History of the 1000 Islands
The 1000 islands actually number 1864 and were formed almost 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Three previous ice ages also contributed to the formation of the islands and they actually form a connecting bridge between the Canadian Shield to the north and the Adirondack mountains to the south in New York State. Both the Canadian and American governments have designated some islands as national parks. Park Canada became a reality back in 1904 with the proclamation of the St. Lawrence Islands National Park. Even to this day, they are very popular destinations for both boaters and campers. Beau Rivage and Burnt Islands, in the Admiralty Group of islands just west of Gananoque and Gordon and Mulcaster Islands, in the Lake Fleet Group, east of Gananoque, are typical of these well utilized government parks.
This section of the river freezes over solidly in winter, but downstream near the 1000 Islands Bridge, the water flow is much swifter and the river stays open all winter. Around here the river is about 7.5 km (5 mi.) from shore to shore and you'd have to go some 450 km (300 mi.) east of here before you would see tides. There is no salt water here, it is all fresh water, most of it originating in the Great Lakes. Just to give you some idea of the size of the St. Lawrence River, you would have to go some 1'850 km (1300 mi.) east of here before meeting the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At this point you are 85 m (254 ft.) above sea level. Making use of this tremendous water highway is the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today, oceangoing ships from around the world can visit right into the heart of North America, calling on such industrial cities as Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and Duluth.
The human impact on the 1000 Islands was considerable. Canada was an important source of timber for Great Britain in the 18th century. Large trees were harvested, lashed together in timber rafts and floated down river to Montreal and Quebec. When the steamship era began and wood was needed for their boilers, further denuding of the area occurred. Happily, some areas had unusually enlightened rules for that time, if you bought two islands, you could only cut timber on one. Meanwhile trees have made a strong comeback and the islands are largely back to their original state, thanks to a desire for conservation by the local residents.
Dicovery of the 1000 Islands through the Years
The St. Lawrence was discovered by Jacques Cartier on August 10, 1535. The early explorers made use of the St. Lawrence River as a highway to the interior of Canada and the United States. Many of the famous explorers passed through the area including such well known names as Champlain, de Courcelles, Comte de Frontenac, René-Robert Cavalier. The latter two men built Fort Frontenac, at the site of present day Kingston. The first reliable charts of the area were made in 1687 by Jean Desbayes who named the area "Les Milles îles", or translated to English, the 1000 Islands.
Military activity was much in evidence throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The St. Lawrence was a highway for military activity, a vital route that delivered warships and men during the war between France and Britain from 1754 to 1759, the American War of Independence between Britain and the United States in 1776 and the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. A smaller conflict was the Patriot War in 1837-1838 when there were acts of piracy among the 1000 Islands. Many forts, blockhouses and military installations still dot the area and serve to remind us of our stormy past. Today we boast of the longest undefended border in the world between the United States and Canada.
European settlement of the islands began around 1783 with the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists, who moved from the United States after the American War of Independence in order to remain loyal to the British Crown. They came up the river in boats powered by oars, towing them through the rapids with ropes. Before long, the loyalists were joined by other Europeans, mainly English, Scottish, Irish and German. While the area adjacent to the islands wasn't settled as quickly as other areas, the marginal farmland was used for pasturing dairy cattle. In the 19th century, the Counties of Leeds and Grenville became one of the province's top producers of cheese and today, world famous Leeds County aged cheddar cheese can be purchased from local stores in Gananoque.
In 1816, a British hydrographer, Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, completed his survey of the Islands assigning names to over 1800 Islands. He created 8 groups of islands, among which is the Admiralty Group with 64 Islands, named after the British Lords of the Admiralty. He also included the Navy Group with 33 Islands, named after officers in the Royal Navy and the Lake Fleet Group of Islands, which also number 33 and named after ships of the Royal Navy.
The boundary agreement in 1793 between the U.S. and Canada decided that no island would be split in two, that the boundary should be 100 yards from any shore and if that was not possible, the line would run right down the middle between the two shores. This explains why the boundary between the U.S. and Canada follows a zigzag line. Two thirds of the Islands are in Canadian territory but the total acreage of the Canadian and American Islands is roughly equal.
