The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Century-Old Light Warns Sailormen of Hidden Rock-Crowned Reefs Near Lake Ontario's Danger Isle
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY), 18 Sep 1932

Full Text
Century-Old Light Warns Sailormen
of Hidden Rock-Crowned Reefs Near
Lake Ontario's Danger Isle - History
Written in Tragedy

By Percy T. Cole

False Duck Light, they call it. And since 1828 it has warned sailor men from as rock-bound and reef-ridden waters as are found anywhere on Lake Ontario. Day in, day out, for the last 104 years from early March, when navigation opens until late December when the last ship slowly fights its way to port through early winter storms, the False Duck Light has burned on with never a flicker. And many a lake captain, giving his ship through the autumn gale on these treacherous waters, has had cause to thank God and the lighthouse keeper for their aid.

False Duck Island, not to be confused with its bigger neighbor, Main Duck Island, 12 miles farther out in the lake, lies three miles from Point Traverse, on the very tip of Prince Edward County. It is some 40 miles from Oswego, on the United States shore, and 32 miles from Kingston. Vessels making for Kingston pass between the False Ducks end of the Main Ducks, keeping a respectable distance from either if the weather is bad, but passing within a mile of the False Ducks when waters are smooth and visibility is good.

How many ships have ended their days on the rocky bars of or the very shores of the False Ducks is entirely a matter of conjecture, but the rotting hulls of many a god ship can be seen on clear days lying well below the surface, slowly disintegrating. Even though the hazards of navigating have been largely eliminated in this most dangerous section of the lake, it is estimated that an average of two wrecks a year is claimed by the Duck Islands. Accurate records have been lost, but since Champlain built the first sailing ships to ply lake waters, hundreds of sailing boas and steamers have ended their day on the treacherous fingers of rock that reach out in all directions to claim there prey.

Unprotected from the prevailing west wind which sweeps east on Lake Ontario, at that point, five days out of seven, the False Ducks are left severely alone by the fisher-folk unless business takes them there. There is no harbor, and only a poor anchorage in the lee of the island. On calm days it is a simple matter to run a boat close to shore over the jagged reefs, but when the lake is rough, as it often is, landing is practically an impossibility. To the lighthouse keeper and his family, being marooned on their island for days at at a time has come to be a commonplace matter, something to be expected in the usual course of events.

Despite the bad reputation with sailormen, False Duck Island is a spot of enchantment. Towering 75 feet above the rest of the island, the lighthouse, the original one built 104 years ago, stands as guardian over all. Apparently attempting to vie in height with the lighthouse, several elms stretch their arms to a height of some 40-odd feet, while maples, willows and a few fruit trees, ever last one of them bending east away from the wind, lend a park-like charm to the island all its own.

With an area of only 75 acres, the island has in addition to his human population of four, wild rabbits grown tame, domesticated chickens, one huge Newfoundland dog, and cats and pheasants. All mingle together in a seemingly happy family.

Four-Foot Walls

Built around a solid core of oak, the lighthouse has walls four feet thick at the base, and tapering to a foot and a half at the top. To get to the top one must climb a winding flight of stairs - 84 of them - then a second six-foot ladder to the glass-enclosed dome. Inside is the light, a coal oil burner over three feet in diameter, which burns from March to December from sunset until sunrise. The False Duck Light has been seen on clear nights in Oswego, 40 miles across the lake, and in Kingston and points farther down the St. Lawrence.

The lake was by no means calm when I approached a Point Traverse fisherman and asked if he could take me to the False Ducks. He couldn't, he informed me, but pointed to another fishermen busily engaged in rolling his nets on a frame to dry. If the latter wouldn't take me out, nobody would. Why? The wind was kicking up quite a sea outside, although there was hardly a ripple on the quiet little creek where some 30 fishing-boats were docked.

"How long do you want to stay there?" Mason Jenkins, fisherman of 10 years' experience, and browned to a rich mahogany color by wind and sun, wanted do know.

"Well, if you stay there more than an hour, you're likely to stay there for a day or two anyway," he answered. "And I don't know if we'll be able to land even now. It looks quiet enough in here, but there's no harbor over there and it's all rocky shore. However, if you want to chance it, I will." And that was that. We start out.

