Captain Orlo James Mason: Lighthouse Keeper, Soldier, and Entrepreneur

Captain Orlo James Mason:  Appomattox to Ashtabula, Fredericksburg to Fort Niagara and Railroad Cars in Between

Music, lighthouses, rivers including the St. Lawrence, Detroit, and Ashtabula Rivers and lakes like Lake Ontario and Lake Erie played important roles in the life of Civil War veteran and veteran lighthouse keeper Orlo James Mason. Despite the lure and challenges of the open waters of rivers and lakes, Captain Orlo James Mason valued his wife Isabelle (Belle), his daughter Maebelle, and his grandson Orlo James Connell above anything else.

Orlo Mason learned to appreciate family early in his life, because he lost both parents before he reached his teenage years.  Born on July 26, 1835, in LaFargeville, New York, where the Chaumont River flowing southwest from Lake Ontario flows through the center of the community, he was the son of Johnson and Mary Mason. His mother Mary died in June 1843, and his father died in February 1847 and both of them are buried in Grove Cemetery in LaFargeville. Twelve-year-old Orlo went to live with a farm family, and in 1850 at age 15, he worked on the farm of the Henry Martin family and attended school in the winter months.

War, Rivers, and railroad cars

By 1853, his ambition to get ahead in the world led Orlo Mason to leave the farm and move to LaFargeville to learn the carpenter’s trade. After three years of learning and practicing carpentry, in 1856 he moved on to learn the ropes of organ and piano manufacturing at a company in Clayton, New York, which is nestled along the St. Lawrence River.

In 1861, swept into the currents of patriotism and the bugle calls to adventure of the Civil War, Orlo James Mason enlisted in Company B, 94th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment on October 21, 1861. His regiment was assigned duty with the Army of the Potomac, where he battled with his ex-countrymen, now the enemy, at the second version of the Battle of Bull Run, a tributary of the Occoquan River in Virginia. He became slightly acquainted with the Potomac River and its watersheds at South Mountain, and met Antietam Creek, a tributary of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam.

On December 13, 1862, Orlo James Mason again confronted the Potomac River, which marked the border between Virginia and Maryland and the Rappahannock River as well as the Confederate enemy while his regiment fought at Fredericksburg. Orlo suffered a serious wound in this battle which caused him to spend seven months in the hospital. After he recovered, Orlo rejoined his regiment which was stationed before Petersburg which acquainted him with the Appomattox River. His 94th New York Regiment played an important role in the battle the Fifth Corps under General Gouverneur Kemble Warren.  On June 12, 1864, Orlo was commissioned a second lieutenant. 

In 1864, Orlo reenlisted as a veteran near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and in December 1864, he took part in the fighting around Petersburg, Richmond where he met the James River, and Five Forks.  He marched in support of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s cavalry which headed off the Confederates at Appomattox and the Appomattox River, after Richmond fell.  He was honorably discharged as a captain in Albany, New York, backdropped by the Hudson River, on July 31, 1865.

Pianos, Organs, Marine Engines, and Railroad Cars

After his discharge, Orlo James returned to Clayton, New York and resumed his old job manufacturing pianos and organs. Soon his adventurous spirit led him to live and work beside yet another river, this time the Detroit River. Flowing west and south from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie for 24, nautical miles, the Detroit River is a strait in the Great lakes system.  In the spring of 1866, he went to Detroit to work as a carpenter at the newly established Dry Dock Engine Works, located a stone’s throw from the River. For three years, Orlo helped this new company build marine engines and between 1867 and 1894, Dry Dock Engine Works produced 129 of them.

The year 1867 marked a major milestone in Captain Orlo Mason’s life.  He married Miss Belle M. Mills, daughter of Captain Andrew H. Mills, a well-known vessel and tug owner of Detroit, on February 14, 1867.  Belle was community spirited, charitable, and a talented musician. She and Orlo had music in common, because Orlo had worked for a piano and organ manufacturer back in his home state of New York. Her father Captain Andrew H. Mills, a well-known vessel and tug owner of Detroit, had a profitable year in 1867 as well. The Detroit Free Press of Saturday, December 21, 1867, recorded one of his vessel transactions:  Tug Jennie Bell, Wm. Mitchell to Johnson & Mills, $5,000.

