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Recreational fireplace built by the Air Force in the '50s on Crab Island. This one was never completed.
The Secrets of Crab Island: Part IX a

Crab Island Today
Modern-day Caretakers of the island
(1915-1965)

By James P. Millard
 

Exactly why Thomas Connolly and his family left Crab Island in 1915 remains another of the secrets of Crab Island. We know that his wife, Elizabeth died in 1919, and Thomas himself passed on in 1925. Both were buried in Plattsburgh’s Mt. Carmel cemetery.

This writer has been unable to find any information on the fate of the island between the time of Connolly’s departure and 1929. It does not appear another caretaker was hired. After a brief period of attention, Crab Island National Military Park was allowed to slide into another long period of neglect.

In 1929, it would appear that any hopes of returning a caretaker to the island were permanently shattered. Official Plattsburgh Barracks Quartermaster Inventory logs show “Building No. 58, Designation- Caretaker’s Cottage, Capacity- 1 Caretaker” was “Destroyed by fire 2/5/29.” It was signed by J. Underwood, Captain. QMC.  Evidently the house was destroyed, additional documents state that the Wood and Coal Shed, Stable, Chicken-house, and Storehouse were salvaged.1 It would seem of little consequence that these outbuildings were not burned also. The island essentially had been abandoned.

There are unverified accounts of work on the island by the Civilian Conservation Corps during 1936, but I have yet to determine what, if anything of consequence was done at the time.

It would be the 1950’s before the island would get any attention at all. The changes that began when the U.S. Air Force assumed control of Crab Island in 1953 are fascinating to relate…

U.S. Air Force efforts on Crab Island

Within a year of Plattsburgh Air Force Base’s establishment in 1953, plans were underway to convert the island back to a park. This time, however, it would become a place where base personnel could take their families for recreation, picnicking and perhaps, camping. By May 1956, considerable work had been accomplished.

Crab Island, however, continued to keep her secrets during this time. Witness this puzzling notation from the minutes of the "380th Air Base Group Weekly Staff Meeting" dated 14 May 1956. It reads:

"4. Crab Island: The next project in the way of clean-up will be Crab Island. As soon as the weather permits, personnel will live on the Island until it has been cleaned up. Major Bennett will be the officer in charge. The personnel will live at the caretaker's house on the island. Food service will provide the food and M/Sgt Carr will cook the meals." 2

We have already established that the Caretaker's house was destroyed by fire on May 5, 1929. What building were the minutes referring to here? This writer believes it must have been "Sanborn Lodge."

A 20'x 30' structure, known unofficially as "Sanborn Lodge" had been built on the island (we know very little about this building, but all indications are it was a rough, crudely built structure). This writer believes that the "lodge" was actually one of the original caretaker's outbuildings, probably the barn or stable, renovated. This would explain somewhat, why it is referred to as the "caretaker's house". A letter dated 15 May 1956 from the Base Commander, Col. Immanuel J. Klette, refers to the lodge, and shows the significance he placed on the work there. Entitled "Crab Island Rehabilitation" it stated:

"1. It is my desire that the rehabilitation of Crab Island proceed at a maximum pace to insure that its recreational facilities are available for personnel of this base during the coming summer season.

2. The first project to be undertaken by your organization is to make a livable facility for a troop detachment on Crab Island. This will include minimum rehab of the lodge, latrine facilities and water pump. The work will be done by troop labor... It is desired initially to repair roof and wall leaks in the lodge, provide it with window screens and screen doors and provide some shelving and table facilities. Additionally, temporary wiring should be provided and a small generator set up at the lodge...

3. It is recommended that you commence shipping materials for this rehab immediately...

4. You are also to set up a program to take place as soon as possible for eradication of poison ivy and also for insect control. [a hand-written notation of "Gotta love that Poison Ivy" is beside the Colonel's signature]." 3

Official base documents listing projects in the works show ongoing activity at Crab Island. Some of the notations merit listing [italics are the authors]:

“820th Air Base Group Weekly Staff Meeting [undated]: ‘Lt. Col. Weaver stated that the trailers are to be brought to Crab Island before Saturday night. The Air Police squadron will be in charge of clean-up on the Island this week-end. Lt Col. Weaver instructed Maj. Johnson to insist that the mess tent and living quarters on Crab Island be maintained in a clean, orderly manner.’”

