Geography and Geology
The Thousand Islands were called “the garden of the great spirit” by their original native inhabitants. There are actually almost two thousand of them (1,864), and more recent visitors have considered them to be among the most beautiful places on earth. This archipelago of tiny islands at the emergence of the St. Lawrence River into Lake Ontario represents the intersection of the Canadian Shield and the Adirondack Mountains. The Canadian Shield is the ancient geological core of the North American continent, extremely ancient igneous rocks from long-gone volcanoes active in the Precambrian period. The Precambrian age began at the probable formation of the earth 4.6 billion years ago, and lasted until the Cambrian period that began about 540 million years ago; creatures with shells were first preserved as fossils in the Cambrian age and were found in Wales, the ancient name for which was “Cambria”.
The Adirondacks are unusual dome-like mountains of more recent origin, about 5 million years ago. While most mountains are formed where the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust meet and are then eroded down, the Adirondacks were uplifted quite recently and the process is continuing. This process has resulted in a tremendous profusion of rocky outcroppings above the water, ranging in size from 40 square miles to just enough space for a residence or only enough room for migratory birds: to be considered one of the Thousand Islands, an islet must have at least one square foot of land continuously above water for a year and must support at least two living trees.
Although large ships can traverse the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands region is notorious for underwater rocks and shoals, some of which can easily be seen through the famously clear water. The accidental introduction of the invasive zebra mussel, which has otherwise caused severe problems in the Great Lakes, has actually improved water clarity by drastically reducing the population of algae. In addition to many tiny islands, there are about 20 island belonging to Ontario in Thousand Islands National Park, the oldest Canadian national park east of the Rocky Mountains. There are thirty state parks of varying size among the islands on the New York side of the border. There is a wide range of communities on the island and adjacent shores on both the American and Canadian sides, both resort areas with lodging and amenities and small hamlets that are much more rustic.
How to Get There?
The Thousand Islands Bridge crosses Wellesley Island, which is part of New York, to connect U.S. Interstate 81 and Ontario highway 137, which in turn connects to a King’s Highway and Ontario’s chief artery, Highway 401. Many of the smaller communities on the Canadian side are accessed by the Thousand Islands Parkway, once a four-lane highway but now a two-lane road after being superceded by route 401. New York state routes 12 and 126 connect the communities on the American side. These communities are on average about 61/2 hours from New York City, 4 hours from Buffalo, 3 hours from Toronto and 21/2 hours from Montreal.
Train service operates to Toronto and Ottawa on Via Rail from Gananoque and Brockville, Ontario. The Amtrak Adirondack line stops at Whitehall and Ticonderoga, New York, and bus connections to the Thousand Islands can be made through Watertown, although this can be very slow. Scheduled air service operates from Philadelphia to Watertown, and on the Canadian side there is air service from Kingston to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Private planes can land at Maxson airfield in Alexandria Bay, New York, or at Thousand Islands Regional Airport in Brockville, Ontario. U.S. citizens should be aware that passports are now needed to cross into Canada and to return, even on short excursions or day trips.
A major reason to visit the Thousand Islands is the water and the islands, and there are multiple cruise opportunities available in Alexandria Bay and Clayton on the New York side and from Kingston, Brockville, Gananoque, Mallorytown and Rockport, Ontario. Most of these excursions offer lunch, dinner or cocktails, and many also stop at various islands and communities, while some others explore the nearby rivers and canals, chiefly the historic Rideau Canal that connects Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario.
A canoe tour with preliminary paddling lessons and subsequent presentations by guides in voyageur costumes is also available on the Rideau Waterway at Smith Falls, Ontario. Private boaters will find many docks and marinas on the New York and Ontario sides of the St. Lawrence River and on Lake Ontario, and both accommodation and boats of a variety of sizes and forms of locomotion are available for rental at multiple private facilities and public marinas in New York and Ontario as well as Canada’s Thousand Islands National Park and the Thousand Island State Parks on the U.S. side.
Where to Stay?
Those who wish to stay put by the water are served by over 100 Ontario and New York lodging facilities, ranging from small motels and quaint cottages to bed and breakfast establishments in restored homes, local affiliates of the major hospitality chains, historic inns and large resorts. Some 60 campgrounds are also available for tent campers, those who arrive by RV or boat and visitors who wish to rent camping accomodations. There are also several youth hostels in Canada and the U.S. that can lodge traveling groups. The Thousand Islands International Tourism Council offers telephone and internet reservation services for either New York or Ontario.
