Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2019

Robert C. Graves

The Long-Time Keeper of Lake Ontario’s Galloo Island Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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Galloo Island Lighthouse as it appeared when ...

The Galloo Island Lighthouse was established in 1820 on the approximately 2,300-acre island that, along with the nearby 49-acre Little Galloo Island, is incorporated within the boundaries of the town of Hounsfield, New York. In the early years, it was called Galloup Island, a name that stuck with locals for many years, even though its name had officially been changed to Galloo.

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Lighthouse keeper Robert C. Graves is shown here ...

The Galloo Island Lighthouse only needed one person as a keeper until 1867 when a new and improved lighthouse was built. At that time, an assistant keeper was appointed to help with the extra duties.

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Distant view approaching Lake Ontario’s Galloo ...

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The man standing on the left of the steps of one ...

Galloo Island’s Paradise

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Lighthouse keeper Robert C. Graves took a moment ...

A reporter who visited Galloo Island Lighthouse described what he saw on the island in an article in the August 16, 1923 edition of the Jefferson County Journal when he wrote the following: “The beauty and immaculateness of the grounds, and the different varieties of flowers in bloom at this season, showing the care of the nature loving ones living there; also the little bird houses erected there and the pictures of the young ladies Misses Sarah and Anna Graves [daughters of light keeper, Robert Graves], who have spent their whole lives on the island show there is one spot on God’s earth where fear is banished and the cattle and birds come to their call. These sights are memories that will linger long in the visitor’s minds and will not make Galloo Island seem just an island in Lake Ontario but a sort of sacred place that God has set apart and placed this great lamp to be tended by a master hand and to guide his own through troubled waters to safe harbors.”

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Lighthouse keeper Robert C. Graves with one of ...

While Galloo Island did possess a lot of natural beauty as the article noted, it also had its fair share of the troubled waters spoken of, particularly in the frozen form of its harsh winters.

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Lighthouse keeper Robert C. Graves, sporting a ...

The headline in the January 21, 1923 edition of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper read “Graves and Party Are On Icy Trip to the Galloups.” The story continued, “Robert Graves of the Galloup Islands started his return trip across the ice between Sackets Harbor and the islands about 10 this morning after a delay of 24 hours caused by the dangerous appearance of the lake during the storm of Friday. The distance across the ice is about 20 miles. Mr. Graves is using a team of horses and a heavy sleigh.

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Gallo Island Lighthouse from a painting done in ...

“The trip was made by way of Henderson Harbor to Winnie Hobbie’s farm at Six Town Point and then Stoney Island, thus avoiding some of the big cracks confronted on the trip to Sackets Harbor on Thursday. John Kelly of the Ontario Stock Farms is with Mr. Graves as is Mr. Graves’ daughter.”

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Galloo Island Lighthouse as it appeared in 2016. ...

When asked the day before if his wife would be worried about him not having returned home the same day, Robert Graves told a local reporter, “She used to worry about me every time I went to the mainland but after the last 18 years she has learned to look for me when I arrive.”

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Galloo Island Lighthouse as it appeared in the ...

According to the Watertown Daily Standard, the reason that keeper Graves delayed his trip back to the lighthouse for one day was because the previous day’s journey had been the worst and most dangerous trip he had ever undertaken in getting to the mainland from the lighthouse since he arrived at the post in 1903.

Over the years, the local newspapers often wrote about hazardous winter crossings made by the lighthouse keepers from the Galloo Island Lighthouse to the mainland that were often fraught with danger. One time, when the ice was too thin for a horse drawn sleigh, keeper Robert Graves walked most of the long distance by foot, until he was spotted in an area where the ice was thick enough for someone to bring a horse and sleigh out to transport him the rest of the way to the mainland.

But these trips weren’t out of the ordinary for keeper Graves considering his upbringing and familiarity with the waters of Lake Ontario.

Robert Graves - The Early Years

Born on May 22, 1867, Robert C. Graves learned at a young age to respect the power of the lake. Because of this, he joined the dangerous duties of the U.S. Life Saving Service in 1892 and served with them for 11 years at Ohio’s Fairport Harbor Life Saving Station. While there, he married Phobe Anna Ramsey at the Christ Episcopal Church in Sackets Harbor, New York on New Year’s Day of 1895.

On February 19, 1903, Robert Graves transferred to the U.S. Lighthouse Service to become the assistant keeper of Galloo Island Lighthouse, serving under head keeper F. Byron Johnson, who had been head keeper since 1876.