Once out in the open lake, to my landlubber eyes, it look as though a gale was raging. The 15-foot boat that hd seemed to be safe and secure in the anchorage seemed a frail cockleshell as it dipped down in the trough, then climbed aloft and dipped again.

"This isn't anything," the fisherman explained. "Wait until we start back and head into these rollers. As long as we run before the wind they won't break over us. But be sure you don't stay over an hour, or I'll have to leave you there." Comforting thought.

Home of Sea Gulls

In what seemed to be incredibly short time we were just under a mile from the island. And then, unseen to me until we were almost on top of it, we passed within a hundred feet of a gravel and sand bar jutting four or five feet out of the water, without a blade of grass or a living green thing growing there, but populated with thousands of sea-gulls. With a tremendous angry shriek and flapping of wings hundreds of them rose in a body. flew high in the air, then zoomed, twisted and dived all around the boat, apparently annoyed at having their privacy disturbed.

"That's what we call Gull Bar," Mr. Jenkins explained. "I thought that would surprise you. Unless you know it's there, you'd never notice it till you're right on it. I've seen so many gulls in the air here when passing by that they've looked like a great cloud. Once I landed on the bar on a calm day in May, and there were so many eggs there you could hardly move around without stepping on them. And don't let anyone tell you a gull won't fight. They came at me so hard and so fast I decided I'd better leave.

"We don't get many bad storms in late spring," he continued, "but sometimes that bar is swept clean when a real sea is rolling, and I guess lots of the eggs and young gulls are lost then. But the birds come back year after year, and nobody bothers them. Some people eat their eggs, but not me. They're pretty strong, I understand."

Arriving in lee of False Duck Island the fisherman guided his boat slowly in toward shore. Looking overside, one could see jagged reefs, then flat rock, and again a cluster of wicked looking stones just a foot or two under the surface, ready to rip and tear the bottoms of any craft so unlucky as to be thrown up on these shores.

Skillful maneuvering, however, finally brought the boat close to a slimy, water-washed flat rock on which it was possible to leap from the boat.

The lifeboat is raised above the water line; otherwise it would be pounded to bits on the rocks.

"I'll lay offshore, but don't be more than an hour," Mr. Jenkins called. "It's getting worse all the time, and it'll be hard enough getting aboard again as it is."

Relics of Wrecks

A walk of a hundred yards brought the lighthouse keeper's home into view, but in that walk along the shore a lifeboat and life-buoy, cast up on shore, were noticed. The lifeboat had no markings, but the lfe buoy was from the steamer Condor, which foundered off the False Ducks several years ago.

Kenneth McConnell, bronzed and hardy from five years dwelling at the False Ducks, is the present lighthouse keeper. With his wife, his son Jimmy, and a helper, they make up the human population of the island. And are they satisfied? Let Mr. McConnell tell you.

"Live in the city? Not for me. Sure, I like to go there for a visit, but this suits me fine. Here a man can breathe fresh air, not filled with smoke from a hundred factories. Plenty of room to move about in, no skyscrapers pressing you in. Plenty of hunting, not only here but over on Timber Island (two miles northwest). Lonely? Sure it's lonely. What of it? But if we want supplies we go to the mainland and get them. At least we did until I lost my boat a month ago. Now the fishermen bring them out. And, of course, we don't stay here in the wintertime now.

"How did you come to lose your boat?" I asked, but Mr. McConnell seemed lot to talk about that. Later I learned the story from my fisherman friend.

One Wednesday morning, just over a month ago, Mr. McConnell left the island in his speedboat, capable of 25 miles an hour, for the mainland in the face of a rolling sea and a strong head win. Before he had gone a mile waves, breaking over the the bow, had half-filled the craft, but he dared not put about for fear of capsizing.

One Chance Only

His only chance of safety was to land at Timber Island, toward which place the wind was sending him, but minute by minute the boat became more waterlogged until it was swept from prow to stern by the high waves. Finally the motor suit altogether. The wind came to is aid then, however, and after half an hour's drifting he landed on Timber Island, not 50 feet from the extreme south-most tip of the island. Had he missed that point he would undoubtedly have been carried on down the lake and drowned.

