The Village of Cape Vincent was incorporated with a population of 1218 on June 14, 1853, making it one of the younger communities in the State of New York. But our historical roots reach back to 1615 when explorer Samuel de Champlain was in the vicinity. In 1654 Jesuit Missionaries visited the native Onondaga and Iroquois Indian tribes who used the area as their hunting grounds. Dablon Point, in the Town of Cape Vincent was named after French Missionary priest Father Dablon, who worked among the Indians with Father Chaumonoit in 1655. Both England and France endeavored to monopolize the Indian trade and extend their influence among the native tribes, establishing missions, building trading posts, and settling in the area.
Cape Vincent’s History
by the Cape Historical Society
Cape Vincent residents take great pride in the historic background of this area and in the heritage of their ancestors.
Earliest history of this area dates back to the years of the first Indian settlements in New York State. Traces have been found of an Iroquois prehistoric village, and it has been shown also that the Onondaga Indians claimed this portion of New York State as their hunting grounds.
The first record of the white man’s visit to this immediate vicinity was in 1615, five years prior to the memorable landing of the Pilgrims. Samuel de Champlain and his compatriots on their expedition to the Iroquois country reached Lake Ontario near Kingston, Ontario, Canada, thus bringing the expedition within the water limit of our town.
Early in 1655, French Missionary priests, Father Chaumonoit and Father Dablon were here as missionaries among the Onondaga Indians. History shows that both England and France were endeavoring to monopolize the Indian trade and to extend their influence with the native tribes. The French established a fort at Niagara and the English established a fort at Oswego. Both the French and English built trading posts, established missions and built homes in this area.
Beginning in the 1770’s, early settlers moving west from New England sought environments which were rich in game, timber for homes, mills and shipbuilding, land suitable for farming, and rivers and lakes which facilitated communication, commerce, and defense. In 1788 land speculators Alexander Macomb and William Constable purchased five massive land tracts from the State of New York. Soon after the acquisition, Macomb went bankrupt and his interests were assumed by James LeRay de Chaumont. The LeRay family contributed some of their personal assets to the financing of the American Revolutionary War and assisted Benjamin Franklin in soliciting financial support from the King of France. After independence of the colonies had been won Jacques LeRay de Chaumont purchased and settled some 800,000 acres in Northern New York. The tract of land extends from what is today Fort Drum where their home was sited, to Alexandria Bay named for Alexander LeRay, to Cape Vincent and including Chaumont, named for the family home in France, to Lake Ontario and back to Fort Drum.
The involvement of LeRay, a Frenchman with U.S. citizenship, attracted a number of his wealthy, aristocratic countryman who sought to flee the French Revolution. These French expatriates, some associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, found the largely unsettled lands owned by LeRay to be particularly suitable for relocation away from the strife which plagued France at the end of the 18th century. Émigrés from his homeland included Comte Pierre Francois Real, a member of the Council of State, Field Marshall Grouchy, and General Rolland, all of whom conspired to free Napoleon from exile on St. Helena Island and bring him to this new locale. Unfortunately for him, Napoleon died on St. Helena before these sympathizers could act on his release.
The first organized settlement of what would become the village of Cape Vincent was commissioned by LeRay in 1809 and named after his son Vincent. He had a mile square surveyed for the Village of Cape Vincent, and thereafter the U.S. Congress in March 1815 directed that Carleton, Linda, Grenadier and Fox Islands were to become part of Cape Vincent. The proximity of the Cape Vincent to Kingston, Ontario, Canada and the fact that the river could be crossed by ferry as well as across the ice in winter rendered it a choice location for a commercial town. A ferry service was established as early as 1807 between Cape Vincent and Wolfe Island, Canada. The initial development of the Village began with the waterfront area being cleared and a wharf, blockhouse, tavern and barn erected. A residence and store were constructed that same year by Richard Esselstyn. A lumbering business was Esselstyne’s next venture, which proved hugely successful.
During the War of 1812, declaration of war made it necessary to have armed forces at Cape Vincent, and there was no army post on the frontier in as much danger as Cape Vincent, since the enemy had a large force in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. At this time many inhabitants left for back settlements, but when the danger was over, many returned and the number of settlers steadily increased.
Cape Vincent developed rapidly during the early 1800’s when the State Road was extended from Brownville to Cape Vincent. The Town was officially established in 1849 with 3,044 inhabitants, separated at the time from the Town of Lyme. Four years later in 1853 the Village of Cape Vincent was incorporated with a population of 1,218. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the town’s population remained fairly constant and unchanged; it averaged approximately 3,300 people. The village water system was installed in 1895, and electric lights in 1903.
