Updated: Aug 23, 2021
I’ve been trying to create a catchy title but honestly, the name speaks for itself. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place with a thousand Islands, lighthouses, breathtaking sunsets and even a couple castles? OH, I almost forgot, they even have their own salad dressing!
We’ve been kicking around the idea to go to the #ThousandIslands for a few years. We kept saying, well maybe after we come back from this place or that, then Covid-19 hit. BLAH! But without it we wouldn’t have made it there this year.
The Thousand Islands sits on the St. Lawrence River at the northern end of the Tug Hill Plateau. (You hear that a lot on the Weather Channel in the winter.) There are actually 1,864 islands in the 1000 islands region. The islands are spattered in the St. Lawrence River and either belong to Canada or the United States.
We took a glass bottom boat ride while we there, because it sounded like fun (and it was) and the ship captain explained that the river is a fickle thing to maneuver.
The St. Lawrence carries ocean freight in those enormous cargo ships into Lake Ontario and they have a very narrow channel in which to do so. He explained that in the channel, the river depth is up to 95 feet in spots but if you go off course by as little as 15 feet you can go from 95 feet of water to five feet of water. I suddenly admired the river pilots that much more.
Being this close to Canada has lots of advantages, especially in the early 1930’s when the United States was deep into the 18th Amendment to the Constitution making it illegal to make or possess alcohol. Bootleggers LOVED the thousand islands region. It’s very easy to row a boat from Clayton or Wellesley Island to Canada, pick up your brew and then row back. One such person is famous in the Thousand Islands for doing just this, but much, much earlier than the 1930’s.
Bill Johnston is a household name in the 1000 Islands, He was a River Pirate that moved back and forth between Canada and America. He fought for Canada in the war of 1812. He was suspected of spying for the Americans and was arrested. Shortly after being arrested he escaped and paddled to Sackets Harbor in a canoe. The British took Sackets Harbor and Bill swore an allegiance to the U.S.
Johnston was made a commander of a small armada of river boats (they were actually small row boats called gig’s) Gig’s required six oarsmen which made them very fast and if they were ever cornered or surrounded they would simply paddle to the nearest island, hop out and carry the boat to the other side and be on their way. It was brilliant! Bill and his men spyed on the British, attacked their supplies, burned their boats and robbed their mail couriers. For this, they deemed him a pirate - Phhh. Burn a couple boats and steal some stuff and automatically you’re a pirate...
After the war, Bill and his family settled in Clayton (His Son’s house is now a really cool restaurant and bar). But his story doesn’t end here.
Bill continued to smuggle tea and rum back and forth from Canada and the United States until another skirmish broke out. A group of Canadians rebelled against British rule, and Johnston, always eager for some excitement joined the Canadian Rebels. He was appointed Admiral of the eastern Navy, even though they had no navy. Eventually, the group had some men and boats and started attacking U.S. and Canadian ships on the St. Lawrence. One in particular is the attack of the Sir Robert Peel in which Johnston was subsequently caught and arrested.
He escaped! Was arrested again but no jury would convict him so he went home to Clayton and opened a saloon.
A few years later, the United States built a brand new lighthouse on the St. Lawrence just across from Clayton. Guess who was chosen to be the very first keeper of the light? None other than our favorite pirate Bill Johnston.
The Rock Island Lighthouse is about four and half miles into the river from Clayton.
#TheRockIslandLighthouse was built in 1847 and was one of six lights to aid in navigation in the St. Lawrence. The light was closed in 1955, the State of New York took over the ownership in 1977 and began restoration of the light that is now open to the public and is a state park.
The town of Clayton also brings with it a bit of famous history, even though you may not know any of it as you enjoy it. #ThousandIslandsDressing got it’s origins in the small town of
Clayton, NY where George and Sophie Lelonde lived. George was a fishing guide and would serve a shore dinner at the end of a long day of fishing on the river. His wife Sophie would cook the food and serve it. She had created a dressing that was originally intended to be served with fish to dip the fish in similar to ketchup. The story goes that one day George had a very prominent New York City actress aboard his ship, her name was May Irwin. Miss Irwin was so impressed with the dressing that she asked for the recipe. Sophie was very flattered and willingly handed over the recipe. Miss Irwin took it back to New York and shared it with fellow 1000 Island vacationer George Boldt who owned the Waldorf-Astoria where it was put on the menu and served to guests on salads. Boldt and his Maitre’d Oscar Tschirky earned their credit of introducing the dressing to the world. But now we know it was really Sophie. The Thousand Islands Inn located in Clayton now bottles 5000 bottles annually of the original dressing that can be ordered from their website.
Speaking of George Boldt, apparently he was rich and owned a castle in the Thousand Islands...JOKE - yes, his castle was our sole purpose for wanting to go to the Thousand Islands! #TheBoldtCastle is beautiful, but has such a sad story.
In 1900 George Boldt was the millionaire owner/operator of the Waldorf-Astoria, a very prominent hotel in Manhattan. He and his family would spend summers in the cool breezes of the Thousand Islands at the family’s home on Wellesley Island. That year he decided to build a 120 room, six story Rhineland castle for his wife Louise. He spared no expense. He hired stone masons, carpenters and artists and imported decorative building materials. The castle was to have underground tunnels, an indoor pool, Italian gardens, a power house and even a dove cote. then in 1904 as the outside work for the castle was coming to completion tragedy struck and Louise passed away suddenly. Boldt could not fathom living in the castle without his beloved Louise so he walked away from the project.
The edifice sat vacant for 73 years open to the elements and vandals. In 1977 the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property on Heart Island and has been restoring the castle ever since.
Millions of dollars has been spent in the rehabilitation of the castle where visitors can roam the halls in the lap of luxury.
It’s a five minute boat ride to the castle from Alexandria Bay. Admission is reasonable and all proceeds goes to the restoration fund. Enjoy some of our pictures.
Clover Boldt’s Suite
Gardens outside the front stairs
The side porch
The waiting room
George Boldt’s sitting room
The stained glass dome which is actually suspended from the roof and not built in.
The Italian Gardens
A view from one of the porches
And the backside of the castle.
We had such an amazing time at the Thousand Islands we plan to go back and spend even more time and possibly take more people with us. I certainly hope you enjoyed our experience and if you happen to go, tell them the Fun Chasers sent you!
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We are also always looking for new and out of the way places to visit, if you have a suggestion or would just like to tell us “where to go” : ) feel free to leave a comment or email us. We would be happy to check it out and probably do a post in the future!