Tag Archives: New York State History

World War II Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a small group of Holocaust refugees to the United States. The War Refugee Board (WRB) was established to determine who should come to the US and where they should be housed. FDR sent Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back 982 men, women, and children. The refugees were from 18 different European countries and most were Jewish. Many had been fleeing persecution for years and had made their way to an Allied-controlled part of Italy. Almost 100 of the refugees had escaped concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.

The refugees were to be housed at Fort Ontario, which is outside of Oswego, New York, and is now a state historic site. The fort had recently been vacated of troops training to fight overseas. Barrack-like houses were quickly constructed to be the temporary homes for the refugees. The War Refugee Board chose to keep family groups together, and sought people with skills that would be helpful in the camp (for example, seamstresses and carpenters).

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Two story barrack-homes and dining hall (Photos from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

The refugees took a ship from Italy to New York City, then a train to Oswego. After fleeing for months or years, the haggard group arrived at Fort Ontario on August 5, 1944. Many of the adults wore crude handmade sandals and most children were barefoot.

The refugees admired the beautiful grounds of Fort Ontario, but the tall fence around the compound reminded them of the concentration camps they had fled from. The barrier was a security measure and also served to quarantine them in case they brought communicable diseases. Oswego residents had been surprised to hear about Roosevelt’s invitation, and were curious about the newcomers. As soon as the refugees arrived, Oswegians came to the fence to greet them. Children on both sides played along the fence, and beer and cigarettes were passed over by the Americans.

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Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

In the first days after their arrival at the shelter, the adults were interviewed by WRB staff. They had all passed a background check in Italy, and now officials wanted to determine if the refugees could provide information on Hitler’s Europe which could help the Allied armies.

When the refugees first arrived, many gorged themselves on the food provided during meal times. After years of food scarcity due to the war, they were scared that the plentiful food would not last. Most of the refugees were underweight, so the WRB increased the amount of nutritious food served, particularly milk. The WRB also listened to requests and provided a few traditional ethnic foods such as dark bread, and created a separate dining hall for the Jewish refugees who followed kosher dietary rules.

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‘Lightkeeper’s House’ at Fort Ontario painted by refugee artist Olga Mikhailoff, c. 1945, State Parks; and English practice letter by refugee Stella Levi, October 25, 1944, State Parks.

After the initial quarantine period of several weeks, the refugees were permitted to leave the shelter. Children were enrolled in local schools and were bused in from Fort Ontario. Adults were given passes to go into Oswego and had to adhere to a curfew. In addition, the WRB hosted open house events where Oswegians could enter the camp; the main reason was to assuage local rumors that the refugees were living lavishly.

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Refugees building wooden music stands and orking in the machine shop (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Once the refugees became settled, they got to work. A library was created to provide books, English language classes were offered, and a day care was established. The dining halls and laundries were staffed, and private agencies outfitted workshops for creating products for sale, such as music stands. The refugees were paid a set wage, no matter the person’s previous work experience, funded by the WRB and private agencies. In the fall of 1944, a group of refugees left the fort for several weeks to help pick apples in the region.

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Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944 (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Unlike the refugees coming to the US today, the World War II refugees were not initially granted the right to stay in the country permanently; FDR planned for them to return to Europe after the war was won. After FDR’s death and the war overseas came to an end, however, the WRB and federal government could not decide what to do with the refugees. The majority of the refugees wanted to stay in the US, and Oswegian leaders formed a Freedom Committee to advocate for the refugees to be permanently integrated into the community. Six congressmen of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization visited Fort Ontario to hear testimony from the refugees, Oswego residents, and government officials. Leaders within the refugee committee were selected to give heart-wrenching accounts of what they had experienced during the war, and explain that many had no homes to return to.

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Newspaper clipping showing Boy Scout Troop 28 testifying before Congressmen about their desire to remain in the US (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks) and page from LIFE Magazine, August 1944.

On December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the refugees who wanted to stay should be permitted to remain in the US. After many months of waiting for a decision, the refugees were overjoyed. Immigration processing began in January and the last of the refugees left Fort Ontario on February 4, 1946. A group of 66 Yugoslavs decided to return to Europe, but most chose to remain in the US. More than half of the refugees were resettled in New York State, and many went to New York City, which had larger immigrant populations. Others were reunited with family in 21 other states.

