The Thousand Islands is an archipelago of 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada–US border which lies in the St. Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 50 miles downstream from Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian islands are in the province of Ontario and the U.S. islands in the state of New York.
The islands range in size from over 40 square miles to smaller islands occupied by a single residence, or uninhabited outcroppings of rocks. To count as one of the Thousand Islands, emergent land within the river channel must have at least one square foot of land above water level year-round, and support at least two living trees.
Our visit took us up to the Alexandria Bay area, which was a fashionable retreat for the elite in the late 19th century.
We were only staying for a couple of days and decided to take a boat tour to visit two of the impressive properties located in Alexandria Bay; Singer and Boldt castles.
There are a number of companies providing boat tours, and after a bit of searching, we decided to book a Singer / Boldt castle combo tour with Uncle Sam Boat Tours which operates out of Alexandria Bay, New York.
The first part of the tour goes out to Singer Castle, which takes about an hour. This provides a great opportunity to see more of the numerous islands that make up part of the Thousand Islands and learn more about life on the Saint Lawrence.
It can be a little chilly out on the water in the mornings, even in the summer, so I would suggest taking a jacket.
The St. Lawrence river is a busy shipping channel, not only for leisure boats but for commercial vessels. The St Lawrence Seaway, also known as the ‘H2O Highway’, is a system of locks, canals and channels in the two countries that permits ocean-going vessels to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, as far inland as Duluth, Minnesota, which is located at the western end of Lake Superior. Together, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes are the longest deep-draft navigation system in the world, extending into the North American heartland. The system includes the five Great Lakes and their connecting channels, as well as the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
As you travel the St. Lawrence river you will see different types of commercial ships. “Lakers” are built specifically for use within the Great Lakes / Seaway System, and rarely exit the waterway. The second type of ship is “Salties” which are ocean-going ships that enable trade with nations overseas. They are characterized by a V-shaped hull, sharp bows, and in many cases, cranes mounted on the deck to facilitate the loading and unloading of cargo.
SINGER CASTLE ON DARK ISLAND
Singer Castle makes quite a sight as you approach it. It reminded me of the castles of Scotland, with their turrets and battlements, which in this case was for decoration, not defence! This impression was no accident, as we later learned the original owners of the castle, the Bournes, had employed the renowned architect Ernest Flagg, whose design was inspired by a novel written by Sir Walter Scott about a castle named Woodstock in 1832 in Scotland.
We disembarked our boat and divided into groups for our tour.
Now for the history lesson on Singer Castle.
In 1902, at the time that the Thousand Islands was becoming popular with the rich and famous in the early 1900s, the Bourne family acquired Dark Island. Mr Frederick Bourne was the fifth President of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, hence the name “Singer Castle”. The castle was constructed at a cost of $500,000 and the result was a 4 storey building with 28 rooms, a 4 story tower, and an elaborate boathouse. More than 2,000 loads of topsoil were brought over from Canada to cover the acres of rock on the island. Additionally, tonnes of granite was quarried from nearby Oak Island and brought over between 1903 to 1905 when the castle was being built. When the Bourne family summered there, it was called “The Towers”, a nod to its medieval design.
Frederick Bourne died in 1919, leaving behind a $43-million estate. Daughters May and Marjorie bought the castle from their siblings. Marjorie Bourne sold the island to LaSalle Military Academy of Long Island in 1961 for $100. The Academy didn’t have much use for the island, so the castle fell into disrepair over many years. Despite being on the market no buyer was found. In 2001, the property was acquired by Dark Island Tours, Inc., and a group of investors. An extensive campaign was undertaken to restore and adapt in order to open Dark Island to the visiting public. Tours were initiated in 2003.
The tour groups are staggered, so not every tour starts in the same place. Our tour started in the grounds of the castle.
From the grounds, the tour moved inside. The ground floor consists of the common rooms, including the grand entrance hall, the library, the dining room and sitting rooms.
Among the castle’s most unique rooms is the great hall, which is built in medieval style. A coat of armour stands guard amid stone walls, antique Singer sewing machines, and a huge marble fireplace. It’s a fairly large room, and infinity mirrors make it look even larger.
