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.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

The Ingenious Reason Medieval Castle Staircases Were Built Clockwise

Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images
Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or medieval programs in general, you’re probably familiar with action-packed battle scenes during which soldiers storm castles, dodge arrows, and dash up spiral staircases. And, while those spiral staircases might not necessarily ascend clockwise in every television show or movie you’ve watched, they usually did in real life.

According to Nerdist, medieval architects built staircases to wrap around in a clockwise direction in order to disadvantage any enemies who might climb them. Since most soldiers wielded swords in their right hands, this meant that their swings would be inhibited by the inner wall, and they’d have to round each curve before striking—fully exposing themselves in the process.

Just as the clockwise spiral hindered attackers, so, too, did it favor the castle’s defenders. As they descended, they could swing their swords in arcs that matched the curve of the outer wall, and use the inner wall as a partial shield. And, because the outer wall runs along the wider edge of the stairs, there was also more room for defenders to swing. So, if you’re planning on storming a medieval castle any time soon, you should try to recruit as many left-handed soldiers as possible. And if you’re defending one, it’s best to station your lefties on crossbow duty and leave the tower-defending to the righties.

On his blog All Things Medieval, Will Kalif explains that the individual stairs themselves provided another useful advantage to protectors of the realm. Because the individual steps weren’t all designed with the same specifications, it made for much more uneven staircases than what we see today. This wouldn’t impede the defenders, having grown accustomed to the inconsistencies of the staircases in their home castle, but it could definitely trip up the attackers. Plus, going down a set of stairs is always less labor-intensive than going up.

Staircase construction and battle tactics are far from the only things that have changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, people even walked differently than we do—find out how (and why) here.

[h/t Nerdist]

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