On the American side, as many as 20 trains a day were required to bring all the summer visitors. On the Canadian side, a railway connected Gananoque to the main Canadian National Line, a few miles north of the town.
During this period, many opulent homes and mansions were built in the area. The most famous was Boldt Castle, built by Mr. George C. Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Names such as Pullman, the inventor of the railway Pullman car, John Jacob Astor a financier of New York City, and Helena Rubenstein, of cosmetic product fame, were all known in the area at that time having built luxurious summer homes in the 1000 Islands.
This Golden Age started changing as a result of two world wars, the introduction of income tax, the Great Depression and more importantly, the invention of the automobile. This altered transportation patterns and changed the way we spend our recreational time. Today, people can visit the area within an easy one day drive from the large urban centers in Eastern U.S. and Canada.
The Legend of Thousand Island Dressing
The origin of 1000 Island Dressing is related to George Boldt, one-time owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and of the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia.
Legend has it that while cruising aboard his yacht amongst the 1000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River, as his steward prepared luncheon, he discovered that some of the ingredients normally used in his dressings were not available. He prepared a dressing using a variety of ingredients which George Boldt found so
pleasing that he decided to have it served in his hotels. It was called 1000 Island
Dressing in honor of the beautiful area where it was first prepared.
The steward was promoted to work at the Waldorf Astoria and subsequently rose to international fame as Oscar of the Waldorf.
Legends, Lore and Fun Facts of the 1000 Islands
There are many 'Lost Island' stories in the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Region. The First Nations people have tales of lost islands. Samuel de Champlain was a great cartographer yet he mapped huge islands where there are none. Do you think they could have sunk in the great earthquake of 1663?
Another ‘Lost Island’ story occurred after the American Civil War. It seems there was once an island near Alexandria Bay which disappeared under 20 feet of water—and no, it was not due to the St Lawrence Seaway but much earlier than that.
One day in the fall of 1823, an old hunter rowed out to an island where he found a dead man. He didn’t want to be accused of murder so he just buried the body and told no one. About four months later he rowed out to the area again but found no island. It had disappeared. That frightened the man so thoroughly that his son kept the story alive long after his death.
In 1884 a tourist, hearing the story, decided to try to find the island. He saw an old woman paddling a canoe towards him and being the friendly sort, she invited him back to her island for tea. While there she showed him letters and other documents that told this story.
In 1820 she married a young soldier from Ogdensburg and they lived peacefully on one of the Thousand Islands. Later she learned he was a deserter but they were secure and happy on the island for years. Then, when they needed supplies, the man rowed to the mainland and never returned.
Two weeks later a man came to her island and said he was a friend of her husband’s. He promised to take her to see her husband who was ill in Ogdensburg. She picked up her one year old son and went with him. Just off Alexandria Bay he stopped for water at a spring on the island. He grabbed her and tried to drag her into a hut. He then tried to kill her and said her husband had been shot by the army as a deserter. But she was in a fury over this and she shot him through the head.
She went on to Ogdensburg and found her husband was indeed caught, tried and executed. Friends of her husband helped restock her boat and she returned to her island home. On her return she went by the island where she killed the man and found it had disappeared. Was it an earthquake? Did a cave fall in and collapse the island? No one knows.
Old Moss Back
Jake Brennan was a famous fishing guide out of Gananoque Inn. He caught many big muskies some of which you can see on the walls of the Inn. Once he almost caught a fish he named "Old Moss Back". He had him on the line, fighting for hours, but the battle was lost - except for a scale caught on a barb of the lure. The rings of the scale suggested an ancient fish—but no one has ever caught it again. Old Moss Back is waiting out in the St Lawrence for the next fisherman who thinks he’s able to reel in the big one.
Ghost of Cedar Island
In 1840, Robert James worked on the Cathcart Redoubt on Cedar Island. The island workers lived at the site six days a week but had shore leave in Kingston Saturday eve to Monday morning. He met and fell in love with a woman named Elizabeth in Kingston. He died coming to see her one rough weekend eve and she spent the rest of her days watching for him from the promontory at Fort Henry. She has been seen as a ghost on Cedar Island frequently.