  Ever restless and eager for new challenges, in 1868, Orlo turned his talents to working in the car shops on Crogan Street, a bit further from the Detroit River, but still close enough to continue his nautical sensibilities. He used his talents as a joiner to help build the first Pullman Palace Car. Following his inquisitive nature, Captain Mason quickly learned that in 1869, George Pullman had purchased the Detroit Car and Manufacturing Company to consolidate all of his manufacturing concerns into one factory. George Pullman built hotel cars, parlor cars, reclining room cars, sleepers, and diners. Captain Mason contributed.

Charles F. Clark and Company’s Annual City Directory for Detroit for 1868-1869 lists Orlo J. Mason as a joiner.

St. Louis car shops

In May 1868, the Masons migrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where Orlo worked in the car shops of the Iron Mountain Railroad Company for two years. Incorporated in 1851, the founders of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad built it to haul iron ore from deposits around Ironton and Pilot Knob south of St. Louis to the foundries in St. Louis. The new railroad could transport the iron ore faster and cheaper than the existing roads and rivers.

In 1870, Orlo took a job at the Broadway Streetcar Company and stayed there for ten years. The Broadway Streetcar Company survived for more than half a century, weathering mergers and economic fluctuations, before it finally succumbed to buses and automobiles.

few mourners on hand as broadway streetcar completes its final run

Motorman Maurice Fortner turned streetcar Number 1768 into the car barn at Broadway and Montana Street shortly before 2 a.m. yesterday and thus ended the era of the Broadway streetcar.

With the exception of a few sentimentalists who wanted the opportunity to ride on the last streetcar to trundle along Broadway, the ride was an average one.

The car left its starting point, Broadway and Grape Avenue, at 12:34 a.m. on schedule. Just 62 minutes later it came to the line’s end at Broadway and Catalan, slightly more than 14 miles away.

Although they recognized that progress must come and that busses will replace streetcars, they weren’t happy about the change. They said that streetcars would be safer when Broadway turns icy in winter and there is more jostling and shoving on a bus.
But beneath their complaints there seems to run a feeling of reluctance to part with a way of life they had been dependent upon for years.

At 1:15 a.m. the southbound streetcar passed the northbound Broadway bus number 40 at Broadway and Marine Avenue. This bus was the first one to operate on the Broadway Line.

There was not even a silent salute as the streetcar which has held sway on Broadway since 1859 was passed by its successor.

Source: St. Louis Globe Democrat August 21,1956

In 1880. Orla Mason took a job at the Franklin Avenue Car shops and worked there for two years.

Intersection of 9th and Franklin Streets, Missouri State Archives.  Franklin Avenue trolley tracks.

During the ten years Orlo worked for the Broadway Streetcar Company, he and his wife Belle had a daughter, Maebelle, born in July 1876. Maebelle inherited her mother’s musical talent and her father’s ability to take quick action and efficiently complete tasks. She would put these talents to use early in her life.

coming home to detroit

In 1882, when their daughter Maebelle turned six years old, the Masons returned to Detroit, and Orlo Mason again went to work in the Pullman car shops. It is quite probable that the Masons returned to Detroit because his wife, Isabelle’s family came from the area, and the industrial advantages of Detroit continued to fascinate and lure Orlo back. He had a long history of working as a carpenter and joiner and a passion for making railroad cars.

