Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers
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 Willard L. Cook, 1870 - 1879
    Written by Mark A. Wentling


        John Cook, born about 1794 in Massachusetts, son of Stephen Cook, located in the Town of Ellisburgh, Jefferson Co., New York, with his parents when he was 12 years old.  John married Abigail Littlefield of Massachusetts, and they had ten children, eight of whom attained adult age, viz.: Ashbel, Lovira, Willard L., John W., Cyrus L., Horace S., Malcom G., and Mariette. Mrs. Cook died in 1870, and her husband, in 1877.
        One of their children was Willard Littlefield Cook, born 30 July 1823 in Ellisburgh.  Willard attended local commons schools until he was 17 and graduated from Syracuse Commercial College.
        In the fall of 1861, he enlisted in the Union Army, 94th NY Vols., Co. B. (During his service, he was tentmates on the battlefield with future Rock Island lighthouse keeper, Foster M. Drake). On 30 August 1862, Willard lost his right arm in the second battle of Bull Run.
Willard L. Cook was keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse from 3 February 1870 to 5 February 1879 when he was removed from office.  He served at no other locations on the Great Lakes.
According to a descendant, Twig Mills, "family lore is that he was given the keeper job as compensation for the loss of limb.  Even with the lost limb, he continued to do carpentry, including furniture making and boat building."
        Willard married Charlotte Fox, of Clayton, and they had seven children—three sons and four daughters—four of whom were living in 1890, viz.: Oren M., Byron C., E. Clarence and Nettie L. Cook.
        Willard's logs indicate that he and his family used to spend winter's in Clayton. During the winter of 1875-1876, the Cooks stayed at the Walton House hotel in that village, whose proprietor was the son of infamous Rock Island keeper, Bill Johnston. In April, Mrs. Cook fell ill and returned to Walton House for recuperation. Sadly, on Sunday, May 7th, she expired, and Willard was at her side.
        On May 10th, Willard resumed his duties, but was faced with the prospect of caring for his young children on a secluded island. That week, he writes: "Keeper's two daughters left the station for their home each taking with them a child of the keeper to live with them, thus leaving the keeper alone at the station to perform his duties as best he can."
        It didn't take long for Cook to find happiness again, for less than six months later he married Jane Connant. (Jane's sister Elizabeth Connant was daughter-in-law of Willard's predecessor at Rock Island, Joseph Collins). She was the widow of Benjamin B. Taylor, who served in the Civil War and was shot by a sharpshooter just before the close of the last battle before Petersburg, Virginia. On 26 September 1876, Willard wrote in his log: "Keeper married today to Mrs. Jane Taylor by Rev. George Rockwell of Alexandria Bay on board the Steam Yacht Hermie while running below Fredrick Island towards Fishers Landing at 12 1/2 o'clock pm. Took dinner at Grand Central and returned to light house after dinner to be ready for duty as light keeper."

        This earliest-known photographic image of Rock Island Lighthouse comes from a collection of plate-glass negatives from the Johnson photo studio that was active at Clayton from the mid-1860's to mid-1870's; the collection is now in the possession of the Lyme Historic Association. The gentleman in the photo bears strong resemblance to Willard Cook, who was Keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse while the Johnson studio was active. His facial features and beard style are similar to Willard's in other photographs, and his right side is turned away from the camera, which is the same side on which Willard's arm was amputated following a Civil War injury. The geographic perspective places the site of the photo around current-day Mandolin Island.

        Willard was finally relieved of duty on 5 February 1879, and he and Jane took up residence at Fisher's Landing.
Child's 1890 biographical directory of the county indicates that Willard was at some point assistant door-keeper in the New York State Assembly at Albany. A business directory in the same publication indicates Willard's residence at Fisher's Landing, and occupation as "boat builder" and proprietor of a boat livery, owning a house and lot, and three building lots.

The home of Willard Cook at Fisher's Landing as it appeared in 2005, with its view of Rock Island.
Courtesy of descendant Charlotte (Cook) Lee.

        According to a later keeper's logs, on 24 February 1901, "Mrs. Willard Cook, wife of X L.H. Keeper Willard Cook of this station died at 10 am 'heart failure',"
and on February 26th was held the, "Funeral of Mrs. Willard Cook 12:m Fisher's Landing chapel, which is also the first funeral held in new chapel."
        After his wife's death, Willard continued to live at Fisher's Landing, Town of Orleans. About 1902, he took for his third wife Dorcas Caswell, daughter of Chauncey Caswell, and widow of Albert Connant. Willard died 14 February 1916 and was buried at Omar Cemetery, Omar, Town of Orleans, Jefferson County, New York. Dorcas died in May 1917.

Monuments marking the resting places of Willard and wives Charlotte and Jane.

>>> Read excerpts from Willard's official station logs, 1872-1879 <<<

Available for Download...

"Memoirs of Willard Littlefield Cook, Written c. 1899"
Transcribed and edited from the original, and donated for use at
Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association,
by Chris Lee of Corvallis, Oregon, March 2002.

(In Microsoft Word format, size 1.99MB)


Seated portrait of Willard L. Cook and photo of his home courtesy of Chris & Charlotte (Cook) Lee at

Standing portrait of Willard L. Cook at home courtesy of Iris Waterson at

Outdoor scenic photograph courtesy of Kevin Kieff, rec'd December 2008.

Images of headstones, courtesy of Sid & Boni Shafer at, rec'd May 2009.

Child, Hamilton. "Town of Orleans Business Directory." from "Gazetteer of Jefferson County, N.Y.," (1890). []. Visited 23 October 2001.

Child, Hamilton. "Family Sketches: Town of Orleans." from "Gazetteer of Jefferson County, N.Y.," (1890). []. Visited 23 October 2001.

"Cook Pioneer Family."  Jefferson County, New York GenWeb []. Visited 2 June 2000.

Correspondence on 31 May 2000 with descendant Twig Mills <>

Correspondence on 31 May 2000 with Tom Tag <>, Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

"Pages from the Past: Rock Island Light Station" The Keeper's Log, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring 1989), pp. 26-28


2000-20011, Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association.
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