Villages and hamlets of the 1,000 Islands

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Glenda C. Booth

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, built in 1827, marks the point where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River in northern New York.
Photo by George Fisher

The great St. Lawrence River, which flows from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, is inviting. It invites curious travelers, outdoor enthusiasts, pumpkin catapulters and even would-be princes and princesses who harbor fantasies of living in castles.

Throughout history, it has lured Native Americans, Canada’s First Nations people, fur traders, explorers, international merchants and warring nations.

The St. Lawrence River Seaway, which includes a system of rivers, canals, locks and dams from Lake Superior to the Atlantic, constitutes the largest freshwater waterway in the world, stretching 2,300 miles.

But this story is about a very special 50-mile section of the St. Lawrence that straddles the border between New York state and Ontario, Canada. It is dotted with 1,864 chunks of rocky earth — islands that range from 50 square miles to the size of a carport.

Native Americans called the region the “Garden of the Great Spirit.” According to an Iroquois legend, the Great Spirit gave people a magical garden, on the condition that they not fight. The tribes started warring against each other, so the Great Spirit picked up the paradise, and somehow the garden slipped from the Spirit’s hands, shattering into many islands.

Today, adventurous ramblers can find numerous intriguing nooks and crannies on and off the beaten path throughout the region.

Some highlights: Thirty lighthouses, 28 of which are historic (some open to the public); a replica of an 18th century European castle; a 19th century Army barracks; a town celebrating the War of 1812; unique museums; a contest to catapult pumpkins into the river; and the place where Thousand Island Salad Dressing was created.

If you want to take a tour, there are boat, balloon and helicopter options. There are also many excellent opportunities for fishing, boating, golfing and hiking. Diehard adventurers can dive for liquor bottles tossed overboard during Prohibition.

If you’re in your own car, New York’s 518-mile Seaway Trail bypasses busy interstates and meanders from one small scenic town to the next. On the southern end, Route 12 follows the shoreline through rolling green fields punctuated by silos, dairy cows, barns, farmhouses, and villages right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Sackets Harbor

I started my journey up the river in the village of Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario. I found the tourism director, Cheryl Payne, chatting on a bench in front of her store, the Calla Lilies Shop, with Timothy Scee, the town supervisor.

Tim instantly offered a personal tour, which started on Main Street, lined with pink roses, and wound through the Madison barracks, the battlefield and past the water tower. Robust, 12-foot lilac bushes seemed to leap up everywhere.

Sackets Harbor residents brag that their town was a critical 19th century U.S. naval station and shipbuilding center, as well as the stage for two battles in the War of 1812 where the British were vanquished. In the first, British warships arrived but then withdrew after suffering damage. In the second, the Americans repelled a landing force. The town is having a three-year-long bicentennial commemoration of the war through 2015.

The battlefield commandant’s house is furnished as Commodore Josiah Tattnall’s was in the mid-1800s. The Madison Barracks, a living history museum of military architecture, had a role in every war from the War of 1812 to World War II. For more history, visit http://paththroughhistory.ny.gov/.

Locals trumpet Funny Cide, the thoroughbred winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness races, because the racehorse was owned by six locals. The Boathouse Restaurant displays the jockey’s jersey and other paraphernalia.

Sackets Harborites are also proud of Caroline, the 2013 American Girl doll heroine, modeled after a local girl whose father was a shipbuilder taken prisoner in 1812 by the Brits. There is a blonde-haired Caroline doll in a long pink dress, as well as seven fiction books about her “life.”

For relief from war themes, Old McDonald’s Farm is a 1,000-cow dairy farm featuring a state-of-the-art milking parlor. Its computer technology tracks a cow’s activities, milk production, breeding and calf delivery dates.

The town’s visitor center in the Federal-Georgian-style Augustus Sacket House can supply additional suggestions.

Clayton

The hamlet of Clayton, perched on a peninsula jutting out into the St. Lawrence River, was founded as a lumber and shipbuilding center and port in 1822.

 A walking map from the Chamber of Commerce on Riverside Drive will guide your amble around the five-block historic district. It consists of 31 buildings erected between 1854 and the 1920s in Italianate and Richardsonian Romanesque styles. Some feature pressed metal and cast iron cornices and window crowns.