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Senior conservator Heidi Miksch and Park Worker Brian Hibbert remove part of the historic fence at Fort Ontario. (Kevin Fitzpatrick, Palladium Times)

This chapter of American history is being brought back into the spotlight. Last summer, conservators from State Parks removed a section of the boundary fence for the refugee shelter and shipped it to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s an iconic symbol,” says Paul Lear, historic site manager at Fort Ontario. “It was the meeting place between the townspeople and the refugees.” The fence represents the struggles and successes throughout American history to welcome newcomers to our country: the initial barrier, followed by acceptance.

The new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum featuring the fence is scheduled to open in April 2018.

Post by Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Special thanks to State Parks staff members Paul Lear and Amy Facca for pictures and resources.

Featured image:  Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Resources

Fitzpatrick, Kevin. “Section of Refugee Shelter boundary headed to National Holocaust Museum for new exhibit”. Palladium Times, June 30, 2017.

Marks, Edward B. “Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter, Fort Ontario, Oswego, N.Y.” United States Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, 1946; revised 2017.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site

Oswego, New York

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Washington, DC

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

2 East 7th Street
Oswego, NY 13126

Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

FDR_Wikipedia
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the New Deal legislation, photo from Wikipedia

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration which put thousands of young men to work reforesting one million acres. Within his first one hundred days of his presidency FDR enacted the Civilian Conservation Corps, a national work program which gave men ages 17 to 28 unskilled labor jobs in infrastructure. The young men were paid $30 a month, $25 of which had to go home to their families. By the end of the program nine years later, over three million men from all fifty states had made significant improvements to the nation’s road system, planted three billion trees, and built thousands of facilities in state parks. The CCC had a major impact on New York’s state parks, with many of the structures remaining today.

 

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The oldest surviving cabin built by the CCC at Fair Haven Beach State Park (and placard).

The CCC was active at Fair Haven Beach State Park from 1934 to 1942. The young men employed by the Corps built roads, cabins, service buildings, and created barriers against waterfront erosion from Lake Ontario. Park manager Jerry Egenhofer says: “The establishment of the CCC – with their readiness to lend assistance with personnel, built in financial aid, and their readily accessible materials – aided greatly in expediting and promoting the park’s development and growth.”

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CCC activities at Green Lakes State Park.

A CCC company of Spanish-American War veterans built cabins, service buildings, roads, trails, the boathouse, the golf course, and the golf clubhouse at Green Lakes State Park. The men transferred tons of sand from Oneida Lake to create the beach in the park.

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Civilian Conservation Corps members constructing the Lower Falls foot bridge in Letchworth State Park in 1935, with the current bridge shown in the inset picture.

Allegany State Park can also thank the CCC for many elements of the current park, including bridges, roads, camp sites, trails, and the ski area. The CCC also worked on wildlife conservation projects, including reforestation and stream bank retention.

Bear Mtn - Perkins Tower

At Bear Mountain State Park, both the Perkins Memorial Drive and Perkins Memorial Tower – named after the first president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission – were built by the CCC between 1932 and 1934. On a clear day, four states and the Manhattan skyline can be seen from the summit.

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Eleanor Roosevelt is introduced at a Camp TERA meeting, 1933, image from Wikipedia

Bear Mountain State Park also housed Camp TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Assistance), the first of several camps for women established by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, nicknamed She-She-She camps. Jobless, single women under 40 from the New York City area spent the summer months in the woods learning new skills and recovering from health problems brought on my acute poverty and lack of food.

At Gilbert Lake State Park the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

Facing mounting controversy over racial integration, the CCC director Robert Fechner decided to segregate the camps in 1935. The “colored” CCC company at Newtown Battlefield hosted black educators and medical officers, and following complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other advocacy groups, the CCC appointed black officers to command the camp.  The men built cabins, restrooms, ball fields, and the picnic pavilion.

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A CCC worker posing at Robert H. Treman State Park, August 1935. Image from: Friends of Robert H. Treman State Park
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Civilian Conservation Corps emblem, image fromhttp://whs-ushistory-1930s.wikispaces.com/CCC

The CCC contributed to many more projects at other state parks and historic sites not featured in this article. Without a doubt, the efforts of the CCC members created the foundation of New York’s incredible state park system, and their legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.

Post by: Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Sources

Civilian Conservation Corps in the Finger Lakes, Part 1. Walk in the Park, April 17, 2014. (Includes a video with a presentation by State Parks environmental educator Josh Teeter)

Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy

Kahramanidis, Jane. “The She-She-She Camps of the Great Depression.” History Magazine.  February/March 2008.

Prejudice & Pride: Civil Rights and the CCC: Company 1251-c at Newtown”. The Preservationist. Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, 2007.

Thompson, Craig. “Force for Nature: Civilian Conservation Corps”. New York State Conservationist. Department of Environmental Conservation, February 2008.

