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The balloon-launched card found by Jim Bailey on Crab Island in 1986.


The Secrets of Crab Island: Part IX b

Crab Island Today
Modern-day Caretakers of the island
(1965-1988)

By James P. Millard


In 1965, the Air Force informed the U.S. General Services Administration they did not want, and certainly did not need, Crab Island. The last time the island had a practical use for defense purposes was in 1814. Despite their gallant attempts to utilize Crab Island as a recreation "paradise" in the 1950's, one can hardly fault the Air Force for making this decision.

It fell to GSA to determine what to do with the property. An inspection was made of the island by an appraiser and a "Realty Specialist" on January 5, 1966, in the dead of winter. Incredibly, the document that resulted, a "Notice of Surplus Determination" went out to potential buyers of the island with no mention of the graves from 1814. Jim Bailey tells us the document did not even mention the Crab Island Monument! 1

Local government agencies were offered the island. Unfortunately, there were no takers. This is probably because the island is isolated and fairly difficult to access. In addition, GSA required a plan for maintenance of the island were it to be purchased by a public entity. 2

GSA opened up bidding to the general public on July 17, 1967. This place, an island with a military burial ground, designated a National Military Cemetery by an Act of Congress, was going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, monument, graves and all!

Crab Island in Private Hands

On December 5, 1967, it was announced that the high bidder was Mr. Edward Troise of Pennsylvania. Though the bid was reported as being $20,200. the actual high bid was $40,200, still a pittance when one considers what the government had put into the island over the years. The Troise family kept the island in the family for over 15 years, doing very little with the property. That turned out to be a very good thing, for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, complaining of the sad state of the monument, reported in July 1975, "'there will likely be some kind of development at some future time,' and that among the offers turned down were one from The Atomic Energy Commission. It seems they were interested in "developing the island as a site for a future power generator." Imagine, the Crab Island Nuclear Power Facility! To this writer, that scarcely seems better than the offer from Las Vegas developers to build a casino on the island, also mentioned in the piece.

Undoubtedly, in an effort to reassure readers, Mr. Troise was quoted in the article as stating, "the proper authorities would be contacted to make sure the monument would be removed to a place where it could be preserved." Officials would be given the opportunity to remove the Crab Island Monument from Crab Island... Given the condition of the monument at the time (and the condition it remains in today) one wonders about the benefits of doing this. As odd as that prospect sounds, one wonders if the monument itself would have fared better had it been relocated. Forrest Cleland, who authored the piece, hit what seems to me to be the height of understatement when he concluded- "... the significance of the marker would certainly be diminished if it were removed to a museum and the resting place of the war dead were one day disturbed by the whirring of a roulette wheel or the click of glasses in a casino cocktail bar." 3

The time did come when the Troise family decided it was time to sell off the island. Another battle was to erupt around Crab Island.

1985- Island for Sale

$150,000- will subdivide. So read the listing in local papers. For the Troise family, it was time to see a return on their investment. The year was 1985; Crab Island was again for sale.

This time the public would raise their voices.  The Ad Hoc Committee for a Public Crab Island was formed. This group consisted of dedicated members of many local civic organizations. The Committee was co-chaired by Mr. James Dawson and one James G. Bailey. Jim Bailey; the Plattsburgh City Historian, is, in this writer's view, one of the Caretakers of Crab Island.

Dawson, Bailey and the Ad Hoc Committee were determined that Crab Island revert to public ownership. After deciding against taking the GSA to court for the original private sale in 1967, a dogged effort was made to convince New York State to purchase the island at the price Troise wanted. After initially being rebuffed in their efforts, the group finally convinced the state to attempt the purchase. The island was appraised by the state. The Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation [referred henceforth as OPRHP] would buy Crab Island.

Serious complications ensued, however. A wealthy New Jersey resident; Mr. Walter Jakubowski, decided he wanted Crab Island. He was willing to pay for it, too. Jakubowski offered $190,000. for the island. This was well above the asking price, and, considerably more than the state could pay due to the appraised value of the island. Troise accepted the larger sum and Jakubowski became the new owner. 4

By now the public was informed, largely due to the efforts of Bailey, the Ad Hoc Committee, and the news media. Pressure was relentlessly applied on the state to enter into negotiations with Jakubowski. Jim Bailey kept up his public campaign to make sure everyone knew of the history associated with Crab Island. One of the most touching and poignant of these efforts took place on Memorial Day, 1986. Nothing I could write would better show Baileys' commitment and devotion to the island and his respect for the graves there.

