The Castles, and Mysteries, of the Thousand Islands

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Lynn Freehill-Maye

When you first see the cedar-shingled T-shirt shops and smell the diner-fried eggs of Alexandria Bay, New York, you might have trouble picturing the down-to-earth town as a millionaires’ haven. But look across the St. Lawrence River and you’ll see a castle, and then you might start to understand this place has a storied past. Still, it will take some time to appreciate the grandeur of an earlier century—and the mysteries behind today's casual summer village.

The first surprise for many might be that the Thousand Islands is an actual place. These days, it’s perhaps more famous as a tart salad dressing—but it’s also a real group of 1864 islands on the watery border between New York and Canada. The area basked in 30 years of glory as the summer colony for America’s wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, and even President Ulysses Grant vacationed there. The story goes that The New York Times stationed a Thousand Islands correspondent there to report on high society’s doings

The millionaires bought their own private islands and built castles that remain today—along with questions. Take a cruise with a local charter, like Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours, and you can consider them up close.

Singer Castle

Exactly how creepy is Singer Castle?

This European-inspired castle rose up on Dark Island as a hunting retreat for Frederick Bourne, the president of the Singer sewing machine company. He seemed to build it ready for his ghost to one day haunt. The stone walls feel medieval. Turrets, armor, and secret passageways are tucked all over.

How eerie does it feel? You can hop off your boat cruise and tour it during the day, but that won’t fully reveal the answer. The brave, curious, and deep-pocketed can rent it for the night (at rates around $700) to find out.

Boldt Castle


Why wasn’t Boldt Castle finished? The president of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel commissioned this 120-room showplace for Heart Island. The official story is that he planned to give the over-the-top summer home to his wife, Louise, on Valentine’s Day. That January, she died of “apparent heart failure” at 42. Construction stopped—and never resumed. Boldt was heartbroken—or was he? Some whisper to this day that Louise died of a drug overdose, or ran off with the chauffeur.

For nearly 75 years, the castle sat unfinished. Then the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority began a slow renovation. They're said to be around $38 million in. Entire floors are left to restore. But the ballroom, dining room, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated. Regardless of the real heartbreak behind it, Boldt Castle now inspires modern-day romance, hosting some 150 weddings per year.

Where did they stash all that liquor? During Prohibition, rumrunners used to skim across the watery international border in the St. Lawrence River smuggling liquor from Canada to the U.S., with legend saying they would hide whatever they were carrying to reclaim later when law enforcement got too close. But the border is so jagged, it’s hard to know which side your boat is on at any given moment. The owner of Zavikon Island, for instance, built a 32-foot bridge to the islet he also owned behind it. Saying Zavikon is in Canada and the little island is in the U.S., he called it the world’s shortest international bridge. But even that’s in dispute—some say it’s a tourism ploy, and that both islands are Canadian.

With a border so questionable—and tens of thousands of possible hiding spots–where did the bootleggers tuck their stashes? Unfortunately, those answers may have died with them.

A circa 1903 postcard depicting Calumet Castle. Image Credit: New York Public Library // Public Domain

What happened to Calumet Castle? An elegant water-tower-turned-lighthouse is all that stands of a third castle. Calumet was actually the first of the Thousand Islands’ castles, built by tobacco tycoon and hotelier Charles Emery in 1894. Like Boldt, Calumet has a tragic story of loss. Emery’s luxury Thousand Islands hotel, the New Hotel Frontenac, burned down in a fire that started (ironically for a man who made his fortune in cigarettes) with a musician smoking in his room. Emery’s first wife died young, and his second wife, Irene, died in Calumet Castle on his birthday in 1907. After that he shut the castle—which had hosted lavish parties with 10,000 Japanese lanterns illuminating the St. Lawrence River—for good.

Four decades later, in 1956, the massive stone building burned down. Was it arson? Did the owners, who'd been bad about upkeep, have it torched themselves? The place was cleared of contents, which were auctioned off before the fire; you can gape at the ruins and draw your own unofficial conclusions.

What is Skull & Bones up to in the Thousand Islands? Yale's shadowy society keeps an island nearby, reportedly given to them in 1949. May the Force be with you in finding out answers about this one. Certain facts about this elitest-of-the-elite group are known—it started in 1832, supposedly after the founder visited an occult society in Germany; 15 Yale seniors are tapped to join each year; and American leaders like George W. Bush and John Kerry have been members.

Still, Skull & Bones members take an oath of secrecy, and its rituals are a black box. Some hazard guesses about Deer Island—Atlas Obscura, for instance, reports that each initiate has to visit the mostly-in-ruins island as part of their long introduction ceremony. Do they simply party like college kids there, or is there more to it? The island’s uses remain unclear to this day.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Secret Doorway Discovered in London’s House of Commons

Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
ITV News, YouTube

Earlier this week, England’s Parliament announced that a secret door had been discovered in the walls of Westminster Hall.

BBC News reports that the 360-year-old passageway, located in the cloister on Westminster Hall’s west side, opens into a small chamber that would have led right to Westminster Hall if the other entry hadn’t been sealed. There are still traces of that entryway inside the passage, though, which include the original hinges for two wooden doors that would’ve been just under 11.5 feet tall.

Liz Hallam Smith, a University of York historical consultant for Parliament, explained that she and her team had been sifting through 10,000 uncatalogued documents about the Palace of Westminster when they uncovered old plans for the doorway, which they then located in person.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass keyhole that no one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” Smith said in a statement.