As it was he managed to drag himself through the breakers to the shore, and, exhausted, flung himself down on the ground. Some time later, having recuperated, he went to look for his boat, but the waves which cast it up had taken it back again, and it was nowhere in sight. Timber Island is uninhabited, being some 500 acres in area. The owner, however, las spring had placed about 30 pigs on the island, and they had been let run wild to forage for themselves.

For four days, from Wednesday morning until Saturday night, when he was rescued, the lighthouse keeper was marooned on the island, subsisting as best he could on berries, and forced to sleep in the trees because the wild pigs which nightly congregated about him. Whether they could have done him ay harm is a matter of conjecture, but in his weakened condition Mr. McConnell was taking no chances and stayed out of their way,

Rigging a flag of distress from his shirt, the castaway daily spent the time either on the side of the island facing the False Ducks, in the hope his helper might see him with the telescope, or on the side toward Point Traverse, where the fishermen daily went and out without meeting him. Finally, early Saturday night, a boat in charge of Don Thompson, making its way to Point Traverse, passed within a hundred yards of Timber Island. Although sea from exposure and lack of food, Mr. McConnell managed to attract Thompson's attention with his improvised distress signal, the boat landed and he was saved.

Visiting with his daughter, Mrs. McConnell, at the False Ducks was Louis Hudgin, 75 years old, and old-time lake sailor of 40 years ago. Blind these last seven years, Mr. Hudgin, nevertheless, has retained vivid memories of his sailing days, and was able to name the names of lighthouse keepers stationed at the False Ducks since the lighthouse was built.

"Of course, I didn't know the first ones," he explained, "but when this lighthouse was built, a man by the name of Sweetman became the keeper. The job stayed in the Sweetman family for three generations, up until about 57 or 58 years ago. William Lane was the next to get it. He only stayed two years, and then resigned. I guess it got too lonely for him.

"Philip Farington stayed for three years after that, and then great-great until of mine, Captain James Hudgin, took it over. He was a retired lake captain when he got the job, too old to sail, but not too old to tend the light. He stayed on for nine years, and would have stayed the rest of his life, but from what I remember thee came a change of government and he was out of a job.

"Dorland Dulmage, he lives in Milford now, was the next one. He stayed for seven years. Then it came back into the Hudgin family, James Hudgin keeping it for two years, and his son, Gratton Hudgin, being here for five years. A.C. Dulmage was next, I think. It was while he was here that the house burned down one winer, and after the government let the lighthouse keepers stay on the mainland in the winter. Before that they had to stay with their jobs the year around, and sometimes supplies ran short, or they took sick and had to look after themselves. Nine years ago J. Hutchison was here, and five years ago my son-in-law took it over."

"How many wrecks can I remember around the False Ducks? I couldn't tell you, there's been so many. I remember old sailors telling of wrecks around here since I was a kid. They used to tell of the Great Blow of 1835, when two ships were wrecked here within a hundred feet of each other and both crews drowned. That was long before my time, but whenever it came on to blow the old sailors would start telling about the worst storms they had ever seen, and the Great Blow was always one of them. That was the time when the wind blew so hard it raised the water 18 feet above the normal level at Oswego, and put the smaller boats right up on the streets.

"In 1880 there was what they called the Great Gale. I remember that one pretty well, and the boats that were lost with all hands. One schooner went down half a mile off the False Ducks, and the shore of the island was littered with broken masts, spars and wreckage, as well as a few bodies, the next morning.

"Since I've been here, five years, we haven't had a big wreck whee lives were lost, although a few ships have come ashore, and an odd rumrunner has come to grief. In fact, the rum ships have been the worst sufferers in that time. Five or six men have been drowned in these wears when their boats couldn't stand the heavy weather. They were always loaded pretty heavy with liquor and beer, and they'd go out in any kind of weather. There's very title of that going on now, tough, and since they installed a foghorn here it's not nearly as dangerous as before. It had to be a pretty bad storm before any big boats come ashore nowadays."

Steamers in Collision

"It was only 10 or 11 years ago the steamer Key West rammed the schooner Oliver Mowat, and cut her in two," Mr. Hudgin broke in. "That was just a couple of miles off shore, between the False Ducks and the Main Ducks. The captain, mate and cook on the Oliver Mowat were drowned, and her bone are out there yet in 50 feet of water."