The Detroit City Directory for 1884 lists Orlo J. Mason, car builder; Mrs. Orlo J. Mason, music teacher, and the J.W. Weeks & Company’s Detroit City Directory for 1885, shows Orlo J. Mason, Pattern Cutter, Pen Car Company and Mrs. Orlo J. Mason, music teacher. Charles L. Freer and Frank J. Hecker founded the Peninsular Car Company, a railroad rolling stock manufacturer, in 1885. In 1892, the company merged with Michigan Car Company, the Russel Wheel and Foundry Company, the Detroit Car Wheel Company and several smaller manufacturers to from the Michigan Peninsular Car Company.

tending lighthouses for 33 years

Captain Orlo Mason’s death certificate cites one of his causes of death as chronic bronchitis which could have been aggravated by his working in the car shops. His father-in-law Captain Andrew H. Mills was a maritime man and he and his wife had reared Isabelle, Orlo’s wife, along the Detroit River.  Orlo himself had always lived in close proximity with rivers and lakes. These reasons and others lost to history may have convinced Captain Orlo Mason that light keeping would be the next logical step on his career ladder.

Captain Orlo James Mason applied for the position, and in June 1885, the government appointed Captain Mason keeper of the Mamajuda Lighthouse in the Detroit River. The island is named for Mamajuda, an American Indian woman who regularly camped on the island during fishing season. In 1849, the United States government built the Mamajuda Lighthouse on the island with the lighthouse keeper and his family the island’s only residents. The lighthouse had to be rebuilt in 1866, but eventually erosion washed away the lighthouse in 1950. The unstable composition of the island caused slow erosion to wash it entirely away by 1960, with only a few boulders occasionally breaking the surface.

In Orlo Mason’s time, Mamajuda Island and Mamajuda Lighthouse were solidly present and he served there for nine years, performing his duties so conscientiously that no one entered a single complaint against him.  During Captain Mason’s time at Mamajuda light, his daughter Maebelle, then 14, performed an act of heroism worthy of her father’s service in the Civil War.  On May 11, 1890, a man in a rowboat threw a line for a tow to the steamer C.W. Elphicke.  The steamer’s Captain Charles Z. Montague was passing on the Detroit River halfway between Mamajuda Light and Grassy Isle.  The line missed the steamer, but it caught just right to capsize the boat and the man spilled into the river.

mamajuda island lighthouse from a 1910 postcard

Captain Montague couldn’t rescue the man, but as he passed Mamajuda Light, he signaled the lightkeeper that there was a man in the river in danger of drowning.  Captain Mason had taken the government boat across to Detroit to do some shopping.  The only one available to help was Isabelle Mason and her daughter Maebelle. The only boat left for Mrs. Mason and Maebelle was a small flat-bottomed punt which they hauled out of the dock at the lighthouse.  They launched the punt and after some discussion decided that Maebelle should row to the aid of the drowning man. After about a mile of hard rowing, Maebelle came upon the man near his upturned boat.  She pulled him aboard her punt in a very exhausted condition.  Then she rowed back to the lighthouse, towing the man’s rowboat behind her.  The stranger thanked her profusely.

The United States Government thanked Maebelle for her bravery by presenting her with a lifesaving medal of the second class.  It was obtained through the efforts of Captain Charles V. Gridley who in 1890 was government inspector of the Tenth Lighthouse District.  His term expired before the medal was finished, so Commander E.W. Woodward of the United States Navy, presented the medal to Maebelle.  She received it at the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit during the National Convention of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1890. 

Maebelle accepted the medal modestly and said that she had simply performed an act of humanity.  The Ship Masters Association also presented her with a gold lifesaving medal with a Maltese cross and gold chain attached.  The medal was inscribed:  “Presented to Miss Maebelle L. Mason for heroism in saving life, May 11, 1890, by the E.M.B.A. of Cleveland.” From that date until it disappeared in 1960, all steamers flying the Ship Master’s Association pennant saluted while passing the Mamajuda lighthouse.  