Respect for the honored dead

As a project for American Education Week, the students of the Broad Street School in Plattsburgh released helium-filled balloons with a card attached asking the finder to contact them. Bailey found one on Crab Island. His response to "Jonella of Broad Street School" is telling. It is reproduced here with permission:

Memorial Day, 1986
Crab Island in Plattsburgh Bay

Click here to see Jim Bailey's response to Jonella of Broad Street SchoolDear Jonella of Broad Street School:

Here is your balloon-carried postcard back to you. We saw it drifting over and landing nearby, but until today we couldn't get it back. Mr. Bailey, Plattsburgh City Historian, paddled out as a Memorial Day activity to do some more searching about Crab Island (or St. Michael's Island) history-- trying to locate our graves.

As you say in that game "I see something", he was red hot.

While he was so close, we sent him a message to look down for your balloon card. We didn't shout or moan, because he's deaf and wouldn't hear. It was an extra-sensory  kind of message. Anyway, he looked down at just the right time and spotted your card among the poison ivy vines.

We're glad the balloon card is a project of American Education Week. You and your school-mates can do some educating about America's history right here in Plattsburgh. Because, honestly speaking, the past generations have not done very well by us.

We are MacDonough's sailors who died aboard his ships Sunday morning September 11, 1814 defending Plattsburgh and the United States against a British invasion.

Commodore MacDonough was a shrewd naval commander and despite being outgunned and outmanned that day, we won a great victory which won the War of 1812 against Britain. He was a kind and decent officer, too. He had all of us who were killed in battle, including the British, properly buried. Of the 53 American seamen who died in the naval battle, 4 were officers and were taken to the village cemetery for burial. You can see that burial site from your Broad Street School window. The remaining 49 of us, together with about 80 British sailors, were buried here on Crab Island-- the closest land to the naval battle--in mass graves. MacDonough did not have the time or money to erect stone markers. It wasn't until 1843 that a group of Plattsburgh veterans collected enough money to put up the gravestones you see in Riverside Cemetery today.

No stone markers ever got put up over our graves out here.

About 1900, local people finally persuaded the U.S. government to do something. By then, however, our graves were so overgrown that they couldn't be found on this 40 acre uninhabited island. So the government erected a memorial flagpole at the south end of the island in 1903, and a granite shaft near the north end in 1908. They also built a caretaker's cottage, a windmill to pump lake water to the cottage, a wharf, and had paths cut all around the island. By 1909, it was quite an attractive park--MacDonough National Military Park was its formal name. At least people at that time knew we were here even though they couldn't find the exact grave sites. We were proud that, finally, we were remembered.

Your teachers have told you that true learning takes a lot of repeating. Unfortunately, the U.S. government did not truly learn the lesson of our sacrifice. The government's overseers of the military park island did not keep it in shape. Over the last 80 years, all the work done in 1900-1909 has been ruined by neglect. The flagpole is hopelessly rusted. The wharf is broken up by the ice. Careless campers burned the cottage down in 1965. Two of the four bronze plaques have been stolen off the granite monument. The paths are completely overgrown. The biggest blow to us was in 1967 when the government formally abandoned the whole island and sold it to an out-of-state land speculator. He didn't do a thing for 19 years: now, in 1986, he wants to sell it to someone else for a good profit, maybe for dividing up for a bunch of camps or houses.

Our graves!

There's hope that the State of New York will pick up the fumble of the U.S. government and buy back the island. The Committee for a Public Crab Island has been formed to try to rekindle Plattsburgh's remembrance of our sacrifice. 172 years is a long time to go without a gravestone!

Your balloon may not have traveled the farthest in distance from Broad Street School, Jonella, but it has taken the record for time! From September 1814 we send greetings to you and all in Plattsburgh on Memorial Day 1986-- hopefully the beginning of real Memorial Days for us.