            “820th Air Base Group Weekly Staff Meeting [16 August 1956] Crab Island Project: ‘Commended Maj Haskins and his entire squadron for the excellent job done this past weekend. The Operations plan revealed a great deal of careful planning and coordination. The next squadron to spend the weekend on the Island will be Headquarters Squadron. Lt. Col Weaver advised that trailers will be dispersed on the Island. He also indicated that a survey is being made regarding the possibility of a lighting system for Crab Island…

            Some progress has been made on this project but there is still much more work to be accomplished. All squadrons with the exception of Food Service will now furnish personnel for this project on weekends…Both first sergeants and squadron commanders will accompany the troops on weekends. Departures will be early in the morning taking necessary box lunches for all and return will be in time for the evening meal at the Mess Halls. Chaplain Mennen will make arrangements for Catholic and Protestant services Sundays on the Island. ’”

            “Week ending 28 Sept. 56: Crab Island: Renovation continued with detailed help from squadrons over the weekend. Each organization doing his part, such as construction and building in rest area.” 4

In October of the same year, the report stated:

"Clean-up still in progress. Project will continue until approximately 1 November."

One of the fireplaces erected by the Air Force in the 1950's  Another of the fireplaces erected by the Air Force in the 1950's  Fireplace erected by the Air Force in the 1950's  Linda Harwood at one of the old fireplaces built by the Air Force.  Military tent pole found on Crab Island
Signs of the Air Force's activity during the 1950's. Photos courtesy of Linda and Roger Harwood.
Click on the thumbnails to see a large image.

A 'paradise' cleared by goats

Work was not completed by the following summer as stated in the Colonel Klette's original letter. It appears much was done, however. We have found the remains of the fireplaces erected for picnickers amidst the thick underbrush. It appears a good part of the southern end of the island was cleared. On October 12, 1957, a story appeared in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican entitled "Crab Island 'Paradise' Progressing." It stated "work will continue for several years" but that "some areas of the island are expected to be ready for use next summer." It mentioned the picnic area referred to previously and referred to "Sanborn Lodge," declaring that it was named for Brig. Gen. Kenneth O. Sanborn. A particularly fascinating paragraph followed under the heading "Happy Goats."

"...goats, imported because of their fondness for poison ivy, were still reported chewing their way across 16-acre Crab Island... Originally the island was stocked with only 5 goats. The next time amazed base officials counted there were ten. The exact count now is being kept a closely guarded secret." 5

The article was accompanied by a photo of two airmen with a "goat-eed Crab Island resident." Colonel Klette had mandated something be done about the poison ivy! One has to credit the Air Force for coming up with such an innovative (and ecologically sound) solution.

Alas, all the efforts of the Air Force on Crab Island were in vain. By the end of 1957, it appears the military simply gave up their "rehabilitation" of Crab Island. It seems to have happened quite suddenly, too. At least one of the picnicking fireplaces on the island was left incomplete, never to be finished. We do not know if any airmen ever brought their families to the island for rest and recreation.

The United States Air Force had completed its time as Caretakers of Crab Island.

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Sources/Notes:

1 Plattsburgh Barracks: Quartermaster inventory documents. Caretaker's Cottage specifications, Building No. 58  Reported to C.O. by letter, that date, file 6.00.971x600.6 for 1929.
2
  Minutes: 380th Air Base Group Weekly Staff Meeting- 14 May 1956
3
  Letter: Col. Immanuel J. Klette, USAF, Base Commander- 15 May 1956
4
  Minutes: 820th Air Base Group Weekly Staff Meeting- August/October 1956
5
  Plattsburgh Press-Republican: "Crab Island 'Paradise' Progressing" October 12, 1957

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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