State Parks Master Plans

Wikipedia

A Century Run for Women’s Suffrage

In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.

It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.

Women in an early velocipede rac, portrayed as masculine-looking, Harpers 1869
Women in an early velocipede race, portrayed as masculine-looking. Harper’s, 1869.

Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.

The Bicycle--the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs
Detail: The Bicycle–the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.
Fashion plates called Gibson Girls became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson
Fashion plates called “Gibson Girls” became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.

With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!

It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice.  But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.

When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum.

Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.

Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910

The Artist that Didn’t Exist: Glamony, Flameng, and the Portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills

Staatsburgh State Historic Site (Staatsburgh) is the former country estate of Ogden and Ruth Mills, members of the wealthiest and most elite society in the Gilded Age (1870-1900.)  Located directly on the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley, the site includes a 79-room mansion, designed gardens, and a farm with many outbuildings that was a major employer in the area. The Millses were in residence in the fall, when they would entertain high society guests each weekend, assisted by a staff of 24 servants within the house. Modern day visitors to Staatsburgh see the mansion furnished and decorated as it was for these lavish affairs.

One of the most notable objects in the collection is a very large oil portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills, painted in 1909, which formerly hung in the ballroom of her New York City mansion. During the Gilded Age, it was standard for elite society women to have a glamorous portrait made by a fashionable artist. For decades, the portrait of Mrs. Mills was believed to have been painted by an artist named “Glamony” – a conclusion that seems to be drawn from the hard-to-read artist signature. For a long time, no information was found about this artist.

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At first glance, the signature on Mrs Mills’ portrait looks to read: François Glamony New York 1909, photo by State Parks

Recently, a State Parks staff member conducted online research and found a more promising lead on the portrait artist in a database of the Library of Congress, which attributed the portrait to François Flameng.  Googling Flameng immediately locates his biography along with countless examples of his paintings. Some of Flameng’s portraits have signatures very similar to the one at Staatsburgh. They also have clear stylistic similarities to Ruth’s portrait, including a soft and vague background with far more detailed attention to the trappings of wealth and status, including clothing, jewels and hairstyle. The brushwork of Flameng’s portraits also matches that of Ruth’s portrait.

One of Flameng’s most notable portraits was that of Queen Alexandra, wife of England’s King Edward VII.  Painted in 1908, the layers of chiffon and tulle surrounding the queen give her an ethereal quality.

Queen Alexandra_[Public domain], via Wikimedia
Queen Alexandra, Portrait by François Flameng, 1908, access via Wikicommons
Ruth Mills aspired to be the “queen” of American society, so it makes sense that she would have her portrait made by an artist who had just painted the Queen of England the year before.  Ruth’s sister Elizabeth and sister-in-law Elizabeth both had close connections to England’s royal family and the Millses had attended functions with the royal family. Connections to European royalty were highly prized by American elites aspiring to a quasi-aristocratic status. The Millses’ daughter, Beatrice, married the Earl of Granard in the same year that Flameng painted Ruth’s portrait – a social coup for the family.

Identifying the artist of Ruth’s portrait allowed further research, including where the painting had been exhibited. We discovered that in 1913, the painting was in an exhibition that raised money in support of women’s suffrage. This was a revelation, since Mills descendants had told us that Ruth did not support voting rights for women! Now, in the centennial year of suffrage in New York State, we are on the trail of other evidence that Ruth supported women’s right to vote. For more information about Flameng, and Ruth’s portrait and the suffrage connection, see Staatsburgh State Historic Site’s own blog.

Post by Maria Reynolds, State Parks

Light Your Way to a State Parks Lighthouse

From Lake Erie to Montauk Point, State Parks are home to six historic lighthouses. Plan a trip to visit one of these lighthouses.

Lighthouse Montauk_0044a

President George Washington commissioned the building of the limestone Montauk Point Lighthouse in 1792 because of the dangerous shallow waters found off Long Island’s eastern South Shore; the lighthouse was completed in 1796.  Located in Montauk Point State Park, the Montauk Lighthouse continues to help provide safe navigation for ships sailing up and down the eastern seaboard and for ships arriving from across the Atlantic. It is the oldest lighthouse in New York and the fourth oldest lighthouse in the nation.

Stony Point -0075cp

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 saw a large increase in boat traffic on the Hudson River and the need for more aids to navigation along the Hudson River. Built in 1826, the lighthouse at Stony Point was the first lighthouse on the Hudson River. It was built by New York City resident Thomas Philips a point of land south of Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands.  For 100 years, the eight-sided, blue split stone lighthouse helped ships navigate the Hudson River before it was replaced by a steel tower in 1926.  Look for the lighthouse in Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site.

