Take Me to the River
The author contacted me about the lighthouse. He was Senior Journalism major at SU and he wanted to write an article about places a college student might like to visit or explore on a weekend. Over the phone, I shared how many visitors should take a picnic lunch to the lighthouse with their visit. I suggested meeting him at the French Towne Market deli before going to the lighthouse.
Right before his college graduation, the author set a course for the waters of the St. Lawrence
River. There, those who make their livelihoods on that water — known affectionately as River
Rats — shared the boating, fishing, and history of this accessible and tight-knit community.
By Ben Oleksinski, · 8.1.2021
I planned to see the rest of the area’s history, but my empty stomach called for a detour.
Luckily, Mike Cougler, president of the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse Historical Society and U.S. Air
Force retiree, knew a place. French Towne Market in Cape Vincent looked like a typical small-
town grocery store but featured a sub shop toward the back, tucked into its deli. Cougler wore
an Air Force cap, with a dark-colored mask that covered his white beard and hair. I stood by
him in the dim light, in front of a blood-red selection of meat for my buffalo chicken, mayo,
and hot peppers on white. I’m told the bread was baked this morning. I noticed a stale taste in
the air, something akin to cold cuts and the past conversations of familiar customers. As we
waited for our subs, Cougler tells me that back in the 1920s, dairy farmers and passengers
from a train that came to the county filled the area. But as highways got better and trains
became more expensive, those tracks and the passengers they delivered were taken out.
Nourishment found, we went on to the lighthouse. Steering our cars around a shoreline road, I
noticed out of my passenger-side window how the sky seemed taller, the water deeper blue
than before. Massive wind turbines, much to the irritation of residents and farmers, loomed in
the periphery. I could make out a barge disappearing into the horizon. It occurred to me that
this thin edge formed the outer limits of the U.S. Tibbetts Point, which marks where Lake
Ontario and the St. Lawrence River meet at the furthest end of the seaway, the symbolic exit
to Canada. The lighthouse at the end of the drive served as our final destination and landing
place. And, like a convoy, we proceeded. Neither of us hurried.
When we arrived and began walking toward the point, clouds of gnats surrounded us, making
it difficult to take in the view while waving them off. But despite the flailing required to tame
the gnat swarm, it failed to ruin the moment. Before us stood a 58-foot-tall, stone lighthouse,
accompanied by the keeper’s dwellings, visitor’s center, outhouse, and fog signal house. Not a
single cloud or bird. Over the thin, chain-link fence that surrounded the buildings, small waves
churned over and over on the rocks below. This was as far out as one could get. The land
dropped off and gave way to a great wide open. Finally, I thought.
Like so many others, Cougler is tied into this area through family. His mother ran the youth
hostel that used to be the lighthouse quarters. Now he carries the responsibility to maintain
and improve the site. He says this land was given to the town when the federal government
didn’t want it anymore, but they still technically own it. On top of that, it would be taken back
if the town didn’t take care of it. ‘‘The thing they [Cape Vincent] signed is, you are one
hundred percent responsible for all the maintenance,” he says. “Well the little town of Cape
Vincent doesn’t have any money. I mean, they have enough to run their annual snow plows
and budget. But for the past forty years, they haven’t sunk a lot of money in here.” Cougler
says that in 1988, the founders of Tibbetts Point Lighthouse Historical Society organized to
raise preservation funds. According to him, the New York State Parks Department is now in the
process of considering this historical site for an official state park.
Cougler unlocked the fog signal house, and we went inside. An unfamiliar machine that
resembled a rusted-out steam pump sat to my right, and a pipeline traveled over my head to a
round tank on my left. The signal for ships attached to the pump was an artifact long out of
use, replaced by motion sensor recording whenever someone entered. That wasn’t on either.
Cougler says at one point it would go off every 10 minutes if fog cloaked the area. As he
continued to share details about the lighthouse, a small crowd gathered. I hardly even noticed
other visitors before. Curious, old faces congregated all around and listened to him with
intent. This was his domain; we were but guests in the stories for the day.
I felt in every cell the reset these islands offered after months of hunkering down. My
synapses felt washed down, and comfort levels steadied.
I shook hands with Cougler one last time and climbed into the car. On the drive home I held
my steering wheel at ease and let my mind wander again. The hushed, green countryside
spread out for miles and every so often groups of walleyed milk cows would appear off to the
side. Barns and farmhouses blurred in the rearview. Highway vision came over me. The further
inland I coasted, more flashbacks replayed from the day. I thought back to how time slowed
down near the lighthouse, the sound of a flag beating against the breeze, and of course, that
piercing wooden boat smell. Those memories sent me to an inner mindfulness, a still place,
where calm arrives easily. I also thought about all those people who carved a life out of the
water and what I came to call the way of the River Rat. The people I met worked when others
played and respected their natural surroundings because they understood the value in
coexistence. They lived in the past while making something new. Carefree but not careless.
Self-sustained. Much like the ride on Garnsey’s boat on that quiet morning, Tibbetts Point
delivered a restorative effect. As I drove down New York State Route 12E, with “Ripple” by the
Grateful Dead playing on the speakers and the outskirts of Cape Vincent beginning to
disappear, I felt in every cell the reset these islands offered after months of hunkering down.
My synapses felt washed down, and comfort levels steadied. I cast out a line for my next
destination, focused on the renewed possibilities.
Work Day at the Lighthouse
On Saturday, June 13th, some of the members of the Cape Vincent Improvement League joined some of the TPLHS board members and spouses for a workday at the lighthouse. We worked roughly 10-2 (some stayed later) getting the lighthouse and grounds all "spruced up" and ready for opening. We washed windows, swept and mopped floors, trimmed trees, cut bushes, and did tons of yardwork to make the grounds and buildings shine. CVIL contacted us about volunteering, and without them, we would never have gotten so much work done in one day! It was a great joint effort!
Joe's volunteer service to the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse Historical Society spanned many years. During twelve of those years he selflessly and tirelessly served as president of the society. The society's visitors center is filled with gifts, artifacts, photos, historical records, references, audio and video equipment and other valuables too numerous to mention. Most of which Joe had a hand in. He did an enormous amount of research to obtain information about the lighthouse keepers and had a bronze plaque made in their honor. Joe was passionate about his love of Tibbetts Point Lighthouse and assisted other lighthouse preservation efforts. Joe's tenure as president was a period of time during which major progress was made on restoration and maintenance of the lighthouse and fog horn building. It was also a time when many public events, fund raising activities and decisions took place. In summary, Joe was, and will always remain, Mr. Tibbetts Point Lighthouse to those who understood and appreciated his efforts to restore a facility that was on the brink of ruins to what is is now.