On June 21, 1892, Maebelle Lewis Mason married James Leverett Connell and they lived in various places in Michigan, including Fenton, Marlette, Little Traverse, and Harbor Springs. The Connells had a daughter Corrine, and a son whom they named Orlo James in honor of Captain Orlo James Mason.  Born April 19, 1896, Orlo James Connell was a World War I veteran, serving in the 124th Transportation Corps from June 13, 1918, to July 19, 1919. Orlo James married Hilda and they had three children. He died on February 16, 1956, and he is buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan. Maebelle and James Connell are buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Harbor Springs, Michigan.

captain mason is transferred to ashtabula harbor outer pier light

In June 1893, Captain Mason was transferred to Ashtabula, Ohio, where the Ashtabula River flows into Lake Erie after it begins in Monroe County, flows 40 miles and drains 137 square miles. He was put in charge of the outer pier light which had a rear range and fog signal.  He and Belle lived in a house on the hill at 10 Walnut Street, overlooking the lake and harbor.  Captain Mason and Belle would have found some familiar sights in this 1880 picture of the harbor.

Photo Courtesy of Gordon Duff Brace

This vintage photograph shows Ashtabula Harbor in 1880. It was taken at the present day (1994) site of the Ashtabula Maritime Museum. Spanning the water is a pontoon bridge which was replaced by the present day (1994) lift bridge in 1925. A wooden package freighter can be seen at center, and a steam engine can be glimpsed at right. Part of a lumberyard occupies the foreground.

ashtabula light house family tree

 This 1836 hexagonal tower was the first Ashtabula Harbor lighthouse. The tower sat on top of a forty-foot-square wooden crib that a ramp connected to the east pier of the Ashtabula River. Samuel Miniger, the first recorded light keeper, had the responsibility of keeping the beacon’s eight lamps burning using sperm whale oil.

In 1855, the government installed a fifth-order Fresnel lens in the lantern room. This changed the light’s character to a fixed white, interrupted every ninety seconds by a flash.

The second lighthouse, made of wood, had a fourth order Fresnel light. It was used until 1905, and the lighthouse keepers lived on shore at the lightkeepers house at 10 Walnut Boulevard and were ferried out to the lighthouse by boat. In later decades the Walnut Boulevard lightkeepers house would become the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum.

Ashtabula Light House before relocation and expansion.

Photo courtesy of Michael Forand.

In 1916, a few years after Captain Mason died in New York, the Ashtabula River was widened, and new docks were built along with a new lighthouse that would later be moved to the end of the newly built break wall. At this point, the lighthouse was placed atop a 59-foot concrete crib and doubled in size. It was constructed with steel and concrete plates to ensure safety and stability against storms. Since the lighthouse had been increased in size, the keepers were now able to live in the lighthouse instead of the lightkeepers house on the hill on Walnut Boulevard.

next lighthouse stop: south bass island light house

On September 1, 1900, veteran lighthouse keeper Captain Orlo J. Mason was transferred from Ashtabula Lighthouse where he had served since 1893 to South Bass Island lighthouse.  When Captain Mason and Belle had arrived in Ashtabula in 1893, many people already knew about the water rescues that he and their daughter Maebelle had performed. When he and Belle arrived at the South Bass Island lighthouse, first lit in 1897, the stories circulating there about former lighthouse keeper Harry H. Riley were not so positive. Captain Mason and Belle arrived in the middle of an epidemic and the resulting turmoil.

South Bass Island Lighthouse, a large, two-and-a-half-story, red brick dwelling featured an attached, twelve-foot-square tower. The tower stood forty-five-feet tall, reaching far enough over the roiling waters of Lake Erie to guide boats and ships to safe harbors.

Lighthouse Keeper Harry H. Riley lit the South Bass Island Lighthouse lantern for the first time on July 10, 1897, as its first lightkeeper. A native of New York and a past resident of Detroit, Michigan, Riley and his wife were transferred to the lighthouse on July 10, 1897. He earned a yearly salary of $560. With Keeper Riley’s help, the lighthouse would guide mariners from early March until late December, the standard shipping season for that part of Lake Erie.

 Keeper Riley had formerly served as mate on the United States supply steamer Haze. He had recently married, and the young couple settled into the South Bass Island Lighthouse as their first home together. They also brought along Bill, a spirited little fox terrier. Bill enjoyed the life of a sailor and spent several years cruising with his friends and his master on board the Haze.

