It was a beautiful, summery day on the River as Captain Alex Wilson navigated his tour boat, Miss St. Lawrence II, from her home port of Clayton, for another scenic tour through the islands. The 38 passengers aboard were thoroughly enjoying their cruise and eagerly anticipated the upcoming stop at the world-renowned Boldt Castle. The date was August 27, 1934.
In order to put that date into context, let’s take a look at the history books to see what was happening 85 years ago. In 1934, the Thousand Islands Bridge had not been built yet, and wouldn’t be for another four years. Television was in its infancy and jet aircraft had not yet been developed. Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House and Richard B. Bennett was the Prime Minister of Canada. North America was finally beginning to recover from the crippling economic depression of the early 30s, but was still in the grips of a horrendous drought in the Midwest. In Europe, Adolph Hitler had just named himself Fuhrer of Germany and set in motion actions that would change the history of the world forever. Needless to say, the world of 1934 was a much different place than it is today!
For well over 100 years, Boldt Castle has been the most popular tourist destination in the 1000 Islands. As the well-known folklore goes, George Boldt was having the castle built as a Valentine’s gift for his wife, Louise, but before the magnificent structure was completed, she died unexpectedly. Devastated, the heart-broken George ordered that all work be stopped immediately, and he never set foot on the island again. After George’s death in 1916, all of the Boldt family’s vast real estate holdings in the area were put up for sale, with the exception of Hopewell Hall, which George and Louise’s daughter, Clover, wanted to retain for herself.
Edward Noble, who had amassed a fortune from a shrewd investment in the Lifesaver candy brand, was very interested in purchasing the Boldt’s Wellesley Island properties but didn’t have any interest in Heart Island and the castle, which was beginning to fall into serious disrepair, due to years of neglect and exposure to the elements. In his book, Boldt Castle-In Search of the Lost Story, author Paul Malo wrote that the final details of the real estate transaction were completed on the golf course and that Clover Boldt unwaveringly demanded that, in order to acquire the properties that he really wanted, Mr. Noble would have to take ownership of the castle as well, which he reluctantly did.
Although Heart Island remained uninhabited following the Noble purchase and very little maintenance was performed on the various structures over the years, it was made available to the local tourist excursion operators to conduct tours of the abandoned castle and the grounds. People flocked to the area from all over the world to visit this grand monument of a husband’s love for his wife, which in turn created a booming tourism business on both sides of the border for years to come.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting the Cornwall Brothers Store Museum in Alexandria Bay, to do some research for an upcoming project when Judy Keeler, the president of the Alexandria Township Historical Society, pointed out some new material that had been recently donated to the museum’s archives. Among these treasures were several handwritten log sheets from Boldt Castle that listed all of the tour boats that had visited the castle on that particular day. In addition to the boats’ names, their owners, home ports and their captains’ names, and the number of passengers that each boat was carrying were also listed.
The sheets for Monday, August 27, 1934, are shown below. I had seen references made to the sheets in Dr. Robert Tague’s book, Early Tour Boats in the Thousand Islands from 1876 to 1960, and credit for them was given to John Comstock and Shane Sanford in that publication. These historical records were apparently found in an old trunk that had been tucked away upstairs in the Boldt Yacht House. I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I read through the yellowed sheets of paper. Opening right before my eyes was a window into the tour boat industry of 1934, with enough detail to paint an accurate picture of which boats were operating for which companies at the time, and who their captains were. Of course, being an engineer, I had to put all of this information into a spreadsheet and do a statistical analysis of the data.
Of the 41 log entries for this particular day, 40 were for commercial tour boats, and one was for a private boat. Of the 40 tour boats on the list, there were 28 unique vessels; 12 of them made a second trip to the castle. Of those 28 different commercial boats, eight were from Canada, and 20 were from the U.S.A. The home ports listed for the Canadian boats were Gananoque and Brockville, while the American boats hailed from Clayton, Alexandria Bay, and Thousand Islands Park. All of the tour boats came from either one of six tour boat companies or from one of seven independent owners. There was a total of 830 visitors to Heart Island that day, and 323 of them elected to stay over to explore the castle and island at a cost of 35 cents each.
The Gananoque Boat Line had four boats visit the castle: Sun Dance, Nymph, Almina, and Courier; the 1000 Island Boat Line’s boats were Patricia, Venice, and Miss Gananoque. Kiddo 6, owned by W.L. Snider, was the lone boat from Brockville. The Canadian captains included well-known family names, such as Meggs, LaSha, Dewitt, and Snider.
The Combined Thousand Islands Boat Tours from Alexandria Bay had six boats listed: Uncle Sam, Niagara, Sis III, Maxine III, Riot, and Capt. Adkins. Ward’s Boat Line, also from the Bay, had Commander, Commander II, Commander III, and Capt. Cliff recorded in the log. Edgar Snyder’s Paul and George Comstock’s Pat II rounded out the Alexandria Bay contingent. The Clayton boats included Spray VI, Miss St. Lawrence II, and Julia III from the Clayton Independent Line, and Edith II and Anywhere from the Yacht Edith Line. Capt. Eli Charlebois’s boat, Colonial, and the Spray III, owned by M.L. Hutchinson, were the privately-owned tour boats from Clayton on the list. Jay Gardner, of Thousand Island Park, had his boat, Gloria II, to the castle that day as well. There were also many recognizable names among the American captains—Haas, Wilson, Cuppernull, Jobson, and Comstock, to name a few.
Of the 28 tour boats that visited Boldt Castle that particular day in 1934, I am aware of only two that are still in existence today. The Pat II, which moved from the 1000 Islands to the Finger Lakes in the late 1950s and was subsequently abandoned in a boneyard, is currently undergoing a complete restoration at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport, NY. In addition to a complete structural rebuild, the old internal combustion engine is being replaced by an electric power plant. According to sources at the museum, it is hoped that the rejuvenated Pat II will get her bottom wet sometime in 2020.
The other boat that I managed to track down is the old Spray VI. Most recently operating as the Morrisania, and running tours to Singer Castle, she was hauled ashore and left on “the hard” for several years due to financial difficulties at the time. This lovely piece of 1000 Islands history was purchased by Ian Angus of Port Hope, Ontario; he is also performing a complete restoration on his vintage tour boat. Like the museum, Mr. Angus is planning on installing electric motors in the refitted vessel. The new owner hopes to have Spray VI completed for the 2023 boating season, just in time for her 100th birthday.
In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority was gifted Boldt Castle by the Edward John Noble Foundation; they soon began an ambitious rehabilitation program to return the dilapidated castle to its former glory, and much more. Millions of dollars have been spent on the restoration of the local landmark, and every year thousands of tourists visit Heart Island to marvel at the magnificent castle and the beautiful gardens surrounding it. I think Mr. Boldt would be pleased.
Author’s Note: If you are familiar with any of the Captains’ names, or the tour boats, listed in the above log sheets, and would like to share your memories and stories, we kindly request that you leave a comment at the end of the article so that we can continue to expand the interesting and colourful history surrounding the 1000 Islands tour boat industry.
Addendum: The beautiful image of Boldt Castle that is featured in the story is from the painting titled, First Light Over Boldt Castle, by well-known Thousand Islands artist Michael Ringer. He graciously gave me permission to use the image, for which I am very thankful. Michael Ringer has been featured in Thousand Islands Life in previous issues–listed below are the links to those articles.
By Tom King
Tom King and his wife Marion have lived in Milton, Ontario for the past 37 years, where they both worked and raised their family of three children; Kris, Mike and Becca.