Resource for Historians, Educators, Students and Visitors since 1997
Roger Harwood working at the Crab Island Monument.
Crab Island Today
Visitors to Crab Island today will find the island in as good a condition as it has been in many years. There are still many problems, some quite serious. As Jim Bailey pointed out in "The Forgotten Graves of Crab Island"1 back in the Fall of 1988, the monument still needs pointing, the four bronze plaques are still missing (although they are now on display at the Clinton County Historical Association Museum), and with the exception of one large sign identifying the monument's significance, there is no signage on the island. There are large gaps in the monuments' mortar, and of course, the eagles remain headless.
Yet, Crab Island can be accessed by a careful boater (there is no dock or wharf), and watchful visitors can pick their way up the shore to the monument. It is still important to avoid the occasional poison ivy plant along the shore to the clearing on the west side.
Once ashore, the area around the monument stands out in sharp contrast to the heavily forested section behind it. As this recent photo shows, the monument is surrounded by a neat, well-cropped, grassy section. The fence, long since covered with a thick layer of rust, at least is standing erect. Trees and thick vines no longer grow through the openings, entwining themselves through its open sections. The gate, once off its hinges and on the ground, has been restored to its proper place. There is a path, not very wide, but clearly defined nonetheless, from the clearing along the western shore past the ruins of the cottage. Poison Ivy no longer grows within the narrow clearing, but in the springtime, the path does blossom with beautiful (and protected) wildflowers. The path continues to the area where the massive naval style flagstaff once stood. This area, too, has been cleared of incredibly dense brush and thicket. Yet, nothing has been removed from the area but trash and blow-down. There is obvious evidence that whoever did this work has an enormous respect for Crab Island.
One man makes a difference
Roger Harwood, of Plattsburgh, NY, is a retired Industrial Arts teacher. He is a long-time volunteer firefighter, avid boater and an accomplished diver. He is also the latest Caretaker of Crab Island. For some ten years now, Roger has lovingly maintained the area around the monument and the flagstaff. He has mowed the grass and repaired the fence. He has cleared the trees, poison ivy and brush from within the fenced in area. He has cleaned up the blow-down after lake storms. Roger is not an employee of the State of New York. He has done this work, on his own time, at his own expense, because it needed to be done. Roger has a no-nonsense approach to why he comes here. He will tell you "someone needs to do it."
The work is not easy, nor has it always been appreciated or welcomed.
Four years after the State of New York took possession of Crab Island very little had changed. It seemed the little island was doomed to a continued future of neglect. Other than the one large sign (it is a nice sign) just to the north of the monument, for all intents and purposes there was no indication that state ownership had made any difference whatsoever.
Jim Bailey had suggested back in that hopeful year of 1988 "signs to note the natural and historic features--e.g. the invalids' battery at the north tip-- could be erected at a modest cost." He then went on to state his strongest desire- "the most important need is for OPRHP to send its archaeologist to pinpoint the burial trenches, and then to fence in and clearly mark the area." Bailey lamented that there was nothing on the island noting the fact that 149 American and British sailors are buried somewhere on this tiny piece of ground.
As of this writing in August 2003, there is still nothing telling the tale of Crab Island to visitors or passers-by. The graves have not been located, and other than the monument, itself suffering the ravages of time and neglect; nothing remains to honor the memory of the fallen heroes of Macdonough's and Downie's fleets.
Roger Harwood does what he can. Each week or so, he puts his specially customized power mower into his little boat and travels the two or so miles from his home to Crab Island. Just as he has for the past ten years. Sometimes he has help, usually it is Linda his wife; but mostly Roger works alone here.
Then again, perhaps Roger is not alone as he works on Crab Island. There are at least 149 men buried in unmarked graves here. They have been ignored, dishonored and forgotten by too many for too long. Roger Harwood remembers them. Perhaps they are working alongside him...
That just may be one more of the Secrets of Crab Island.
To learn more about Roger Harwood, click here.
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.
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