Tales of a Thousand Islands

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; 11:53 AM

In the Thousand Islands, every isle has its own story. Collectively, that means 1,864 tales - the area's name lowballs the number - bounded by the banks of the St. Lawrence River along the New York and Canadian border.

Here's one for the books: On Heart Island, George C. Boldt, the wealthy proprietor of New York's Waldolf-Astoria, commissioned a castle for his wife, Louise. When she suddenly died (or, some say, ran off with the chauffeur), he halted construction and abandoned the project. Today, the castle stands empty, like a wedding ring setting without its diamond.

And another: On Occident Island, Phyllis Gardner, who maintains the family's 110-year-old property with her grown daughters, recalls her younger self rowing a skiff to the mainland for blocks of ice (the only form of refrigeration) and attending lively dinners of chicken and dumplings and homemade peach ice cream, fueled by spirits. "I didn't realize until I was older that the fun of it was drinking whiskey, not churning the peach ice cream," said the 76-year-old.

And a submission of more recent vintage: A Washingtonian flies to Syracuse, drives north about 90 miles and turns her ear to the oral histories that inject humanity into a hard granite landscape formed by the Ice Age and parceled by erosion. Over four days, she learns that no man is an island, even when he lives on one, and no island is an inanimate slab of rock.

The Thousand Islands region is straightforward in location - the southern portion of the St. Lawrence River, near the mouth of Lake Ontario, with New York to the east and Canada to the west - but wiggly in terms of exploration. After the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent divided the real estate equally, giving each country the same total area but Canada two-thirds of the islands. The boundary follows a ragged course, as if it were plotted by a fish evading a predator. "At the time, they thought it was equitable to keep the line at the river," said Norm Wagner, historian at the Clayton Historical Society. "They didn't want to split the islands."

The archipelago covers 100 miles of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but the largest clustering of islands falls between Cape Vincent and Alexandria Bay in the United States and Kingston and Rockport in Canada. From the shore, the nationalities are often blurred, with properties waving both the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf. But sometimes you can guess the allegiance by the island's name: Amherst, Simcoe and Howe, for instance, were all British admirals and generals. Quirky monikers such as Fairyland, Toothpick and Pot Hole are all-American.

By definition, the islands must remain above water year-round and be sturdy enough to support at least two trees. But the shapes, sizes and amenities of each vary wildly. Wellesley Island, the cushion beneath the Thousand Islands International Bridge, is one of the larger landmasses, featuring three golf courses, two state parks, a former Methodist revivalist camp (now a historic district), the turn-of-the-century Wellesley Hotel, an ice cream shop and the Boldt Yacht House. By comparison, Just Room Enough is just that: The speck of land squeezes a house and a couple of wrought-iron benches pushed hard up against the shingles onto its banks. One misstep and you're swimming.

Most of the islands do not accept visitors, and it takes a boat to reach many of those that do. Fortunately, I was not pegged to the earth: By the end of my trip, I had ridden six vessels, including two ferries that linked Canada and the States via Wolfe Island. I could've knocked back seven had the captain of an oil tanker noticed my hitchhiker's thumb.

For the most commercial experience, day cruises travel up and down the St. Lawrence. I chose to set off from Gananoque, a Canadian town downriver from Kingston, because of the company's promise to show us all the islands. The boat also has Canadian perks, such as bilingual commentary and North of the Border brews. "You have to come here for the good beer," said captain Paul Davis.

The informational recording aired over the loudspeakers confirmed what I'd been hearing from the start: that theatrics of Shakespearean proportions have played out on these islands, especially during the Gilded Age, when America's millionaires summered here, flaunting their wealth and dysfunctions. The area was the stage for murders, broken loyalties, troubled hearts, shipwrecks and unclaimed skeletons. Is that a floating stick in the water or . . . a fibula?

As the vessel chugged along on a loop, I scrambled from starboard to port, bow to stern. Stay idle and you'll miss the visuals to the stories. On Maple Island, for instance, an 1865 fire engulfed the cabin of a recluse who was found nearby with his throat slit. Some say he was John Payne, an alleged conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Deer Island is affiliated with Skull and Bones, which sounds like a pirate fan club but is actually a secret society at Yale. And as we passed the lordly Boldt Castle, the speaker intoned the well-known tale, with the Option A ending of Mrs. Boldt's death. On the return to port, an announcement gave the hoi polloi hope: Years ago, a couple won Paradise Island in a $2 raffle. Less than the price of a Molson in the boat's snack bar.

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