The Rush of '72
For more than 150 years the Thousand Islands have attracted passionate enthusiasts with their bountiful fishing, superb boating and breathtaking vistas. The St. Lawrence River is a 750-mile waterway that has as its reservoir the largest system of freshwater lakes on Earth. Reaching all the way from Lake Superior, the fully navigable waterway is nearly 2,000 miles long, connecting the heartland of North America to the Atlantic Ocean and, from there, on to the great commercial ports of the world. The St. Lawrence River begins its journey to the sea at the northeastern corner of Lake Ontario between Kingston, in Ontario, and Cape Vincent, in northern New York State. The uppermost 50 miles of the St. Lawrence River moves swiftly through a maze of nearly 2,000 islands, making it one of the most picturesque rivers anywhere.
The section of the river better known as the "Thousand Islands" begins at the river's mouth and extends for nearly 50 miles downriver. The maze of islands is so concentrated that the international boundary line between New York State and Ontario becomes indistinguishable. For local sportsmen and boaters, the islands form a series of friendly stepping stones that have blurred the border for decades. The size, shape and overall appearance of each island are remarkably varied. Some of the larger islands can still support large, productive farms and year-round residents. The picturesque islands beckon visitors to explore and enjoy the sense of quiet isolation they offer. For nearly 200 years before the arrival of Europeans, the Iroquois occupied this region and were so taken by it that they referred to it as their Garden of the Great Spirit. It was in the Thousand Islands that Hiawatha is said to have first appeared before the Confederacy of the Five Nations.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, trappers, hunters and fishermen settled in the region. Soon, regular ferry service from Clayton's Bartlett Point to Gananoque, Ontario, was established. It didn't take long before some of the wealthier islanders created structures that were considerably more than modest summer residences. By the last quarter of the century, many of America's prominent families were discovering the Thousand Islands, and it would soon become recognized as one of the more appealing summer recreation destinations in the Northeast.
The Thousand Islands region was propelled into the national limelight when an incumbent American president agreed to spend a week's vacation in the Thousand Islands. George Pullman, one of America's high-profile industrial leaders and the developer of the rail car that bears his name, invited President Ulysses S. Grant to his Thousand Islands cottage. The President extended the invitation to include two celebrated American Civil War generals, William Sherman and Philip Sheridan. This informal gathering of illustrious vacationers became a major news event for the summer of 1872. By coincidence or by design, this celebrated visit occurred at the very same time as the National Association of Newspaper Editors annual convention at one of the Thousand Islands' hotels. Newspaper reports of the President's activities introduced millions of readers to the wonders of the region. It was also reported that, before he returned to Washington, President Grant expressed interest in purchasing nearby Friendly Island. The rapid growth period that followed the presidential visit became known as the "Rush of '72."
In 1888 George Pullman decided that it was time to replace his modest fishing lodge with a spectacular new structure. The new home would be named Castle Rest, and with its construction an era of remarkable island development commenced. Fabulous summer homes were designed by well-known architects and built on highly visible islands along the main channel. Cottage communities began to spring up along the mainland waterfront and on the shores of Wellesley Island.
Castle Rest inspired others with the means to build island castles. In 1893 tobacco merchant Charles Emery built Calumet Castle. George Boldt, of Waldorf Astoria fame, followed suit by building his famous unfinished Boldt Castle in 1900. Singer Sewing Machine president Frederick Bourne began construction on his remarkable Dark Island Castle in 1903. The Thousand Islands had firmly established itself as the new summer playground for wealthy Americans.
The unprecedented development also spawned a wide range of service industries in the region. The small river communities began to flourish with businesses and services. Highly skilled stonemasons, carpenters, steelworkers and boatbuilders were all in demand. Lumberyards, quarries, hotels and restaurants were opened and commercial boatbuilding continued to prosper. By the turn of the century, powerboat racing was a major sport on the river. For nine consecutive years, from 1904 to 1912, the Gold Cup Trophy, boating's most prestigious national recognition for sustained speed on the water, was awarded to a member of one of the Thousand Island yacht clubs.
The stories related in this book offer a fascinating account of success and failure, of creativity and even absurdity. Many of the interesting structures of the Thousand Islands have survived for a hundred years or more, in spite of depressions, World Wars, gasoline rationing and even neglect. Even as this book is being prepared, the most famous island structure of all, Boldt Castle, continues with construction that began in 1898. George Fischer's remarkable photography captures the charm and beauty of the islands, the unusual homes, some of the rare boats and many of the enchanting details that bring out the special character of the Thousand Islands. We invite our readers to enjoy a few glimpses of life in the Thousand Islands as it is today and as it was in the past.