After several attempts, the Parliamentary locksmith managed to design a key that unlocked the door, revealing the long-forgotten passageway. Dendrochronologists analyzed wood from the ceiling and determined that the trees had been cut down in 1659, which tracked with historical accounts of the construction having occurred between 1660 and 1661 for the coronation banquet of Charles II.

According to Parliament’s statement, the passageway was used for coronations, Speaker’s processions—in which the Sergeant at Arms escorts the Speaker of the House of Commons from his apartments in the palace to the Commons chamber—and shortcuts by members of Parliament.

It hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s not completely empty: There’s a light switch and a working light bulb that historians believe was installed during renovations after World War II, and there’s also some cheeky “graffiti” from about 100 years before then. Bricklayers who restored the room in the years after the fire of 1834 scrawled “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and “These masons were employed refacing the groines [sic] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” on its walls.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” Mark Collins, a Parliament estates historian who helped find the passage, said in the statement. “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

[h/t BBC News]

10 Houses Built Out of Spite

The "Skinny House" in the North End of Boston is an extremely narrow but surprisingly tall spite house.
The "Skinny House" in the North End of Boston is an extremely narrow but surprisingly tall spite house.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Your town probably has an architectural oddity or two; a building locals love to point out to visitors. But the buildings in this list are no whimsical creations—they were borne of pure spite. Some were constructed to block a nearby house's view or feed a family feud, while others were made to thwart city planners. Here are 10 spite houses that prove that though good fences make good neighbors, vengeful construction makes for way better neighborhood history.

1. The Hollensbury Spite House // Alexandria, Virginia

When most people want to keep people away from their property, they build a simple fence. But that wasn’t enough for John Hollensbury. The cranky brickmaker built this 7-foot-wide house in 1830 to prevent people from using the alley next to his home, as he was miffed that wagon traffic kept nicking his walls.

2. The Tyler Spite House // Frederick, Maryland

A house stands at the end of a road
The Tyler Spite House blocked the creation of a road.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

John Tyler, an ophthalmologist, hastily built this 1814 mansion to prevent the town from building a road through his property. A local law stipulated that the city couldn't build a road if a building was being constructed in the path of said road, so the doctor quickly ordered that a foundation be poured for this mansion.

3. The Virginia City Spite House // Virginia City, Nevada

In the 1950s, a miner decided to build himself a house in downtown Virginia City, Nevada. But his charming white abode did not prove to be a peaceful sanctuary. One of his enemies later purchased the empty lot next door and constructed his own home less than a foot away, blocking his view and cutting off the ventilation on that side of the house.

4. The Old Spite House // Marblehead, Massachusetts

A vintage postcard of a wooden house
A 1912 postcard of The Old Spite House.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to local legend, this unusual abode was borne of brotherly ill will. One brother, angry about the way their land was divided up, built his section of the house in such a way that it blocked his sibling's view.

5. The “Skinny House” // Boston, Massachusetts

Another disputed inheritance between brothers resulted in Boston’s Skinny House. One brother built a home that reportedly took up more than his fair share of the land. When the second brother returned from serving in the military, he built a skinny house to block the sunlight from his brother's building. The resulting architectural oddity doesn’t even have a front door, meaning people have to squeeze in through a side door that looks more like a window.

6. The Sam Kee Building // Vancouver, British Columbia

Pedestrians walking toward a thin building
The Sam Kee Building is a remarkably skinny commercial space.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Vancouver officials decided to widen Pender Street, their plan took a big bite out of the plot of land owned by the Sam Kee Company—without properly compensating Chang Toy, the company’s owner. In 1913, Toy built a commercial building on the narrow sliver of ground he still retained. The resulting structure is only 6 feet wide. Extra space is achieved with pop-out windows on the second floor, which overhang the sidewalk.

7. The Alameda Spite House // Alameda, California

There are two origin theories for this beloved Northern California landmark. One purports a man named Charles Froling built the house after Alameda attempted to claim his land to construct a street, while another chocks it up to sibling rivalry. The unusual house is still occupied, and thanks to a stained glass window emblazoned with the words “Spite House,” it wears its vengeful history proudly.

8. The Cambridge Spite House // Cambridge, Massachusetts

A small wooden house with green trim
It looks like a shed, but this tiny building is actually a spite house.
ArnoldReinhold, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

What is it about spiteful landowners in Massachusetts? In 1908, Francis O'Reilly tried to persuade his neighbor to purchase his small parcel of land. When the neighbor declined, O’Reilly constructed an 8-foot-wide abode on the meager plot. The interior designer who now occupies the space has said that the building is like a three-dimensional billboard for her work.

9. The Freeport Spite House // Freeport, New York

John Randall, a developer, did not support his town's attempt to implement a grid system. To thwart the plan, he built a Victorian house on a triangular plot of land. Aerial views of this Long Island town show that the streets had to loop around the large plot, destroying their symmetry.

10. The Plum Island Spite House // Plum Island, Massachusetts

A pink house beneath a full moon at dusk
The lonely Plum Island Spite House, without a neighbor in sight.
Lee Wright, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite this house’s pink hue, its past is far from rosy. Local lore says that in 1925, a woman agreed to divorce her husband on one condition: He had to build her a replica of the home they shared. The man agreed, but rather than kindly complying with her wish, he built the house atop a distant salt marsh, where she wouldn’t even have access to fresh running water.