By Stuart Mesires
Cruising on the St. Lawrence River with a freighter in the background.
The Thousand Islands is a magical place. It has the sense of being a place that time forgot. On a quiet morning or evening when the loud modern-day boat traffic has quieted down, parts of the Thousand Islands are like a living museum to the Gilded Age. Being a lover of vintage, antiques and finding out about the history of things, the Thousand Islands is a veritable treasure chest. It is a beautiful area with clear waters, granite islands and lush evergreen trees.
Sunset on the St. Lawrence River.
Formed as an archipelago at the end of the last Ice Age by retreating glaciers, the area takes its name from the over 1,800 granite islands sprinkled throughout a 50-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence River along the U.S. (New York) – Canada (Ontario) border. Some islands are very large, such as Canada’s Wolfe Island which is over 18 miles long. Others are quite small, measuring just the size of a ping pong table. By necessity, the primary means of transportation is by boat. A travel brochure from the early 1900s referred to the Thousand Islands as, “The Venice of America.”
Devil’s Oven, an Island where river pirate Bill Johnston was said to have hidden in the summer of 1838.
The Thousand Islands became a popular retreat for the wealthy in 1872 after George Pullman, the railroad car magnate from Chicago, invited President Ulysses S. Grant to visit him at his summer retreat. This prompted large amounts of attention to the area in the press. In the Gilded Age that followed, the “giants of industry” from cities like Chicago and New York came to the region and built opulent summer retreats and “castles” that reflected their new-found wealth. To reach the Thousand Islands, they traveled by train in overnight Pullman cars to Clayton, New York, and then boarded private steam yachts that took them to their destinations.
At Alexandria Bay, Thousand Islands, an etching by W.T. Smedley, from the September 1890 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
During that time, luxury resorts also sprang up in the region and became vacation spots for the rich and famous. The resorts are gone now and many of the Gilded Age retreats have disappeared, but the ones that remain are, for the most part, still privately owned — in many cases by the descendants of the original owners. It is magical to boat from island to island to see these homes. The two remaining castles — Boldt and Singer — are open to the public as museums.
Approaching Boldt Castle from the water. The castle is just over the tree-line, and the structure in front is the children’s playhouse.
Boldt Castle was built on Heart Island by George C. Boldt in 1900 for his wife, Louise. Boldt was a proprietor of hotels in Philadelphia and New York — most notably the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan.
Portrait of George C. Boldt.
The design for Boldt Castle was based on that of a German castle. It is six stories high and has 120 rooms including a ballroom, a billiards room, a bowling alley and theater. There is also an indoor pool, a playhouse, dovecote and extensive gardens. Unfortunately, construction came to a halt with the untimely death of Boldt’s wife in 1904. Left heartbroken at the sudden death of his beloved wife, Boldt ordered that all work be stopped. The castle was left unfinished and remained abandoned until 1977 when the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property, renovated it and opened it to the public. The castle is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Thousand Islands region.
Dovecote at Boldt Castle.
Singer Castle (my favorite) is located on Dark Island. It was built in 1905 by the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Frederick Bourne, a self-made millionaire from New York City who resided at The Dakota apartment building in Manhattan.
The castle was designed by American Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg. The design was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s novel about Woodstock Castle in Scotland. It has secret panels that open to reveal passageways inside the walls. There are grates built into the walls as well as a portrait in one of the rooms that the host could use to spy on his guests from within the secret passageway. Guests to Singer Castle included Bourne’s contemporaries, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Vincent Astor.
The library in Singer Castle. The panel to the right of the fireplace opens to reveal a secret passageway.
Though times have changed since the Gilded Age, in order to travel from island to island whether touring the sites, going fishing, going out to play tennis or to have dinner or cocktails with friends, a boat is still needed. Many of the social activities revolve around boats.
Chicago residents Drew and Alison McNally travel to a party by boat.
Chicago resident Samantha Schwalm welcomes guests to her island party.
While most everyone has a “workhorse” boat, the Thousand Islands is also a haven for antique wooden boats and home to the Antique Boat Museum (ABM), the leading museum in the world for freshwater boats. It boasts a collection of more than 300 wooden boats — the largest collection in the northeast.
Dock with boats on display at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York.
Included in the collection are wonderful examples of the St. Lawrence River Skiff, a rowing boat indigenous to the Thousand Islands area. It is a shallow wooden row boat that was designed in the mid-1800s and which became the principle mode of personal river transportation during the Gilded Age before the invention of power boats.
St. Lawrence River Skiffs at the Antique Boat Museum.
The ABM is located in the town of Clayton, New York, and hosts an annual boat show and auction that brings wooden boat enthusiasts and collectors from all over the world. This year the show will be held from August 5–7.
Poster for 52nd Annual Boat Show.
Along with the history, Gilded Age mansions and antique boats, the Thousand Islands is also a great place to hunt for antiques and vintage pieces — both on the New York and Canadian sides. One of my favorite spots is an antique shop in the town of Three Mile Bay, New York.
Inside Turn Back Time Antiques in Three Mile Bay, New York.
There are also lots of other great “antique” stores sprinkled throughout the region as well as amazing antique and flea markets held throughout the summer in nearby Syracuse and Bouckville, New York, and in the Adirondacks.
Shopping for vintage in Canada.
Summer will be over soon and I will have to leave the magical Thousand Islands, but I will look forward to returning again next year and resuming my hunt for unexplored areas and vintage treasures.