What to See and Do?
The Thousand Islands were among the earliest summer resorts for American and Canadian vacationers. Grand hotels in the European style were built on islands and along waterways, and stone and masonry castles were built by wealthy summer residents, some of them remaining today as tourist attractions themselves. The islands were the chief resort destination of New York society during the last decades of the 20th century, and they were frequently joined by prominent families from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.
They brought with them state-of-the-art yachts and power boats, and the ornate vacation homes often had equally elaborate yacht facilities. For a time the American boat racing scene was centered in the Thousand Islands, and the American Power Boat Association held its Gold Cup races there for a decade. The Clayton Yacht Club, Thousand Islands Yacht Club and Thousand Island Club remain as examples of venerable boating clubs of the old school, and the old course of the Thousand Islands Country Club, the premier golf resort of the region dates from 1894. The recreational boat collection of the Clayton Antique Boat Museum is one of the world’s largest.
The best-known vacation remnant of the Gilded Age is the castle begun in 1900 by the German-born George S. Boldt, who started in a New York kitchen and became the premier American hotel operator of his day. Boldt Castle was to have been an expansion for his young wife of his family’s summer cottage on Heart Island. Boldt engaged the New York architectural firm of G.D. & D.W. Hewitt along with hundreds of workers to construct a six-story castle on the island and build a yacht basin, farm, golf course, stables and polo field on an adjacent island. Mrs. Boldt died in 1904 and construction was immediately suspended, leaving the property derelict for 73 years.
The castle was frequently visited, sometimes vandalized and eventually became dangerous, and the island was acquired for one dollar by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. More than $15 million has subsequently been spent to bring the castle to near-completion, and to restore the Power House, which is today a museum depicting how electricity was generated in the 1900s. Heart Island can be visited by boat from Alexandria Bay and from several Canadian ports, and the Boat House on adjacent Wellesley Island can be reached by shuttle boat. Canadian visitors should bring identification documents, as these islands are part of the United States and a Customs and Border Protection officer meets each boat. The islands and the castle have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, and the castle has figured in the 1969 novel Secret Castle and the 1995 video game Killing Time.
Only slightly smaller is the Singer Castle on Dark Island, begun in 1903 and modelled on the brooding Scottish castles in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. This was the last of the Gilded Age castles, built for the astonishing sum of $500,000.00 for Frederick Gilbert Bourne, president of the Singer sewing machine company and commodore of the New York Yacht Club; this was the only castle to be finished, and was in fact expanded in 1928 by Bourne’s daughter.
The castle is equipped with a maze of secret passageways, partly so that Bourne could keep tabs on his guests and partly to hide his copious supply of liquor during Prohibition. Castle and island were sold first to the Christian Brothers, then to evangelist Harold Martin, and fell into increasing disrepair but have been bought and refurbished, and today can be visited on day trips from Chippewa Falls or rented for very high-end weddings and vacations.
Many other historical sites are easily accessible, including the lodgings of British loyalists displaced by the American Revolution, British fortifications and battle sites from Canada’s Rebellion of 1838 and restored farmhouses, cottages, villages and cider and grist mills. The Rideau Canal, North America’s oldest, and Fort Henry that defended it in the War of 1812, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ontario, and Fort Wellington in Canada and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield in New York commemorate major battles of that war.
Eating, Drinking and Salad Dressing
There may be as many options for food and drink in the region as there are islands. The best-known contribution of the Thousand Islands is the dressing that bears their name, but the origin of this famous combination of mayonnaise and chopped vegetables, eggs, nuts and spices is not known for sure. One story relates that Sophie LaLonde, wife of a noted fishing guide, developed the dressing for the fish dinners he prepared for his vacationing clients.
Another story traces the recipe to the Herald Hotel in Clayton, which survives to this day as the Thousand Islands Inn. Other versions claim that the recipe was created by George Boldt’s chef or given to him by vacationing New York actress May Irwin, and that Boldt instructed his maître d’hotel Oscar Tschirsky to put the dressing on the menu of the Waldorf-Astoria. At any rate, you can get the dressing almost everywhere in the islands as well as high-level cuisine and a combination of relaxation and active pursuits that is as rejuvenating today as it was in the days of Boldt and Singer and Walt Whitman.