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Recreational fireplace built by the Air Force in the '50s on Crab Island. This one was never completed.
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:
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:
Official base documents listing projects in the works show ongoing activity at Crab Island. Some of the notations merit listing [italics are the authors]:
In October of the same year, the report stated:
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."
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.
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.
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