"And just after I came here," injected Mr. McConnell, "the steamer Dewstone went aground up on the west end of the island. She was carrying grain, but they dumped most of it overboard and floated her again in three days."

"How about the mystery of the Sea Hawk? I enquired, Mr. McConnell looked at me sharply. The sightless sailor said nothing. And neither would speak of the Sea Hawk. Whether they knew anything, or held any opinion as to how this sleek, mahogany rumrunner came to be lost with its crew of three men, they refused to talk about it.

The Sea Hawk, a 509-foot [sic: probably 50] cruiser with powerful engines and carrying a full load of assorted liquors, left one of the many coves of Prince Edward County for an unknown United States port late in the fall of 1927. Its crew was made up of three Oswego men and from the time the craft let Prince Edward until it was discovered frozen in the ice of Pleasant Bay, 10 miles from the False Ducks on the Bay of Quinte on February 2, 1928, no one apparently saw it or its crew.

Ugly rumors traveled swiftly through the fishing colonies and the select circles of the rum-running fleet. Hijackers in those days were not unknown and it was an almost certain fact that one of these men carried a large sum of money when the boat set out. When found, the name had been painted out with fresh gray paint, and the whole ship had been stripped of everything of any value, even to the powerful engines.

Later in the spring the bodies of two of the three men aboard her were found at different spots along the shore of Pleasant Bay, frozen in the ice. The third has never been found.

Fifteen Rescued

"Did Mason Jenkins bring you out here?" Mr. McConnell asked and, on being informed that it was so, related a dramatic story of a rescue effected on October 8, 1930 by my fisherman boatman.

"The tug Sarnia City went aground at Poplar Bar, just off Long Point, during a storm. She had 15 men aboard, and she looked to be in a bad way, for the waves wee ruling over her and nobody knew where she had opened up or not. If she had, and the waves rolled her off the bar, she would go down line a stone, taking her whole crew with her.

"Of al the fishermen at Point Traverse, only Mason Jenkins would take his boat out to rescue them. The others all thought their boats wouldn't stand the weather so you know it must have been pretty bad. Jenkins has an 8-cylinder automobile engine in his boat, and in calm water it drives the boat about 16 miles an hour. Nelson Minaker went with him.

"It was some fight to get out to the Sarnia City, and he had to run around them three times before they could toss a line to him, the wind was so heavy. Finally they got a line aboard, and hauled the fishing boat under the Sarnia City's lee. Eleven of the crew tumbled aboard, and the captain apparently thinking the small boat could carry no more yelled to Minaker that the rest of them would wait for the next trip.

"'You'd better one now if you expect to come at all,' Minaker yelled back, "We're not coming out again.' And Minaker says it was early funny to see the speed with which the remaining four climbed aboard the boat. They finally got back to Point Traverse, but the boat was pretty swamped, she had shipped so much water. If it hadn't been for Jenkins, they could have chalked up another list of dead sailors."

"I don't want to hurry you away," the keeper of the light reminded me, "unless you want to stay here - the lake's getting worse all the time."

And apparently that was what Mason Jenkins thought too, for when I appeared on the shore a few minutes later he looked extremely doubtful about bringing his craft in to the flat rock I had disembarked on without smashing her to bits. He finally succeeded in getting close in, and I in getting aboard with nothing worse than wet feet and a barked shin. Out of the lee of the island monster waves bore down on us, but the stout little craft climbed, dipped and fought its way through the three miles of open water to its home port in much the same manner as it must have don on its errand of mercy in rescuing the crew of the Sarnia City.

Looking back as we passed Gull Bar, over the foaming water the False Duck Lighthouse stood out in white relief against the darkening sky, guarding as it has for over a century, one of the most tragic, yet withal one of the most romantic islands to be found where keel furrows the waves.

Cole, Percy T., Author
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18 Sep 1932
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Jenkins, Mason ; McConnell, Kenneth ; McConnell, Jimmy ; Thompson, Don ; Hudgin, Louis ; Sweetman, Mr. ; Lane, William ; Farington, Philip ; Hudgin, James ; Dulmage, Dorland ; Hudgin, Gratton ; Dulmage, A. C. ; Hutchison, J. ; Minaker, Nelson
Richard Palmer
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Century-Old Light Warns Sailormen of Hidden Rock-Crowned Reefs Near Lake Ontario's Danger Isle