2015-Tom Erhlandson

In the mid-1820s, as commerce increased along the Erie Canal and through the Great Lakes, so did the need for lighthouses on the Great Lakes.  Winds along the eastern shore of Lake Erie can be quite strong and boats needed safe harbors to protect them from these winds.  One safe harbor between Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York was Portland Harbor (now known as Barcelona) in the town of Westfield. In 1828 the US Congress commissioned the Portland (Barcelona) Lighthouse to serve as a guide to Portland Harbor. The lighthouse was made of native fieldstone.  Completed in 1829 it was the first natural gas lighthouse in the country, using natural gas that was piped in by “wooden conductors from the fountain head, a distance of about a half a mile.”1 The lighthouse ran for 40 years until it was decommissioned in 1859.

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In 1847, the US Congress allocated $6,000 to build lighthouses on three islands in the St. Lawrence River to help ships navigate through the Thousand Islands.  One of those islands was Rock Island.  The brick lighthouse was first lit in 1848.  In 1894, the US Lighthouse Board (Lighthouse Board) raised the lighthouse five feet to increase the visibility of the light, which was being blocked by the lighthouse keeper’s house and trees on the island.  However, raising the lighthouse did not increase visibility, so the Lighthouse Board built a brick platform on the north side of the island and moved the lighthouse to the platform in 1903.  The light was decommissioned in 1958 after over 110 years of service. You can tour Rock Island Lighthouse State Park from mid-May to early October and you will need to take a boat to get there.

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Thirty Mile Point, or Golden Hill, is 30 miles east of the mouth of the Niagara River.  It is the northernmost point of land along New York’s of Lake Ontario shoreline.  Just offshore from 30 Mile Point, shifting sand bars make navigating these waters a challenge for ships passing by.  In 1872 the Lighthouse Board recommended that a lighthouse be built at 30 Mile Point and in 1873 US Congress authorized the purchasing of land and the construction of a lighthouse.  The limestone lighthouse was completed in 1876 and ran until 1958.  If you are looking for an out of the way place to stay, lighthouse keeper’s house is available to rent year-round.

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Fort Niagara, at the intersection of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, was the site of the first lighthouse in the Great Lakes. The British Army built it in 1781 on top of the French Castle, the French trading post and fort built in 1727. The light was used to mark the mouth of the Niagara River, where cargo was offloaded and shipped overland to Lake Erie.  The lighthouse keeper did not live in the French Castle, his house was about a quarter mile away.

The opening of the Erie and Welland Canals in the 1820’s reduced ship traffic bound for the Niagara River.  In April 1855, a tornado damaged buildings at the fort. The damages were repaired later that year.  Despite the repairs, the French Castle fell into disrepair in the middle to late 1860’s.  In 1868, the Lighthouse Board reported that:

“the wooden tower stands in the old block-house now used for officers’ quarters, and is so old and out of repair as to let in the snow and rain in stormy weather. Last winter the roof of the building took fire from a spark from one of the four chimneys which surround the tower. The danger of having the valuable lens destroyed by an accident of this kind, and the inconvenience of using the stairway and passages of the officers’ quarters as a thoroughfare for the supply of the light, make it expedient to erect a new tower, (the old one not being worth repairing,) in a safer and more convenient position.  The floors and plastering of the keeper’s dwelling and the fences require repair. The barn is in a ruinous state, and should be removed or rebuilt.”

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US Congress appropriated $16,000 in 1871 for a new lighthouse at Fort Niagara. Because the Lighthouse Board could not find a good location for the lighthouse in the fort, the limestone lighthouse was built next to the lighthouse keepers house along the eastern bank of the Niagara River.

The lighthouse was replaced by a light on a nearby radio tower in 1993 and the light was decommissioned the same year.

Occasionally, staff from Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site lead programs and events in the lighthouse.

1 New-York evening post., July 14, 1830, Page 2

Sources and additional readingLighthouses

Historic Lighthouses and Light Stations in New York

Important Dates in United States Lighthouse History

Lighthouse Friends

Marinas.com Lighthouses of New York, aerial views of Montauk Point, Rock Island, Stony Point, and Thirty-Mile Point Lighthouses

The Schenectady cabinet., February 15, 1826, Page 2

University of North Carolina, Lighthouses of the United States: Downstate New York

University of North Carolina, Lighthouses of the United States: Upstate New York

US Lighthouses, information on Barcelona, Fort Niagara, Montauk Point, Rock Island, and Thirty-Mile Point lighthouses.