Digest>Archives> August 2002

More Change Ahead for Historic Saint Croix Island

Oil House To Be Destroyed

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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A 19th century view of the St. Croix River ...

Maine’s six-acre Saint Croix Island, in the middle of the St. Croix River separating Maine from New Brunswick, Canada, was once home to a picturesque light station. But the island is chiefly known as the site of one of the earliest European settlements on the northeast coast of North America.

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The lonely oil house from the St. Croix River ...

Pierre Dugua Sieur de Mons, Samuel Champlain and 77 other men colonized the island in 1604, choosing it for its good anchorage and central location in the Acadia region. Some of the French settlers stayed on the island for a few months, during which 35 of 79 died of scurvy. Some later settled in Nova Scotia.

Recognizing the significance of the site to both the U.S. and Canada, Congress designated the area as the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site in 1984. The site is now administrated by Acadia National Park. A memorial boulder and a commemorative plaque were placed on the island in 1904, and there is a mainland viewing area with an interpretive pavilion off Route 1. The National Park Service will soon make a number of improvements to the island and the mainland viewing site. As part of this $600,000 project, the oil house remaining from the lost light station will be removed.

St. Croix River Lighthouse, first built in 1857, was listed as the first lighthouse of the First Lighthouse District. The lighthouse was an octagonal wooden tower on top of the keeper’s house, with a fifth order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1901 in a style very similar to the original structure.

The station, with a comfortable house and beautiful surroundings, was considered highly desirable by keepers and their families. Connie Small, who lived on the island with her husband, Keeper Elson Small, from 1930 to 1943, called it a “little paradise.” Mrs. Small, now 101 years old, has chronicled her lighthouse life in the book The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife. The Smalls had lived previously on barren Avery Rock and Seguin Island.

Visitors at Saint Croix Island were frequent in summer, while winters were a time for Mrs. Small to paint and work on her quilts. One winter temperatures on the island stayed at 27 below zero or lower for more than two weeks.

St. Croix River Light was automated in 1957 and the keepers were removed, leaving the station abandoned and vulnerable. In 1976, a group of teenagers landed on the island and started a fire on a windy day. Almost every building on the island was soon reduced to ashes.

The objective of the new improvement project is to “preserve and protect the significant site resources and provide necessary interpretation and visitor services, while retaining the relatively natural and contemplative setting.” One aspect of the project will be the stabilization of the 19th century light station boathouse on the island’s west shore.

Besides many improvements to the mainland viewing site and interpretive trail, the plans also entail the re-establishment of native vegetation in the southern part of the island to help control erosion, the rehabilitation of the stairway that provides access to the upland portion of the island, adding a small sign at the base of the stairway to identify Saint Croix Island as an international historic site and inform visitors of the erosion control measures, and adding self-guiding interpretive panels on the island for visitors. A 17th century French naval flag will be installed.

The possible renovation of the early 20th century brick oil house left from the light station was considered, but it was decided that because the building is in deteriorated condition and “not historically relevant to the 1604 settlement,” it will be removed.

The year 2004 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the French in North America, and festivities are being planned in Quebec, Nova Scotia, Maine and Louisiana. A replica of de Mons’ ship will sail from France in 2004, continuing on to Port Royal in 2005 and Quebec City in 2008.

The week of June 26, 2004 (the anniversary of the day in 1604 it is believed the French expedition landed on St. Croix Island) will be filled with events. It is hoped that heads of state from Canada, the United States and France will be on hand to officially mark the commemoration.

This story appeared in the August 2002 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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