Given the town’s orientation to the river, locals are known as River Rats. So be sure to sample the local aged cheddar, River Rat Cheese.

The village centerpiece is the Thousand Islands Inn, which opened in 1897 to serve visitors arriving by rail. It’s the only one of three dozen inns in the 1,000 islands region to survive from that era. Its early 1900s d├ęcor is a step back in time, creating an ambience that landed the hotel on television’s Travel Channel 33 times.

The Antique Boat Museum, brimming with over 320 boats, is home to the largest collection of antique freshwater recreational boats in the U.S., from canoes to racing boats to the 106-foot, Gilded Age houseboat, La Duchesse, owned by hotel magnate George Boldt of Waldorf Astoria fame.

The houseboat has a steel hull, brass fireplace, nine bedrooms, five bathrooms, servants’ quarters, a dancing deck, and a flower potting room. Museum exhibits explore boating history, starting with dugout canoes.

The Thousand Islands Museum at 312 James St. documents life along the St. Lawrence River. It features duck decoys and the Muskie Hall of Fame, dedicated to fishing for the large, elusive trophy fish known as the muskellunge (or muskie). Guides take visitors out to snag bass, pike, walleye, trout, salmon and muskie.

Alexandria Bay


The unfinished Boldt Castle sprawls across one of the more than 1,000 islands in a portion of the St. Lawrence River that divides New York and Ontario. The castle, off the coast of the town of Alexandria Bay, was being built by George Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, for his wife. He called off the project when she suddenly passed away during its construction in 1904.
Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council

Alexandria Bay has the feel of a beach town. When you tire of knickknack shops, sit back and gaze at the river, watch the cormorants and loons dive, and relax to the soft, droning sounds of passing ships. The freighters’ lights shine like strings of pearls in the black night.

The main attraction is the 127-room, Rhineland-style Boldt Castle on Heart Island, a 15-minute boat ride away (www.boldtcastle.com). Boldt, who was of Prussian origin, was building this ornate $2.5 million edifice for his wife, Louise, the love of his life.

Upon her sudden death in 1904, Boldt immediately halted work by its 300 craftsmen. The unfinished mansion remained that way until the property was acquired by the government over 70 years later.

Today a tourist attraction, the castle’s first floor looks as the Boldts intended. Modeled after European castles, Boldt Castle rises six stories from the indoor swimming pool to the highest tower room.

A visit to Ogdensberg’s Fredrick Remington Museum, 36 miles north of Alexandria Bay, is worth a few hours. Remington’s paintings and sculpture, many centered on horses and Old West scenes, fill a house built in 1810.

What about the famous salad dressing? In the early 1900s, George LaLonde, a Clayton fishing guide, was hosting May Irwin, a prominent New York City actress and her husband. Irwin commended the tasty salad dressing made by LaLonde’s wife, Sophia. Irwin requested the original recipe, naming it “Thousand Island Dressing.”

Back in New York, Irwin gave the recipe to Boldt, and he immediately ordered his Waldorf Astoria maitre d’ to put the dressing on the hotel restaurant’s menu, thus introducing it to the world.

It’s the only salad dressing named for a region of the U.S. You can buy it online at www.1000-islands.com/dressing.

If you go

Before taking a jaunt into Canada, research border crossing requirements. Regulations change, so check both U.S. and Canadian regulations at http://www.cbp.gov/travel and www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca. A passport is accepted at the borders, but check the sites for other acceptable types of identification if you don’t have one.

The closest local airports are in Watertown (www.watertownairport.com) and Kingston, Ontario (www.cityofkingston.ca /residents/airport). Sackets Harbor is one hour north of Syracuse, N.Y. The least expensive roundtrip flight from the Washington area to Syracuse in late July is $184 from Reagan National.

Visit the following websites for more information:

Thousand Islands Tourism, www.visit
1000Islands.com

The Seaway Trail, www.seawaytrail.com

Sackets Harbor, www.sacketsharborhistoricalsociety.org, www.visitsackets.com, www.sacketsharborny.com

Clayton, www.1000islands-clayton.com

Alexandria Bay, www.alexbay.org