There’s a wine cellar, breakfast room, and formal dining room, the latter of which has buttons under the table for ringing the servants. In fact, almost every room has a button to call servants, except for the so-called “Marjorie’s suite” in the castle’s newer addition.
The grand library has walnut-panelled walls and a secret passageway back to the wine cellar, which was presumably built so that servants could deliver the drink in record time. There’s also a painting that tips back away from the frame so someone behind it can spy into the room.
Also, there is a secret passage leading from Bourne’s office to a dungeon, why he needed a dungeon we do not know.
Visiting Singer Castle is a unique experience. It is much better preserved than the nearby Boldt Castle, with the antique fixtures and furnishings frozen in time. It’s like walking onto a movie set, only someone actually lived there.
Today, interested parties can stay at Singer Castle, located on New York’s Thousand Islands, in the Royal Suite which sleeps up to six people. Not only does the suite mix period charm with modern amenities, but guests can request meals in any room you like.
It was now time to hop on our boat and head back down the St Lawrence river to Boldt Castle.
BOLDT CASTLE ON HEART ISLAND
George Boldt, manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia purchased Hart Island at the turn of the 20th century. For a while, Boldt, his wife Louise, and their two children lived in a home that was located on the island when they purchased it.
Soon, however, Boldt decided to build an impressive castle, similar to those found along the Rhine River in present-day Germany. The castle was to be a monument to his love for his wife, and the building incorporated many hearts in its design.
In fact, Boldt even went so far as to blast the island to give it a heart shape and changed its name from Hart Island to Heart Island.
However, in January 1904, just one month before Boldt was going to present this new home to Louise, she died in New York City. Heartbroken, George Boldt told the workers to stop, and the castle sat abandoned for many years and was never completed.
Eventually, the island was sold, and tours of the castle were offered over the years. However, without protection from the elements, the castle began to deteriorate. Fortunately, in the 1970s, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took ownership of the castle and both preserved it and worked towards restoring its grandeur.
Today, Boldt Castle is one of the most prominent landmarks of the Thousand Islands region and a must-visit destination while in the area.
Heart Island is just opposite the small town of Alexandria Bay and near Wellesley Island, one of the larger islands along the St Lawrence River. There are many tour boats stopping here so the dock on Heart Island is a hubbub of activity. Once on the island, you have free reign to walk around the gardens and visit the main castle and outbuildings.
The grounds …
The inside …
The inside of Boldt Castle is extremely grand, and it is interesting to realise that this building was never completed and decorated. So, everything on display from the room finishes, decorations and furniture have been installed as part of the restoration process.
The ground floor is where you will find the reception rooms, including a huge dining room, a sitting room and a music room. All these rooms are connected by a massive atrium entry hall, with a palatial staircase leading to the upper storeys. On this level, you’ll find the kitchen, which is always a favourite of ours when we visit a historic house.
In the main entrance hall there are some steps that lead down into the basement. Not much to see down here as this is where things we intended to be stored, but nonetheless, it was interesting to follow the labyrinth of small spaces.
The floor above the ground floor has been refurbished as bedrooms as would have been the case if Boldt Castle had been completed. These rooms are lavish and many of them have their own fireplace. I’ve never had a house with a fireplace in the bedroom, the thought of it sounds lovely but I can imagine there are some downsides too, such as cleaning it out!
The floors above the first floor are yet to be renovated and provide a glimpse of what the interior of Boldt Castle would have looked like before the renovations took place.
Though we enjoyed the stately rooms of the ground and first floors it was equally fascinating to see the bare structures that made up Boldt Castle.
The dove cote …
Before visiting Boldt Manor I had seen many pictures of the grounds and in particular the out-buildings – which is what really drew me here. These buildings are not large but their design and construction are fantastical and magical – a touch of Dr Suess and Tolkeinesque.