On September 12, 1846, a strong wind was blowing as Robert and the other workers headed for shore. The boat became unbalanced and tipped out 23 men into the cold lake. Seventeen drowned including Robert. Elizabeth refused to believe he was gone and spent the rest of her days watching for him from the promontory at Fort Henry. She passed away one cold day on the Fort Henry promontory.
After the Martello tower was completed on Cedar Island, soldiers stationed there talked of a beautiful lady, who appeared and disappeared mysteriously. Picnickers and boaters also reported seeing Elizabeth—the Ghost of Cedar Island. Is she still visiting the island waiting for Robert to return?
Smuggling has taken place in the Thousand Islands since there were borders. The Horse Thief Trail took horses south and beef north during the war of 1812 and remains of it can be walked on Hill Island.
In the Prohibition years, fast runabouts with names like Miss Behave stowed bottles in secret compartments. These same boats can be seen as pleasure craft on the river today and in the Clayton Antique Boat Museum in NY. The boats had hollow places under the floorboards to hide liquor. Naturally, if the boat was stopped, bottles would fly over the side. The cottage on Mink Island has a cement closet with a vault door as well as a secret room under the dining table accessed through a trap door under the rug.
About 1900, there was farming on many of the Thousand Islands. The people lived there year round and had to last out months of poor weather with sleds or boats. On Ash Island, a farmer bought a Ford Model A. There was one road that ran down the middle of the island through the farm. It would have been about one kilometer long.
To pay back misdeeds of the farmer, a group from the mainland drove the car around the island and sent it off the cliff on the west end. It's still swimming with the fishes.
Blind fiddler, Chauncy Patterson and his son rowed from Alexandria Bay, New York to play for Visger's tour boat as it passed the Ivy Lea area in the evening. That would have been about 15 kilometers in rain, wind and dark of night. Chauncy was such an amazing violinist that he charmed the tourists. Visger also arranged light shows at night with lanterns hanging on large wooden shapes. There was one such shape in a shed on Calumet Island off shore from Clayton, NY. Visger also took passengers to the Ivy Lea Inn, which is still there at the Ivy Lea Club.
Brown's Bay Wreck
For years, local kids swam around and ‘cannon-balled’ into the river from the timber sides of an old wreck that lay on the sandy bottom off Patterson Point, on the west side of Brown’s Bay Park. The hulk had probably lain in those shallows for a century before it came to the attention of archaeologists. This proved to be an exciting find! It was raised, soaked in preservative baths and housed in a display building at Mallorytown Landing in St Lawrence Islands National Park—now called Thousand Islands National Park.
While souvenir hunters and shifting river ice had pried some of the hull timbers free, and the decks were completely gone, enough of the hull remained to track down its origins.
From the dimensions and construction details, it was soon obvious that this was a British gunboat, from the time of the War of 1812. The original planking of the hull, for example had been done with copper nails, as navy specifications would have demanded, but later repairs were done with iron nails, since by 1829 builders knew that this type of fastener would last the life of the hull in fresh water. Although hundreds of ships, of all sizes and types, had been built by both sides for the war effort, very few examples survive, even as wrecks.
A search of the records kept by the Royal Navy seemed to narrow the list of possibilities down to the H.M.S.Radcliffe. This was the last boat listed as built at the Kingston naval shipyard, completed March 31, 1817, just a short time before the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 was signed. The terms of this treaty limited the number of armed ships that both Britain and the United States could operate on the Great Lakes. As it was no secret to either side that such a treaty was being negotiated, shipyards rushed to complete whatever vessels they could. Fortunately, this turned out to be a lasting peace, and the ships and boats were never needed for service again.
Murder on Maple Island
For the people of Clayton, the incident had all the ingredients of a good mystery. It was the early part of the month of June in 1865, and there were as yet few people living in the region, let alone spending summers on islands. A stranger was sure to be noticed right away. The man rowed over from Gananoque in a skiff and took a room at a hotel in Fisher’s Landing. He spent a few days exploring the Islands and fishing, keeping pretty much to himself. Recalled one local man in the sleuthing of the events that were to follow, “He was about 30 years of age, with black hair, eyes and beard, well dressed, very uncommunicative, dark as a Spaniard, and very restless.”