The building of homes, grain-mills, cheese plants proceeded with the expansion of farmed lands throughout the Town of Cape Vincent through the early to mid-1800’s. A momentous, economic expansion came with the completion of the Cape Vincent and Rome Railroad in 1852. The railroad was the main means of transportation to and from this village for many years. The advent of rail transportation meant that passengers and goods could flow to and from all regions of the East Coast to the Cape Vincent. Additionally, the ferry service furthered such travel to Kingston, Ontario Canada. The combined rail and water transportation network heralded a boom in local business growth.
For the most part, however, Cape Vincent during the 19th Century remained predominantly an agricultural community during the 19th century. Farming, particularly dairy farming, was always a big part of Cape Vincent’s economy. In the latter part of the 19th Century that focus began to shift. As early as 1880, the “Thousand Islands” were publicized opening a new era that catered to well-to-do summer vacationers: “In Cape Vincent may be found the best small mouth bass fishing among the Thousand Islands–here the surroundings are picturesque, the climate is mild and healthful.”
In 1900 Cape Vincent was a “bustling town.” There were seven grocery stores, three meat markets, a bakery, two drug stores, five hotels, a paint and wallpaper store, a book store, two clothing stores, two general stores, a hardware store, and a jewelry store. Businesses included lumbering, ice harvesting, seed raising, boat builders, hay dealers, photographers, monument salesmen, blacksmiths, milliners, tailors, draymen, and several livery stables. Occupations were as diverse as the businesses. There were five physicians, two lawyers, two undertakers, a dress maker, hay dealer, and a number of blacksmiths. At the same time, agriculture remained a mainstay of the community. For example, in the 1918 Town of Cape Vincent Farm Index map there were more than sixty individual farms, and four other farms on Grenadier and Carleton Islands as well as several cheese factories.
As you travel through Cape Vincent today your first impression is probably of the serenity of the village, or the friendliness of its inhabitants, or the beauty of the St. Lawrence River. Those of us who make our home here in the Cape Vincent area are very proud of all of these factors, but we would like to point out a few of our landmarks and other outstanding “bits of interest” for this vicinity.
At the end of Tibbets Point Road leading west, where the great Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River stands the Tibbets Point Lighthouse. The land used was a grant received by Captain John Tibbet of Troy. This lighthouse was erected in 1826 by an appropriation of $3,000. Today it still guides ships traveling the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes. The light is automated and under the control of the U. S. Coast Guard. The main dwelling was used for a Youth Hostel for several years.
Proceeding down the Tibbets Road is a beautiful sight, especially at sunset time. Lake Ontario was known in the Indian language as “Beautiful Lake” from the days of Cartier.
As you enter the village coming down from Tibbets Point, you will pass the famous “Stone House” which housed Canadian Rebels during the Patriot War in 1838. This house has not been changed in any way.
Up on Kanady Street stands the stone Catholic Church, St. Vincent of Paul’s, which was built in 1851. The attached stone covered church hall was added in 1965.
On Real Street, toward the river, is the Cape Vincent Community Library which opened in June 1968. On the land where the library is located was built the original Cup and Saucer house constructed in 1818 as a refuge for Napoleon. Although the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1867, the foundation of the original building is a part of the library building. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Purcell of New York City and Deerlick Farm, near this village, equipped and furnished this attractive and modern library for the people of this area.
The first of three Cape Vincent Newspapers, the Gazette, was published in 1852. The Cape Vincent Eagle was published from 1872-1951, when the final edition was printed. The building that housed the newspaper is next to the fire hall.
On Broadway stands a new and attractive fire hall built in 1967 by subscriptions of interested citizens. This building replaced an old wooden structure which served the needs of the volunteer fire department for eighty-three years. The Fire Department celebrated their centennial on June 23, 1984, with an open house and dance.
Across from the Fire Hall is the John C. Londraville American Legion Post No. 832 which was formed in 1919. Down one block toward the river is the Memorial Plaque in memory of Cape Vincent World War I and World War II veterans.
The United Church on Broadway, formerly the Presbyterian Church, was erected in 1823. The chimes that are heard daily from the United Church were donated by a summer resident in memory of his wife. Many recordings in memory of people of all faiths are now being played.