The Dove-Cote, also known as the Hennery was the first structure built on the island. This was where George Boldt housed his collection of fancy fowl. With a 60 foot tower, there was plenty of room for his birds to stretch their wings. The structure was built prior to Boldt’s purchase of the island and was used as a powerhouse for E. Kirke Hart’s cottage.
The Powerhouse and Clock Tower …
Likely one of Boldt Castle’s most photographed structures is the Power House and Clock Tower. Located on the eastern end of Heart Island, it was designed in the fashion of a Medieval Tower. To date it was one of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authorities largest reconstruction projects after a fire in 1939 severely damaged the building. Today it stands as George Boldt had originally intended, rising out of the St. Lawrence River from an underwater shoal. Connected to Heart Island by its one of a kind, picturesque, arched stone bridge. While its design is beautiful, it was designed as much for function as fashion. It housed two generators that would supply electricity to the entire island. Unfortunately much of the original equipment has been lost, only a few pieces remain on display. Today there are also photos and displays depicting the lifestyle of the people in the 1000 Islands at the turn of the century.
The Alster Tower …
Our favourite structure on Heart Island was the Alster Tower – it looks so magical Completed in 1899, the Alster Tower has a two-lane bowling alley, Kitchen, Billiard Room, Venetian Room, Library, Shell-Room and Theater, George Boldt wanted to create the ideal atmosphere for recreational activities. Unlike the main Castle, the Boldt family actually used the tower up until the time of Louise’s death in 1904. Much of the inside of the tower has yet to be renovated, including the bowling alleys, but when it is complete I am sure it will be stunning.
The Yacht House …
Across the channel from Heart Island on Wellesley Island is the Boldt family’s Yacht House. It costs a little extra on the entry fee to enter here but it is worth it. To get from to the Yacht House there is shuttle boat that makes the 5-minute crossing.
The Yacht House is very impressive and very large. The building, rises 64 feet, and features a shop to build racing launches and quarters for crew and staff. The grandeur of the Gilded Age is fully embodied in the structure’s shingle-style architecture, tremendous towers and spires and the steep-pitched gables.
Once inside you will find a collection of antique wooden boats on display – courtesy of the Antique Boat Museum located in Clayton NY.
The Yacht House also features a 1892 Steam Yacht. In the late 1800’s just before the dawn of the gasoline era many private steam yachts plied the waters of the St. Lawrence and Hudson Rivers, Long Island Sound and many large lakes in the region, including the Great Lakes.
The first floor living quarters of the Yacht House have also been restored. These are not too shabby – I would be very happy to be living in these rooms.
In summary …
- If you take the Singer and Boldt Castles tour then this is a full day out
- It can be a little chilly out on the water so bring a jacket, especially if you want to sit outside on the boat!
- This is a great opportunity to look at how the rich and famous lived during America’s ‘Gilded Age’
About Singer and Boldt Castle visits
|Address:||Uncle Sam Boat Tours, 45 James St, Alexandria Bay, NY 13607|
|Telephone:||T: (315) 482-2611|
Tours run from the Spring through to the Fall
Costs depend on the tour taken. The 3.5 hour Singer Castle tour ending at Boldt Castle cost $43. This does not include entry into Boldt Castle or Boldt Yacht House.
Best time to visit Alexandria Bay
Spring: Ice usually melts in late March to early April. You can start to see large ships making their way down the seaway and head outdoors for the first cosy outdoor campfires of the year. Temperatures in early spring reach highs in the low 40s, while May usually sees highs in the upper 60s and lows in the low to mid-40s.
Summer: Many seasonal activities are ramping up for the summer season, usually May-early September. Flowers will be booming, but crowds will be thick. Temperatures are in the high 80s to lows in the upper 50s.
Fall: A great time to visit as Fall crowds are fewer after kids go back to school. Many seasonal businesses close after Labor Day, but new fall-themed attractions pop up through November. Temps in early fall are in the low 70s to mid-40s.
Winter: Many activities stop running, but new activities such as snowmobiling, Ice fishing, and skiing are introduced. Temps range from highs in the upper to low 30s and lows in the teens and single digits.