After serving at Galloo Island for an amazing 30 years, head keeper Johnson resigned his position to retire in September 15 of 1906, and Robert Graves was officially appointed head keeper the very next day.

For Robert Graves and his wife, this was the perfect place to stay and raise a family, and they prayed that the government would allow them to stay there for many years. Other than a few times a year when the weather might be bad for crossing the lake to the mainland, life as a lighthouse keeper on Galloo Island was idyllic.

Island memories

In later years, Robert’s daughter, Sarah Graves, recounted a number of her memories of life on Galloo Island. One time she tried to raise turkeys saying, “I tried it one year to see what it would be like. There were too many foxes.” She said that the people on the island held annual fox hunts, not for sport, but to protect all their animals.

Sarah Graves continued, “I worked both indoors and outdoors. I used to help Dad shine all the brass before navigation opened.” She recalled, “I’ve milked, raised calves and colts, got hay in the barn, helped fill the ice house, made butter, and worked on the land. We helped each other with the work that had to be done.”

To her most frequently asked question about what she did on her free time, Sarah said, that there wasn’t much free time to go around, except perhaps in the dead of winter when she and her sister would invent their own games. She recalled, “After I got where I could, I always raised one hundred chickens a year, always by hand. When you raise chickens, a few ducks, take care of a few cows, raise a calf every year, take care of horses and raise a colt every other year you don’t have to worry about what to do with your time. There was all the work to raise food for those animals in summer and feed them in the winter. Go to the head of the Island for the mail, sew, can, make butter, work in the garden – always something.”

Sarah said that her father never allowed her or her sister to go out in a boat alone, but as young as she could remember, they learned how to ride horses and she would often go riding by herself all over the island to admire its beauty.

In describing life on the island, Willie E. Frazier, who served as the assistant lighthouse keeper under Robert Graves from 1915 until his death in 1932, told a reporter, “With all of the loneliness of the life, all of us are happy and contented. The government allows us 30 cents a day for provisions, but we farm it and make money. There is no chance to spend anything while we are on duty, either. We have a community system and the thirty acres are split up among the four families. This year we had two and two-thirds acres planted to corn and raised 340 bushels, which we divided. There are two cows, three horses, pigs, chickens, and other animals. We also raise a large quantity of hay, and sell what isn’t needed to feed the stock.”


In the winter months before the lake would freeze over at the beginning of the winter and again in the spring as the ice on Lake Ontario would begin to melt, travel to the mainland was generally too dangerous to make by boat, and keeper Graves and his family would hunker down for long periods of time until the lake would freeze with thick ice and the trip could be made by sleigh. A December 6, 1927 newspaper story with the following headline described it as “LIGHT KEEPER WILL HIBERNATE – Robert Graves Makes Last Visit to City Before Ice Bridge.”

The story continued, “Mr. Graves passed the day purchasing stores, periodicals and other equipment to provide interest during the long weeks of island life when all communication with the outside world is restricted to radio reception.

“Late in the winter after the ice bridge freezes solidly over the 11 miles of Henderson Harbor separating the island from the port of Sackets Harbor, it is probable that Mr. Graves will again come ashore making the trip by sleigh. Some of those journeys, late in the winter when the ice is weakened by warm weather, have brought thrilling experiences to the islanders. For a time, after navigation is closed and before the ice is firm, and again in spring when like condition prevails, the island colony, embracing nearly a score of persons, is entirely shut off from the outside world.”

During most winter months, assistant keeper Willie E. Frazier left the island to go back to Ashtabula, Ohio where he owned a home. He would return to the lighthouse in the spring. However, head lighthouse keeper Robert Graves and a few other island residents would stay for the winter. A 1915 newspaper article stated that the public school system operated on the island with a Miss Craig from Utica who stayed in the assistant keeper’s house to teach two island students.

Keeper Graves recalled the winter months as being quiet and dreary. “If it wasn’t for my radio, we would be lost.” He went on to say that they could get all the stations and all the news; however, many of the stations that came in were Canadian and were broadcast in French, which was of little value to him, but he always enjoyed the music.

The November, 1926 election must have been important to lighthouse keeper Graves, or perhaps he felt it was his civic duty to vote, regardless of the risk involved. It was not the year of a presidential election, but the governorship of New York State was up for grabs with Alfred E. Smith, the Democrat, running against Ogden L. Mills, the Republican. We don’t know who keeper Graves voted for, but he made the crossing by boat in inclement weather to cast his ballot. The local newspaper praised him for his diligence when they wrote, “Robert Graves, Galloo Island Lighthouse keeper, braved 14 miles to vote. Lots of eligible voters were kept home by a few raindrops.”

