground.

 

     

   Left, above, and below: Photos contributed by Matt Booth show the flagstaff prior to transport, enroute to Crab Island, and the attempt to place the mast.

      
 

     
Roger Harwood took these images of the work at Crab Island.
       
 A few days later, he returned to photograph the flag-staff.

Hearts sank. As the ground crew anxiously took stock, the realization came that Old Glory would not wave from the mast today. The flagstaff was damaged but not seriously. Fittings were damaged and the pole was bent in places, but those pieces  have already been removed and are being repaired. Disappointed but undaunted, Rock and his fellow volunteers are determined to raise the flag at this place on Crab Island.

They will do it. We know they will. For now; just how it will be done remains one of the Secrets of Crab Island...

Success! August 22, 2003
100 years after it was first erected, the Crab Island Flagstaff once again hoists the nation's flag high above the graves of the war dead buried here...

       
These photos, contributed by John Rock, show the Flagpole being erected and the culmination of their efforts.

   
Three photos, from left to right: John Rock and Roger Harwood stand before the Flagstaff shortly after the flag was raised. The flag is raised to the top of the mast. Success! Photos courtesy of Linda Harwood.

Click here to go back to the previous page.   Click here to return to the introduction.   Click here to continue.
 

Sources/Notes:

* To learn more about John Rock, click here.

1Jeff Meyers: Winds Topple Crab Island Landmark. August 1996: Plattsburgh Press-Republican
2
Jeff Meyers: Historic Flagpole in limbo. August 2001: Plattsburgh Press-Republican
3
Jeff Meyers: Man takes a stand for flagpole. March 2002: Plattsburgh Press-Republican online <http://www.pressrepublican.com/Archive/2002/03_2002/031120025.htm> Link now expired. No further information available.

 

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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