Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2012

Tale of the Baby of Crossover Light

By David Cook


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Eleazer Cady Robertson was usually called “E.C.” by his friends, and some chroniclers have mistakenly tagged him as “Ebinizer.” He was born on June 16, 1817 in Jamestown, Chautauqua County, in the far southwest corner of New York.

Eleazer was a cobbler - a shoemaker - by trade, until he accepted the appointment as Keeper of the Crossover Island Lighthouse, for just $350 per year, in the spring of 1856.

Keeper Edward Sweet (1937) made a copy of the on-site Keepers’ Service Record and gave it to his daughter, Greta. Greta later became the Village and Town Historian for Alexandria Bay and provided me with a copy of the records. They reflect the dates that keepers actually signed upon their arrival and departure from the post, rather than the dates offers were made and/or accepted, as recorded in the federal archives. E.C. Robertson served at Crossover Island from April 1, 1856 until July 16, 1861.

His wife, Olive Phillips, was born on November 29, 1825 in Jericho, Vermont and died on October 10, 1886. Eleazer passed away on June 2, 1901. Both are buried (with none of their children!) in the Rensselaer Falls Cemetery in Canton, New York.

Their eldest daughter, Zilpha (named for her grandmother), was already married and had relocated with her husband to upper Michigan; but Eleazer still brought his wife, his mother-in-law, two daughters, and three sons to live on the tiny rock island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. While there, two more children were born and four more would come after leaving the island - twelve in all!

After leaving the Lighthouse Service and the Island, Robertson moved his family from Hammond to DeKalb to DePeyster, always staying close to the St. Lawrence Valley he had come to love. Until he could no longer work, he spent his days as a traveling salesman, peddling water pumps. Most of his kids became or married farmers, but several followed their oldest sister to Michigan and became mariners, commanding tugboats, freighters, and the first automobile ferries from one side of Lake Michigan to the other. The last Robertson child born on Crossover Island was Ona Ione (October 3, 1858). Charles was one month shy of coming into this world when they removed to the mainland in nearby Hammond.

The following essay was written by Mary H. Biondi while she was the Hammond Town Historian. With permission, I quote it in full because it captures well the sense of what it was like to live at an upstate New York island light station in the 19th century.

“We heard recently a story about life in the early days on “Stony Lonesome,” [sic] was established in 1848 in the main channel of the St. Lawrence above Oak Point. This important channel light was discontinued in April, 1941, and the island is now privately owned.

“The writer says, ‘My father kept the light on Crossover Island. We did not have a grassy yard to play in but a flat rock set eight [sic] in the St. Lawrence River. One of my jobs was to see that the younger children did not fall into the river and drown. We could barely land when the wind blew.’

“ ‘One thing we enjoyed was to watch the ferry boats crossing the river from Oak Point to Canada and the boats going up and down the main channel to Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax. We had oil lamps. Boats would come along and leave oil which we had to dip out and carry up to the big lamp on the top of the house. There were windows all around the lamp which we had to keep clean. Sometimes when the wind blew a gale, birds would fly against the window with a bang. Before we had kerosene we used whale’s oil. They were certainly glad to get kerosene. Life was fun, sometimes, too. People would stop along to see us. Many times Indians would paddle by in their canoes. We were poor but my father always seemed to find enough to share at our table with those who stopped by. Sometimes the ferry boat would give us a ride. There were no motors in those days and the boats were rowed. The big river boats had steam engines but not the small ferries that crossed near us.’

“‘Our youngest sister was born in the light house. Everyone that summer was upset about something. The baby was not well and mother and father, thinking she was going to die, had not even given her a name. We children helped the best we could. One day the Indian woman who came every year to sell baskets up and down the river stopped at our island. She, paddling a canoe piled high with sweet grass baskets, came along side the island, drew up her canoe and came in. She noticed my mother’s face and the new baby. Then she said, “Baby sick, very sick. I go. I come back.” Unloading her canoe, she paddled back up river and in a short time returned. She had collected some herbs which she cooked up. Then taking the baby in her lap as she sat cross-legged on the floor, she said to mother, “You sleep, I keep baby.’”

“‘She would spoon a few drops of medicine into the baby’s mouth, then wrap her shawl around the little thing and croon and rock back and forth. What she sang sounded like, “Onne I one.” She did this day after day. I don’t know when she slept. She insisted on my poor mother getting her rest. At last, one day she rose from her place by the fire and put baby into mother’s arms. “Baby well, Baby live now,” and she silently left the room, boarded her canoe, and paddled down the river and we waved as long as we could see her. After she left, mother said, “She has saved our baby’s life. Let’s name her ‘Onie-Ione.’” We never knew what it meant and we called her Ione for short. We left the lighthouse the next year and moved to DePeyster. We always thanked God for our good friend who loved the baby and fed her medicine, drop by drop, until she was well. We could never have had a doctor in the middle of the St. Lawrence, not knowing what medicine to get. We always said the Indian lady loved the baby back to life.’

Note: In checking with the Six Nations Museum in Onchiota, it appears that the Mohawk words O-ne-iga-ah probably were spoken or in English, Little One or My Little One.

“This is a true story. We know because the baby became Supervisor Stan Dewan’s mother at DePeyster.” [Ione married Charles DeWan.]

Editor’s Note: This copyrighted excerpt is from an unpublished manuscript by David E. Cook, Light-Keepers of the St. Lawrence River and is used by permission.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 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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