Keeper Riley needed an assistant to help him with his lighthouse chores, and on August 9, 1898, he hired Samuel Anderson, an African American, as a caretaker, with an offer of living quarters in the lighthouse basement as one of his employee benefits. Most people called Sam “Black Sam,” and he acquired a reputation for being somewhat eccentric. Rumors soon began to circulate around the island that Samuel kept snakes that he had caught on the island in his basement rooms in the lighthouse.

 Another fateful event happened on South Bass Island in 1898.  In 1898, two years before the Masons arrived at the South Bass Island lighthouse, a smallpox scare that would last through 1904, gripped the community. Someone theorized that a person living near Parker’s Point near the lighthouse had contracted smallpox. The government placed the entire area under quarantine and assigned troops to enforce the quarantine. To add more controversy, other people theorized that the wealthy owners of the nearby Hotel Victory insisted on the quarantine because they didn’t want smallpox to affect their employees, guests, and most of all, their profits.

According to the Sandusky Daily Register, Samuel also worked part-time at the Hotel Victory. At the hotel, black employees were settled in rooms far from the guests. It seems that Samuel so worried about contracting smallpox that he left his rooms in the lighthouse basement for the Hotel Victory because he believed he would be safer at the hotel. Once he left the lighthouse buildings, the guards stopped him and ordered him back to the lighthouse.  Reluctantly, Samuel returned to the lighthouse, but he didn’t go inside because of his fear of catching smallpox. Instead, he wandered the beach all night, and people reported that he howled like a wild beast through most of the night. Then everything was still.

On August 31, 1898, less than a month after he moved to South Bass Island, a search party found Sam’s body on the rocks below the lighthouse. No one knew if he had fallen, deliberately or accidently jumped, or someone had pushed him. Perhaps he threw himself over the cliff edge in a frenzy of smallpox fear. In a 1907 Ohio Magazine article, writer Lydia J. Ryall speculates that Samuel’s death was not an accident, but history has not provided a definite answer to her speculations. Eventually, the Lighthouse Board ruled Samuel Anderson’s death a suicide. The Lighthouse Board reported that Put-in-Bay Justice of the Peace and Coroner William H. King claimed Samuel Anderson’s earnings of $17.25 for his brief employment for his burial expenses. Samuel Anderson’s name is not included in local cemetery records and his burial place is unknown.

Samuel’s death devasted lighthouse keeper Harry Riley.  Some people even speculated that he had tried to calm Samuel down that night and caused him to jump to his death.  On September 2, 1898, two days after Samuel died, the Sandusky Daily Register reported that Harry H. Riley had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in Sandusky, Ohio. Onlookers said that Keeper Riley swore that he owned a fast racehorse and he invited everyone to the fairgrounds to see the horse achieve a record-breaking win.

 At his trial, the court declared Harry Riley hopelessly insane and committed him to an insane asylum in Toledo where he died in March 1899. The Lighthouse Board relieved Lightkeeper Riley of his duties on February 23,1899 and appointed his wife to serve until a new permanent keeper could be named.  Apparently, Mrs. Riley didn’t serve as her husband’s replacement for very long, because Enoch W. Scribner is listed as an interim keeper in 1899-1900.

Harry Riley died in March 1899 and Captain Orlo James Mason arrived in September 1900, which left about a year and a half for Mrs. Riley and temporary Keeper Scribner to perform lighthouse keeping duties before the arrival of a permanent keeper. The permanent keeper, Captain Orlo James Mason and his wife Belle, arrived at South Bass Island Light on September 1, 1900.