No doubt there were some that warmed to the stranger when he employed a few carpenters to help put up a cabin on Maple Island, a little to the north and east of the village of Clayton. The cottage was built on a bluff and had a good view over the river, but was itself screened from view from the water by bushes. The work was done in short order, and again the man kept to himself, with just his books and a violin for company.
One night, there was an orange glow across the water over the island. People in the area assumed there was a fire, but figured that the man would have escaped and that he would show up at the village the next morning. When he didn’t arrive, a party went out to see what had happened. What they saw set the whole village to talking. The man had been murdered. His throat had been slashed and there were cross-shaped knife cuts in a triangular pattern on his chest.
Now as it happened, a week before the murder several men, assumed to be southerners by their accents, had been seen around various hotels in Clayton. Interestingly enough, they had set out by skiff supposedly for Alexandria Bay, the evening of the murder.
The cuts on the dead man were recognized as a sign for the secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle. The most popular theory floated in the Islands was that the stranger was none other than the Treasurer of the society, a man named John A. Payne, who had made off with $100,000 of the blood money paid to the society for the assassination of President Lincoln. It appeared that Payne had been hunted down and killed for running out on the society. The murder was never solved and exactly what transpired that night on Maple Island will never be known.
This story was recorded in The Picturesque St. Lawrence, written as a souvenir of the Thousand Islands by J.A. Haddock in 1895.
In 1799, a handsome Frenchman, possibly a nobleman, and his beautiful Indian wife, some say a princess of a tribe to the west, moved to the island east of Mallorytown Landing where a lone chimney now stands. They built a log cabin and offered hospitality to passers-by on The River. Their cabin hosted a wealth of furnishings in an otherwise rustic environment.
On October 25,1800, Enoch Malloy and Joseph Buck were hunting along the river and found the island in a mass of flames. As they came around the south side of the island they found a half burnt canoe adrift carrying the body of the Frenchman with a tomahawk in his skull. There was no sign of his wife.
When the fire died, the only thing left was the blackened chimney. That’s when the island earned its name.
Thomas Sherwood, Magistrate of Brockville and Major-General Hunter, Lieuntenant-Governor of Upper Canada investigated but found no answers.
During the War of 1812-1814 it was a British Blockhouse. A garrison of soldiers were stationed on the mainland just over the hill on the present day River Road. A causeway led to the island where there was a blockhouse similar to Fort Wellington in Prescott. The blockhouse had a terribly poor and smokey chimney, but it stood for many decades after the blockhouse was gone. The islands present chimney was build from rubble of the other two by a Chicago steel magnate.
The Lost Channel
In 1760, during the England/French Seven Year War, the English were in control of most of the territory except Fort De Levis on an island near present day Prescott. The English had the upper hand and went in for the kill, with a three pronged attack from the Quebec, Lake Champlain and Oswego. The force from Oswego was 10,000 men with two war ships,the Onondaga and the Mohawk and a few hundred bateaux and small boats.
However, on their way, the Onondaga went in a more northern channel and as the sun set, the wind died, the French and allies ambushed them from the islands. The Onondaga was lost in the islands and under fire near the present day Thousand Islands Bridge. The captain sent a bateaux to ask the Mohawk for help in finding a passage then opened fire on the French and the Mohawk drifted into safety. The French and Huron withdrew but the bateaux was never seen again.
Several years later a small sunken craft, with Onondaga painted on the stern, and thereafter the passage was called 'The Lost Channel'.
In 1838, Elizabeth was visiting friends in Clayton when she overheard plans to attack Gananoque. She bravely crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River to warn the town. The town prepared with liquor, guns, men and horses scouting out the American's progress. It was bitter cold but the ice was unreliable and some men and horses were lost. The scouts concentrated their efforts at Hickey Island, close to Grindstone and found there that the Americans abandoned their plans. Two towns full of friends were saved by a heroine.