The original St. John’s Episcopal Church built in 1841, was destroyed by fire in 1999. A new church was erected and was dedicated in 2001. The church is located on Market Street.
The Post Office on Broadway opened its new building on April 2, 1962. Since 1817 there have been over twenty-four postmasters.
The New York State DEC Fisheries Research Station and Aquarium, formerly a Bureau of Fisheries building, was erected in 1856. Built to be used as a grist mill, it was purchased in 1895 by the Federal government for a Fisheries Bureau. As a Federal Fish Hatchery, it is noted that in 1906 there had been 38,780,000 eggs from various kinds of fish were hatched and distributed to different points. This building is open to the public today for your inspection, displaying many kinds of fish.
The work on the breakwater was started in 1900 and completed in 1906. This makes a safe harbor for both large ships and small boats. In 1983 the breakwater was repaired and resurfaced.
The Cape Vincent Seaway Pilots office and dock are located at the foot of Point Street. From here the Lake and River pilots are transported to their assigned ships as they travel from the lake into the river or from the river into the lake. This operates twenty-four hours a day from April until December during the lake and river navigation season. To see when the ships may be passing through log onto www.greatlakes-seaway.com
Throughout the area are many old homes built of limestone which was available in the region. These attractive homes were built of a low-sprawling design, many in the Wilson’s Bay area, and have been kept in their original form.
On South James Street in the village is a house which was built in 1872, by General Delos Sacket who entertained Civil War Generals and is considered one of the most historic homes in the village.
History shows that one of the first schools of learning in this area was erected on Carleton Island in 1823. From then on, many one room school houses were built throughout the area, in 1906 the records show that there were seventeen school districts in the town of Cape Vincent. The present school building, on Esselstyne Street, now an elementary building, was constructed in 1942 when all the districts centralized. This brought an end to the one room school house. In 1967, voters in Cape Vincent and Clayton (15 miles to the northeast) voted to consolidate their two districts in order to provide facilities to increase educational opportunities to all local youth. In September of 1972, the new Thousand Islands Central School, comprised of a Middle and High School, opened on its site at Sand Bay, half way between Cape Vincent and Clayton.
In 1968, local residents inaugurated a FRENCH FESTIVAL DAY. This day has become an annual affair and is held on the second Saturday in July near Bastille Day. French Festival Day has grown each year since 1968, bringing thousands of visitors to Cape Vincent for the celebration which consists of many French booths, exhibits, costumes, French pastries, a parade, band concerts and climaxes with a gigantic fireworks display in the evening. The LeRay family owned and settled much of the land in this area, with most of the early deeds of the 1700’s bearing the signature of Vincent LeRay. Familiar names then, as now, are Gosier, Docteur, Dezengremel, Mussot, Chavoustie, Favrey (Favret), Merchant and Majo. The main program on French Festival Day features many New York State dignitaries and specially invited guests. The program is held on Broadway.
The Community House located Market Street was the first framed house built in the early 1800’s by the Borland family. In 1931 the Fish family donated it to the village for a Community building. In 1969 it was opened as the first Museum for the village. Since then, the Cape Vincent Historical Museum has relocated to one of Cape Vincent’s oldest buildings. The stone structure located on North James Street was used as a barracks to house soldiers during the War of 1812. Later on, the Forsythe Brothers manufactured ironwork for sailing vessels and cook stoves during its day as a foundry and machine shop. It has also served as a Town Barn. The Cape Vincent Chamber of Commerce has an office and a Tourist Information and Visitor’s Center in part of this historic stone building.
Although it appears that Cape Vincent is “just a quiet place to live” those of us who make our homes here find that our small town is the “center of activities.” We are located only 25 miles from the city of Watertown with a modern hospital, large shopping areas, Jefferson Vocational Technical School, Jefferson Community College, and most of all the facilities of a large city.
Locally, there are many organizations with active membership. These include Church Societies, Parent-Teacher Organization, Lion’s Club, Knights of Columbus, Study clubs, Firemen, Fire Dept. Auxiliary, Ambulance and Emergency Squad, American Legion, and American Legion Auxiliary, Chamber of Commerce, Improvement League, Arts Council and numerous others. For those who belong to a number of these organizations, the winter months particularly are filled with various activities. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, skating, ice boating, cross country skiing are popular with Cape Vincent residents during the winter months also.
by the Cape Vincent Historical Museum CapeHistorical@gmail.com
Town of Cape Vincent Historian Jeannie Ebert