Thomas Butler    Spokesman for the 49 American on Crab Island
Quarter Gunner on MacDonough's Flagship, The Saratoga

With the island now in the hands of the Jakubowski interests, it would seem there was not much more that could be done. Mr. Jakubowski wanted the island and he had been willing to put up a lot of money to get it. To his credit, he started getting the island cleaned up soon after the purchase. Plattsburgh's well-known entrepreneur Frank Pabst was commissioned to work on Crab Island and start investigating ways of opening it up to the public. Pabst, whose popular tour boat, Juniper, had been plying the waters of Plattsburgh and Valcour Bays, investigated promoting the island as a place for "rustic camping" and using the island for ski and snowmobile touring. Moorings would be set out for boats at the island. 5

Groundswell- the power of the people

The momentum to return the island to public ownership was strong, however. The Town of Plattsburgh voted new zoning regulations for Crab Island in recognition of its rich history. These regulations, it would seem, would serve to prevent Jakubowski from developing the island extensively. Before long, pressure was applied upon the state to exercise its right of eminent domain. Eminent domain would entail forcing the owner to sell at a fair market price. It is not something used often and it is used reluctantly. There is a long tradition of fighting for the rights of individual property owners in the North Country. Yet, public sentiment was strong that the federal government was wrong in selling the island in the first place. It kept coming back to the graves... Crab Island was the burial ground of some 149 British and American seamen from the War of 1812. They had died in battle here- in Plattsburgh. Did these veterans deserve recognition? It had been decided long ago that they did. As Jim Bailey stated so eloquently in his letter to Jonella, however, "honestly speaking, the past generations have not done very well by us." Perhaps it was finally time to make things right.

The State of New York determined it was in the best interest of the people to take the island by eminent domain.

On January 11, 1988, papers giving the state ownership of the island were filed. Mr. Jakubowski was paid $210,000., some $20,000 above what he paid for Crab Island.6 The people of the State of New York were the new stewards of Crab Island.

Jim Bailey was pleased. His work, however, was not finished. The Ad Hoc Committee, together with local news media and other concerned and involved citizens had done much to preserve the special and unique character of Crab Island. The island still desperately needed attention.

On February 28, 1988, Bailey conducted a tour of the island. It was some six weeks after the state acquired Crab Island. Forty people walked across the frozen lake to the island. The visit was covered by Press-Republican Staff Writer Mitch Rosenquist. Bailey pointed out that the four bronze plaques from the monument were no longer on the island. Two were in safekeeping in Plattsburgh; the other two were in the possession of the island's last owner. The tour group noted the sad state of the monument. They were also taken to a location that Bailey thought was as likely a spot for the burial site as any.7 

Jim Bailey was doing what he could to bring the plight of Crab Island to the fore. In the fall of 1988, Bailey wrote "The Forgotten Graves of Crab Island." Published in The Antiquarian, the official journal of the Clinton County Historical Association, the "Forgotten Graves" is a wonderful, well-written account of the story of Crab Island. Up until now, it is believed to be the only published work specifically dealing with the islands' history. Jim Bailey and the Clinton County Historical Association graciously allowed the republication of the "Forgotten Graves" on this web site. It can be viewed here.
    
 Jim and Anne Bailey
    Photo by the author

That Crab Island tour was 14 years ago. The location of the graves has still not been established. The monument is in somewhat better condition than it was at that time. The broken gate has been fixed. The trees growing through the fence have been removed. The area around the monument has been cleared of poison ivy and extensive brush. The path from north to south has been restored. It was not the State of New York, however, that performed these necessary tasks. It was yet another Caretaker of Crab Island.

Click here to go back.   Click here to go back to the introduction.   Click here to continue!

Sources/Notes:

1 James G. Bailey, "THE FORGOTTEN GRAVES OF CRAB ISLAND" (The Antiquarian-Fall 1988, Allan Everest, Editor Clinton County Historical Association, Plattsburgh, NY) 14. Also republished with permission: America's Historic Lakes, <http://www.historiclakes.org/ccha/bailey1.htm > May 2001.
2
   Ibid.
3
  Forrest Cleland: 1812 War Monument in Disrepair. Plattsburgh Press-Republican: July 15, 1975.
4
  James G. Bailey, "THE FORGOTTEN GRAVES OF CRAB ISLAND" (The Antiquarian-Fall 1988, Allan Everest, Editor Clinton County Historical Association, Plattsburgh, NY) 14. Also republished with permission: America's Historic Lakes, <http://www.historiclakes.org/ccha/bailey1.htm > May 2001.
Frank Pabst. Personal communication to Roger Harwood. June 2002.
6
 James G. Bailey, "THE FORGOTTEN GRAVES OF CRAB ISLAND" (The Antiquarian-Fall 1988, Allan Everest, Editor Clinton County Historical Association, Plattsburgh, NY) 14. Also republished with permission: America's Historic Lakes, <http://www.historiclakes.org/ccha/bailey1.htm > May 2001.
7
Mitch Rosenquist: 40 Visit Crab Island on 1st Tour since state takeover. Plattsburgh Press-Republican: February 29, 1988.

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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