July 1, 2013

Lighthouse features display on island camps

By JEFF MEYERS Press-Republican

---- — VALCOUR ISLAND — A new exhibit at Valcour Island lighthouse features a pictorial history of the island’s former inhabitants.

The Clinton County Historical Association will open the lighthouse on Sunday afternoons throughout the summer, beginning July 7.

Visitors can explore this historic structure, which was built in 1974, and study exhibits depicting topics related to Valcour Island and the region.


The newest presentation, “The 20th Century Camps at Valcour,” offers a glimpse of several structures that dotted the island’s shoreline at one time but no longer exist, save for the lighthouse itself and the stone building on the island’s southern edge once owned by the Seton family.

“This is an ideal location (for the display) because the lighthouse was used as a camp from 1931 to 1986,” said Roger Harwood, chair of the Bluff Point Lighthouse Committee and researcher for the exhibit.

When the lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1930s in favor of a nearby steel tower beacon, it became property of the Raboff family, who also owned the camp on the shoreline just south of the lighthouse.


The Raboff camp was the last private structure on the island to be torn down in the early 1990s, and Harwood credits Dr. Adolph Roboff’s efforts to protect the lighthouse as vital to its current existence.

“The preservation of this lighthouse is important,” Raboff said in an article published in the Press-Republican on Jan. 16, 1986. “It’s like a signature on a letter which tells the story of the history of the island.”

Raboff’s full quote is on display at the lighthouse.

The iron tower was abandoned when the lighthouse beacon was turned back on, and the tower is now home to a family of osprey, who often welcome visitors to the lighthouse with a series of chirps.


Harwood began searching the history of those lost camps in the fall of 2011, when he was approached by Tony Tyrell, caretaker of the island for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Tony’s the one who pushed me off of the cliff,” Harwood quipped of that day Tyrell brought him a photograph of the commons building of a camp once used by Boy Scouts from Philadelphia.

The photo was taken from a boat just off shore, and Harwood’s curiosity drove him to find the exact spot from the formation of rocks depicted in the picture.

He then went ashore and searched for evidence of the building’s foundation.

“That started this whole quest,” he said. “It just snowballed from there.”


He began searching the Historical Association archives to find other photos of camps on the island and began to put together the pieces of a puzzle from a time long lost.

“Lots of help,” he said of the support he received while investigating more than a dozen properties from one end of the island to the other, all located near the shore and often along one of Valcour’s quiet bays.

“Lots of digging (for recorded evidence) and lots of help.”

Harwood soon began offering community presentations on his findings. Through that contact, he would learn more from people who remember what it was like on Valcour decades ago and those who actually owned property or spent summers on the island.

“Things just started to fit together,” he said.

John Fassett, who summered at Father Moore’s camp on the eastern shore facing Vermont, found Harwood on the Internet following publication of one of his presentations and shared information.

Other former residents of Valcour Island, the Washbournes, will return to Valcour this summer as docents of the lighthouse, Harwood noted with pleasure.

Many of the camp photos on display are accompanied by photos of what remains where those camps once stood, including partial foundations, fireplaces and farm equipment.

To augment the display, Harwood has been working with the Historical Association on a pamphlet that describes the camps, many of which were located where DEC campsites are now available to the public. The pamphlet will include GPS coordinates to help visitors locate the sites. Harwood hopes the info will be ready for publication before summer ends.

Harwood, who will be giving a lecture on Lake Champlain lighthouses tonight at the Historical Association, has also spent a great deal of time on the ground at Valcour in search of evidence of former residents.

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The Valcour Island Lighthouse will be open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays throughout the summer. Visitors will know the lighthouse is open when the U.S. flag is on display on a nearby flagpole and atop the lighthouse itself. Donations are welcomed. The Clinton County Historical Association will present a lecture on Lake Champlain lighthouses by Roger Harwood at 7 tonight at the museum, 98 Ohio Ave., near the U.S. Oval. The lecture is free and open to the public.