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Canadarago’s Two Islands
By Don Urtz

Islands have always fascinated me. In fact, my two favorite vacations spots are Sanibel Island, Fla. and Block Island, R.I.

I trace my affection for islands to my youth when I became infatuated with the island the Indians called Deowongo. The island is probably about 500 yards from the shore where I spent my youthful summers. Even now, at the end of a day, I find nothing more relaxing than sitting by the lake shore with a beverage overlooking the island.

Deowongo is an Oneida Indian word that signifies “place of hearing.” At that time, before much of the shore line forest was cleared, a notable echo could be heard from the island.

Deowongo is 1,200 feet long and contains about nine acres of land on high, dry ground and is covered with a variety of trees and shrubs. About two-thirds of the island is in the town of Richfield with the remaining part in the town of Otsego.

One who ventures on the island must be very careful to avoid the poison ivy that covers much of the surface. As long as anyone can remember, there have been pathways that will take you around the island and by staying on them, you can stay clear of the nasty plant.

In 1950, an archaeological study was done by the New York State Science Service. In that report, it was stated that on the southern end of the island once stood a typical Iroquois longhouse. Found in the area were broken bones of deer, bear and many other animals and fish. Also found were pieces of pottery, arrowheads, knives and pendants.

Sometime in the 1930s, after the trolley line went out of business, someone got a team of horses and towed a trolley car across the ice, resting the vehicle on the west side of the island. For many years, the trolley car served as quite a novelty for island visitors.

When you entered the gutted car, the first thing you noticed were hundreds of names or initials (mine included) that were scratched on the metal interior. One summer, in the early 1960s, the car was flattened out and all that is left is a heap of scrap metal.

As a youngster, my brother also probably shared my fondness for Deowongo. He would capture animals, such as snakes and woodchucks from the mainland, to release them on the island.

Deowongo, no doubt, is a special place to others. The late Bob and Joanna March first dated as teens when their parents had camps on the opposite sides of the lake. Bob, who lived on the east side, traveled by boat to pick up Joanna on the west side and traveled back to go roller skating at Canadarago Park. They shared their first kiss in the bay of the island. Their ashes were sprinkled together in that bay.

James Byard, an attorney from Schuyler Lake, owned the island for several years. After his death sometime in the 1980s, Monte Smith flew over the island in his ultralight type airplane, sprinkling his ashes over Byard’s beloved island.

The first owner of the island was Daniel Wormer, who purchased it from the state in 1850. The present owner is Dr. Eric Schoenlein, who generously allows Susi March and company to launch the annual 4th of July fireworks display from his island.

As some of you know, Canadarago Lake had another island called Loon Island. This island stood toward the north end of the lake, more toward the west side, near the Baker’s Beach area. Loon Island was probably less than an acre, which was covered with elder bushes, wild grapes and a growth of trees.

There are three different theories on how the island sank. One version is purely legend. The Indian legend handed down tales of a famous healing Indian prophet who lived on the island. The Iroquois who had maladies came to visit him to receive vessels of magic waters.

Becoming successful, he became so proud and called himself the twin brother of the Great Spirit. It was said that this blasphemy angered the Almighty and, as a result, one morning when a bridal party approached the island for the prophet’s blessing, the island disappeared.
Deowongo Island on Canadarago Lake in Richfield Springs. (Photo submitted)

There are two other theories that are more likely to be true. I’ll let you decide.

The first one takes place in 1792. Some time in the 1800s, Erzra Stevens recorded that her father, who lived on the east side of the lake, went out into the lake on a summer afternoon to catch some fish along with a man named Calvin Underwood. They got into a canoe, went on the lake and went to Loon Island.

While on the island, they found several broods of young loons, but did not disturb them. Later in the day, they returned to the shore where Mr. Underwood remained overnight with Mr. Stevens. In the night, they heard a swashing on the lake and, when they arose in the morning, Loon Island had disappeared.

They got in a canoe, went out where the island was, and could see nothing but sandy water. When the water became clear, it had the appearance of having slipped off its foundation to the east.

Another popular theory took place in 1816. This also was the year which went down in history as “the year with no summer.” The winter of 1815-16 had a great deal of snowfall, and the lake had a very thick coat of ice.

Early in the spring, the weather was unusually warm with the streams swollen above their banks. The ice on the lake, covered with deep water, was broken up by a fierce north wind, clearing the north half of the lake. Then there was another hard freeze which cemented the broken ice into a large mass.

A few days later, a high wind from the south arose, setting the ice in motion. The immense force pushed the mass weight of the ice over the island, forcing its soil and trees to the bottom of the lake. For over 80 years, boaters could go over the sunken island and spot tree trunks and limbs lying on the lake bottom.

In the early 1980s, a sport scuba diver found the upper half of a human skull on the lake bottom of the sunken island. State police, along with a local diver, Terry Crandall, dove in the area and found other bones that turned out to be from a dog.

It was theorized that possibly an Indian, along with his dog, somehow drowned or was killed near the island 200-300 years ago. Terry, who has dove the sunken island many times, states that trees can still be found lying just below the bottom and are all lying in the same direction, which would give the 1816 version some credibility.

Evidence of Loon Island remains today, just by stopping over it and being able to see the lake bottom in only three or four feet of water, depending on the lake level. Every time I see or hear a loon on the lake, I think of Dewongo’s long lost little sister.

Don Urtz is a member of the Richfield Springs Historical Association.

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