The Thousand Island Park Great Fire of 1912 Heroes

By: Susan G. Mathis

Volume 18, Issue 3, March 2023

The Great Fire of 1912 in the Thousand Island Park is seared into Thousand Island history, especially into the hearts and memories of the Park community. Mary’s Moment is my tenth and latest Thousand Islands Gilded Age novel about that terrible summer.

The summer of 1910 was unseasonably hot and dry, and the population of TI Park had grown to about 12,000. The area was primed for trouble, and that summer, three major fires nearly destroyed the Park.

In May, eleven boathouses and three launches were destroyed in a riverfront fire (east of Thousand Island Park). In June, an entire block of new cottages burned down. These cottages were being rebuilt to replace cottages lost in a fire eight years prior.

Then, in July, the Great Fire razed the Columbian Hotel and more than a hundred businesses and cottages to the north and east of today’s Commons. Thanks to Helen P. Jacox and Eugene B. Kleinhans, Jr. who wrote One Hundred Years, and Then Some: a Centennial Year History—as well as other sources—I’ve discovered there were many heroes of the Great Fire, and I honored them in my story, Mary’s Moment. Here, I’ll give you a glimpse into these wonderful Thousand Island Park folks.

Firefighters from Alexandria Bay, Clayton, and Gananoque responded to the call for help, bravely fighting the conflagration for many terrible hours. Residents also came to their aid, trying to save their beloved Thousand Island Park. Many were injured, but thankfully, only one person died.

As the Columbian Hotel burned, William Tousey, Robert Van Lingen, and Frank Sweeny worked their way to the top floor of the hotel where they rushed from room to room. On the top floor, in one of the furthest rooms in the southeast corner of the hotel, they found Miss Mary Buster of Watertown, who had fainted. Mr. Tousey threw her over his shoulder and soon carried her to safety.

Paul Crouch of Cortland stood on the peak of the Wellesley Hotel with a blanket thrown around him and ripped the burning shingles from the roof for two hours. His efforts, coupled with the volunteers on the ground, saved the Wellesley Hotel from destruction. Though badly scorched, the hotel reopened the next day.

Grandma Tousey was a special resident of the Park. At age 92, she took charge of volunteers, urging them to save others. She was known to have saved at least two people—Mrs. Anna Nunn and Mrs. Eager—who were caught in a burning cottage. She found them on the floor unconscious and called for help. Once they were dragged into the fresh air, they revived.

Marion Mayer, a twelve-year-old girl, saved a large boarding house on Garden Avenue with a garden hose. And many countless folks risked life and limb to save businesses, cottages, and most importantly, their fellow TI Park residents and volunteers.

After the fire had consumed those hundred structures and an entire section of the Park, others stepped up to help those left homeless and devastated. The Murray Hill Hotel on Murray Island, as well as other hotels, took in more than one hundred and twenty guests left homeless when the Columbian Hotel burned to the ground. Some welcomed victims into their unburned cottages.

Commodore Gillespie and Herbert Copelle provided $300 of food to form a bread line and provide for the basic needs of the victims. Joseph Wittman, of Isle of Pines, and T. A. Gillespie, of Basswood Island, sent their private yachts to Clayton to purchase all the baked goods available and anything else useful for the fire sufferers. These goods were placed in the pavilion on the dock and divided among those who needed them.

And there were others, unnamed folks, who helped any way they could. In my novel, Mary’s Moment, I tell their stories—firemen, friends, neighbors, doctors, nurses, and a telephone switchboard operator at the center of it all.

Mathis’s attention to detail and rich history is classic Mathis, and no one does it better.‌ ‌— Margaret Brownley, N.Y. Times bestselling author.


Thousand Island Park’s switchboard operator Mary Flynn is christened the community heroine for her quick action that saves dozens of homes from a terrible fire. Less than a month later, when another disastrous fire rages through the Park, Mary loses her memory as she risks her life in a neighbor's burning cottage. Will she remember the truth of who she is or be deceived by a treacherous scoundrel?

Widowed fireman George Flannigan is enamored by the brave raven-haired lass and takes every opportunity to connect with Mary. But he has hidden griefs of his own that cause him great heartache. When George can’t stop the destructive Columbian Hotel fire from eradicating more than a hundred businesses and homes, he is distraught. Yet George’s greater concern is Mary. Will she remember their budding relationship or be forever lost to him?

Readers of Christian historical romance will enjoy this exciting tale set in 1912 Thousand Island Park, NY.

By Susan G. Mathis

Susan G Mathis is an international award-winning, multi-published author of stories set in the beautiful Thousand Islands, her childhood stomping ground in upstate NY. Susan has been published more than twenty-five times in full-length novels, novellas, and non-fiction books. She has ten in her fiction line including, The Fabric of Hope, Christmas Charity, Katelyn’s Choice, Devyn’s Dilemma, Peyton’s Promise, Sara’s Surprise, Reagan’s Reward, Colleen’s Confession, Rachel’s Reunion, and now Mary’s Moment.
Her book awards include two Illumination Book Awards, three American Fiction Awards, two Indie Excellence Book Awards, and four Literary Titan Book Awards. Reagan’s Reward is a Selah Awards finalist. Susan is also a published author of two premarital books, two children’s picture books, stories in a dozen compilations, and hundreds of published articles. Susan makes her home in Colorado Springs and enjoys traveling around the world but returns each summer to enjoy the Thousand Islands. Visit for more.

See "An Interview with Author", Susan G. Mathis: Volume 13, Issue 10, October 2018

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Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 3, March 2023, History, Book review

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