Indeed, Captain Orlo and Belle Mason had been transferred into Samuel Anderson’s lighthouse with its basement rumored to be full of snakes, but they managed to settle into their lighthouse quarters and establish themselves there. Lydia J. Ryall says in her Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands described the scenery that the Captain Orlo Mason and his wife Belle encountered in their new home.  She wrote that “Put-In-Bay is located in the Lake Erie Islands in Sandusky Bay, and the lighthouse sits on Parker’s Point on the island’s southwestern tip.  Captain and Mrs. Mason lived in the main building with the tower looming in back.  From the tower stretched a beautiful view of the lake shore.  Cedar trees framed by dark green leaves, craggy bluffs, fallen rock masses and in the winter, ice mountains, provided a variety of scenery that the Masons enjoyed.”

Lydia J. Ryall also states in her Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands that Captain Mason kept the Put-In-Bay Light for several years, before he transferred to the Ashtabula light, but several Lighthouse Board records state the opposite, that Captain Mason transferred from Ashtabula to Put-In-Bay.

Sandusky Daily Register stories of the time stated that Captain Mason and his wife kept a good station, and they greeted many visitors in the summer months. Winter months at an isolated lighthouse were usually quiet with few visitors besides friends and family of the keepers. Winters were quiet at the South Bass Island Lighthouse, but the friends and family of the Masons and other winter visitors found “welcome and good cheer” at the lighthouse.

The Masons left South Bass Island Lighthouse on April 18, 1908, and Captain Mason took over the position as keeper of the Fort Niagara Lighthouse on April 23, 1908. I Charles B. Duggan, 47, and his wife, Bertha, replaced the Masons at South Bass Island Light and enjoyed a good life at the lighthouse.

captain orlo j. mason finishes his career at fort niagara lighthouse

Captain Orlo J. Mason and his wife Belle left South Bass Island Lighthouse on April 18, 1908, and he took over the position as keeper of the Fort Niagara Lighthouse on April 23, 1908, serving there until October 1913.

Fort Niagara Light is located on the Niagara River on the south shore of Lake Ontario on the grounds of Fort Niagara. Built in 1782 on top of the French Castle still located inside Old Fort Niagara, the tower was first lit in 1872, after it was removed from the French Castle to allow more room for officer’s quarters. The Coast Guard deactivated the light in 1996, replacing it with a light beacon at the US Coast Guard Station Niagara near Youngstown, New York.

When Captain Mason and Belle arrived at Fort Niagara Lighthouse, they encountered some of the local color and legends as they had done at their previous light houses and even in their civilian lives. Music had always resounded in their family. Earlier in his career, Captain Mason had manufactured pianos and other musical instruments and his wife Belle was a talented musician and music teacher, and their daughter Maebelle had inherited their musical interests and talent. Captain Mason and Belle were undoubtedly as fascinated by the stories of the headless French soldier and the drunken fifer as are current visitors to Old Fort Niagara. They may have compared the stories of South Bass Island Keeper Harvey

In 1726, entrepreneurs from New France built the Fort at the mouth of the Niagara River where it enters Lake Ontario. Next, the British occupied the Fort and eventually the United States. Along with its legions of soldiers, many legends have occupied the history of Old Fort Niagara during its 295-year history. Samuel De Veaux, a local historian whose accuracy historians have often questioned, wrote a Niagara regional guidebook he called “The Falls of Niagara.” “The Falls of Niagara,” published in 1839, featured many of the legends and oral history of the region. Samuel De Veaux’s book also included the first recorded version of Fort Niagara’s haunted well story and the story about a drunken fifer named John Carroll as well as descriptions of the cataracts and other sites in Canada and the Niagara region.

Captain Mason and Belle could well have read the stories or heard them from lighthouse visitors.  They could have discussed the story of the headless French soldier, one of the ghosts of the Fort admiring the moonlit path over Lake Ontario from their lighthouse vantage point. Samuel De Veaux’s version of the haunted well story has it that during Fort Niagara’s French occupation, several French officers decided to have a party in the French Castle. Henri Le Clerc was one of the French officers delegated to go to the nearby Seneca Village to escort some Seneca maidens to the party at the castle. He and a Seneca maiden named Onita loved each other, and he was delighted to see that she was included in the group. When he returned to the Castle with Onita and the other Seneca maidens, the several of the French officers had already drank more than their share of wine.