Rescue Training Used

The training that Robert Graves received from his early years with the U.S. Life Saving Service came to good use at Galloo Island, when, from time to time, he, by himself, or with the help of the assistant keeper, had to rescue people from foundering vessels. One such time happened when the yacht Hoyden wrecked off Galloo Island in August of 1928. It took him three tries just to launch the lighthouse powerboat to reach and rescue the three men who were on board.

On April 19, 1919, Graves, with the help of assistant keeper Frazier, went to the assistance of the disabled power boat Louis Donald that was transporting over 10 million minnows. The four men from the boat were put up at the lighthouse for three days.

Robert Graves’ daughter Sarah recalled one shipwreck. “A boat out of Milwaukee loaded with shelled corn ran aground in a storm. Twenty-two men walked in for Mom to get breakfast for. The boat was towed off the next spring.”

Tragedy Strikes

Early in the evening of Thursday, March 24, 1932, assistant keeper Willie E. Frazier left his quarters to go out and feed the chickens. When he came back, he complained of pains in his chest and in one arm. The local newspaper wrote, “There was no possibility of getting medical aid. Mrs. Frazier did what she could, but her husband died in two hours.”

It was immediately decided by keeper Graves that the next morning, on Friday, they would transport the body to the mainland. But high winds and rough water prevented it. Finally, at 11 am Saturday morning, after a team of horses brought the temporary wood box containing assistant keeper Frazier’s body to water’s edge and it was loaded in the lighthouse powerboat, they departed for the mainland. Light keeper Graves, who was operating the boat, was accompanied by Mrs. Frazier, her son Roland from a previous marriage, and William Fredenburg, a local farmer who lived on Galloo Island.

The local newspaper reported, “Attempts were made to reach Sackets Harbor, Henderson, and Cape Vincent, but all such efforts failed. There were great masses of floating ice in the lake and the boat proceeded with difficulty, the occupants being in danger many times. The wind was blowing, there was rain and the boat leaked in places.” Finally they reached an open bay of water off Grenadier Island near Cape Vincent where they were rescued by local farmers who got them to shore. The lighthouse boat was secured and anchored, and the body of the assistant keeper was left on the boat. Overnight the lake refroze, and using hand-sleds, they pulled the body one mile to Henderson. But the lighthouse boat remained frozen in the ice, so keeper Graves and Mr. Frendenburg had to wait in town for several days for the ice to again melt so that they could use the boat to get back to the lighthouse. It was later officially ruled that assistant keeper Frazier had died of a heart attack.


When Robert Graves announced that he would be retiring, he reflected back with a reporter from the Herald newspaper on his many years as a lighthouse keeper on Galloo Island. Most of his recollections were from the numerus dangerous winter crossings that he made across Lake Ontario. One that that stood out the most happened in April of 1923 when the ice broke apart a short distance from shore as he was crossing it with his daughter, Mary, and I.W. Kelley. “Taking a rope and jumping from cake to cake of floating ice, he reached shore and brought the others to safety.”

One time in 1926 when he had gone to the mainland to pick up supplies and reading material for the family, he was surprised at the Post Office when he opened up an envelope to learn that the Efficiency Star had been awarded to him by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He immediately brought the letter and the award over to the newspaper office so that they could do a story about it. Although he was surprised by the honored award, it was not the first time that he had received such honors. He had also been awarded the Efficiency Star during the previous year of 1925.

In writing about his retirement, one local newspaper wrote about the differences at the lighthouse from when he started to then. “When Robert Graves became the lighthouse keeper at Galloo Island, common kerosene lamps were used in the tower, and the fog whistle was operated by steam. But now a modern Delco system supplies electricity for the tower, and to light up the homes of the two keepers and operate the fog whistle.”

Robert C. Graves’ official date of retirement was June 1, 1933, which meant that he had spent slightly over 31 years as a lighthouse keeper living on Galloo Island. With his previous time spent in the U.S. Life Saving Service, he had spent 41 years working in the employment of his country. But his retirement from lighthouse life did not end his commitment to public service. He later went on to become the mayor of Sackets Harbor, New York.

At the time of his death at the age of 92 on January 26, 1960, he was still an active member of the Christ Episcopal Church where he had married his wife Phobe back in 1895 and where his funeral was held. He was buried at the Lakeside Cemetery in Sackets Harbor, New York. At the time of his death, he was survived by his two daughters and four grandchildren. His wife had died in 1936 preceding him in death by 36 years.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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