Dorothy Beetz, now 76 years old, recalls her father's stories of life on 30-acre Horse Island, New York, where his grandfather, Schuyler S. Simmons, was lighthouse keeper.
“I remember my father telling us that when the tide was down, my step-grandmother on the island would wave a white diaper telling us that it was safe to drive across by car from the mainland,” she says. “If the water was high, we then went to the island by boat.”
Horse Island Lighthouse (also known as Sackets Harbor Lighthouse) was built in 1870, replacing an earlier structure built in 1831. It consists of a 70-foot square brick tower attached to a keeper's dwelling. Horse Island is just offshore to the west of the town of Sackets Harbor, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. During the War of 1812, the British took advantage of the island's proximity to the mainland and used it as a staging area for the Second Battle of Sackets Harbor. The town was a major shipbuilding site for the Americans during the war.
Schuyler Simmons, a native of Bellrock in Ontario, Canada came to the U.S. around 1875, when he was about 15. Simmons had four children — including Dorothy Beetz's father, Charlie — with his first wife, Harriet Melissa Grant, who died in 1922.
Simmons married Julia Shay, from Montana, in 1923. After years spent farming near Henderson, New York, Simmons became the lightkeeper at Horse Island in 1926. Julia Shay Simmons assisted her husband with his duties, and when he died in 1932, she succeeded him as keeper.
Dorothy was only three when her grandfather died, and her older sister was only six. Most of Dorothy's knowledge of her grandfather's time as a keeper was passed down by her father. “My father always kept the memory of his dad as a lighthouse keeper through the years and in our hearts and minds,” says Dorothy.
A newspaper article saved by Dorothy provides some information on Julia Shay Simmons's years as keeper. To help with the work around the lighthouse and the adjacent farm, she had a paid helper, Frank Gagnon. The light, according to the article, was automatic by that time. Mrs. Simmons said that little work was necessary, other than keeping the tower clean and orderly. “Once in a while the wind blows the light out,” said the article, “but it is a mere matter of relighting the lamp.”
Julia Shay Simmons kept a large flock of Plymouth Rock chickens on the island, and the birds were so tame that they'd perch on her shoulders. There were also a horse and a cow, “besides a young bull that is as friendly as a house dog.” The article continued, “In fact the air at the lighthouse farm is one of friendliness among the human folks, and the chickens and livestock.” All in all, Mrs. Simmons was happy at her island home, and the government inspectors were pleased with the fine job she did.
It isn't clear how long Julia Simmons remained keeper, but Dorothy heard through her father that Julia was killed by a train. The lighthouse was replaced by an automatic light on a nearby skeletal tower in 1957, and the property was sold to private hands. Since the island is off-limits to the public, most lighthouse buffs visiting the area have to be content with the view from the Sackets Harbor Battlefield, now a state historic site. The battlefield grounds are open year round.
In 1964, Dorothy Beetz and ten other family members made arrangements for a boat trip to Horse Island. “It was a thrill for my father, mother and us to stay for those three days,” Dorothy says, “and climb the stairway to the top of the lighthouse. For electricity, we started a portable generator in the barn next door for a few lights. My dad always remembered that visit. It was like stepping back in time.”
Dorothy still visits the area yearly with her husband. She always catches a view of the lighthouse, paying her respects to family history from the nearby shoreline.
This story appeared in the
October 2005 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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