Henri Le Clerc heartily disliked fellow officer Jean-Claude De Rochefort, so when Jean-Claude De Rochefort seated himself on the other side of Onita, attempted to monopolize her attention, and continued to drink more and more wine, Henry Le Clerc objected to his rude behavior.

The two Frenchmen officers escalated their argument to a duel with swords and carried it down the twisting stairwell to the floor below. Henri tripped and fell, hitting his head on the stone floor. Jean-Claude skewered his unconscious enemy with his sword as he sprawled helpless on the floor. The reality of what he had done sobered Jean-Claude enough to motivate him to dispose of Henri Le Clerc’s body.  He began to hack it to pieces, planning to throw the body parts into Lake Ontario which stretched a few years behind the French Castle.

Quickly, Jean-Claude separated Henri Le Clerc’s head from his body, ran over to Lake Ontario, and threw it in. Back in the Castle, he noticed the pools of blood on the blood and mopped them up. He started to hack off more body parts when he heard the sound of voices from the floor above and realized that the officers and the Seneca maidens would be coming down the stairs momentarily. Out of time and privacy, Jean-Claude carried the body outside to the stone well and threw it over the edge. 

The French Castle Well

After Henri Le Clerc had been missing for several days, search parties tried unsuccessfully to locate him. Onita firmly believed that Jean-Claude De Rochefort had murdered Henri Le Clerc, but she had no evidence to support her belief.  Legend has it that Onita no longer attended parties at the castle because she believed that Henri was dead. Finally, one September night she decided to go to a party to listen and learn whatever she could about the fate of her beloved Henri Le Clerc.

That September night Onita met another French Officer by the name of Jacques, and they liked each other well enough for Jacques to travel to Onita’s Seneca village for a visit a few weeks later. That particular September night a full moon featuring a red haze around it, often called a blood moon, lighted the sky. The red haze prompted Onita to talk about Henri and his probable fate. Uneasy about discussing Henri’s fate with the Seneca community, Jacques asked Onita to walk over to the French Castle with him.

When Jacques and Onita arrived at the Castle around midnight, the soldiers were sleeping soundly in their barracks, so they stood in the moonlight talking. Jacques was telling Onita about looking for Henri on the night he disappeared, when suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence. He and Onita listened intently.They heard a rasping noise like two sticks rubbing together or something scraping against stone breaking the silence of near midnight. 

They stood paralyzed and as the clock struck midnight, their gazes riveted on the well. First one hand and then the other reached over the edge of the well located in the front hall of the castle. Then the forearms of a man emerged and then his body, dressed in a ragged French soldier uniform. The man’s shoulders emerged from the well, and then his neck. His body stopped there with nothing on top of his shoulders. A headless French soldier dressed in the uniform of Henri Le Clerc stood in front of Jacques and Onita with the red rimmed moon glaring behind him.

Jacques and Onita were too frightened to speak to Henri Le-Clerc. They ran from the French Castle as fast as a racehorse, although Onita did slow her pace her little to look longingly over her shoulder at her beloved. Now she and Jacques knew for certain what had happened to Henri Le Clerc. Jean-Paul De Rochefort had murdered him and dropped his headless body into the well. The next morning Jacques sent men to explore the well and they found Henri’s body. Soon after Jean-Claude De Rochfort was hanged for his crime.

The story of Henri Le Clerc, Jean-Paul De Rochefort, and Onita the Seneca Maiden has been told and retold over the centuries. Witnesses over the years have claimed that when the full red rimmed moon rides high over the castle, the ghost of headless French soldier Henri Le Clerc rises from the stone well at midnight and stands still for a moment, dripping water. After a moment, he stumbles through the cold stone castle halls searching for his long-lost head and possibly his long-lost love, the Seneca maiden Onita.

Captain Mason and Belle may have been mildly amused at the story of the headless French officer, but the story of John Carroll, the drunken Irish fifer, would have resonated with their musical sensibilities. This time, the Fort Niagara legend features the colorful Irishman stationed at the fort before the War of 1812, and as Samuel De Veaux puts it, “of all things devoted to music and whiskey.”

One day on parade, John Carroll made a spectacle of himself and when a superior officer chastised him for his behavior, John reacted to the criticism so disrespectfully that he wound up under guard in the “blackhole,” for a night of solitary confinement. There, according to Samuel DeVeaux, the sentries heard “the most dismal sounds’ coming from fifer John Carroll’s cell.

John told the sentries that hobgoblins and all the devils in existence had visited him, and they had haunted him the entire night he had been confined to prison. Prison officials gave John a light, pen, and paper to take his mind off the blackhole. John put his talents to use and the next morning upon his release, he appeared with a new song he had written, “Carroll’s Thoughts on Eternity.”

Samuel De Veaux claimed that John Carroll composed many marches and waltzes before he died at Niagara when an epidemic swept the Army in 1812. Historians in succeeding generations doubted the accuracy of Samuel De Veaux’s stories or that John Carroll had even existed until the late Twentieth Century in 1989, when former Old Fort Niagara director Brian L. Dunnigan and Geneseo State College professor Jim Kimball discovered significant documentation verifying that John Carroll had indeed been a real person.

Director Dunnigan had been proofreading a manuscript from a Fort Mackinac historian when he discovered a listing for a fifer named John Carroll.  John Carroll had served with the U.S. 1st Regiment of Artillery at Fort Mackinac from 1796 to 1799.  Although Director Dunnigan theorized that John Carroll had probably moved to Detroit and then on to Niagara with his unit, there were no records of his military service, punishment in solitary, or death in old Fort Niagara records.

Next, Professor Jim Kimball who specialized in early regional dance music, contributed more documentation of John Carroll’s life. Researching at the Newberry Library in Chicago, he discovered a 179-page, leather bound collection of songs compiled by “John Carroll, Fort N” between 1804 and 1812.”

Included in the collection are 13 songs that John Carroll wrote, but never published. These unpublished songs include “Carroll’s Whim,” “The Niagara French Four,” and “Fort Niagara Quick Step.”

An inscription in the book noted that in November 1812, John Carroll had bequeathed the book to an Army contractor in the War of 1812.  The contractor’s name was S. De Veaux.

captain mason and belle’s legacy

Captain Orlo James Mason and his wife Isabelle or Belle or Bella Mason’s story has documentation inconsistencies as well.  Some of the lighthouse sources list conflicting dates and places of service on the lights and their tombstones list their birthplaces as unknown or in other places, incorrectly, including the date that he resigned his position at the Old Fort Niagara Light. Some sources say he served from April 23, 1908, to his death on January 2, 1914. The Washington Post reported that Captain Mason resigned as keeper of the Old Fort Niagara Light in October 1913.

Captain Orlo James Mason died on January 23, 1914, in Youngstown, New York.  His family, most likely his wife Belle and daughter Maebelle and her husband brought his body back to Detroit for burial in Woodmere Cemetery, Section A, Lot 467. On February 19, 1914, Belle filed a claim to her husband’s Civil War Pension from Michigan. 

The 1915 Detroit City Directory lists Belle M. Mason as the widow of Orlo James Mason, living at 443 Larned Street. She probably stayed in Michigan because her daughter Maebelle Connell and her husband and children lived near Detroit, and Michigan was where she had met Orlo, her husband of 47 years. Belle M. Mason died on June 7, 1915, and she is buried in Woodmere Cemetery, Section A, Lot 467 beside her husband.

Captain Orlo James Mason served bravely in the Civil War, and steadfastly and tirelessly maintaining lights to shine over the Detroit River, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario waters.  He lived his goal of guiding mariner’s safely to port, and it’s not difficult to imagine fifer John Carroll playing him to heaven with his “Fort Niagara Two Step,” with Belle keeping step with him.