The Gold Standard in historical research is documentation from an original source. Sometimes we come across a tale too good to miss telling. From anecdotal sources, I will do my best to recount this bit of the history of Wells Island in the days before Westminster Park and the story of one River man who grew up there. For this tale, I will call myself a Storyteller, rather than a Historian. Feel free to comment with your beliefs, if you wish.
Westminster Park sits on the downriver end of Wellesley Island in the Thousand Islands. The history of this area courses over eons, from the Ice Ages to the earliest human inhabitants, and on to the early white settlers, followed by the land developers… a long story indeed. For my tale, I just focus on the latter part of the nineteenth century.
An interesting account of the pre-Park days was published in the “Watertown Re-Union” on Wednesday, April 2, 1884. This newspaper article was previously printed in the “Rome Daily Sentinel” on March 25, 1884. It recounts the memoirs of Thomas Comstock, known as Tom, a well-known oarsman from Alexandria Bay.
Tom tells us that he was born on Wells Island (former name of Wellesley Island) on the land which is now Westminster Park. In this memoir, Tom relates that in the 1830’s, the settlers of Wells Island “lived in low log huts and dressed in homespun.” Tom said his father owned a farm of 150 acres on the property where Westminster Park Hotel later stood. Since there were no schools on the island, Tom learned to work the farm and to participate in the logging business that his father owned. He was also known as a “wit and a good violinist”. Tom was a natural River man, knowing the ways of the water, the treacherous shoals, and all the best fishing spots.
It seems that it was not uncommon for settlers, such as Tom Comstock’s father, to believe they owned a property for decades without ever filing the proper papers. With no deed in hand, ownership could not be proven. After a time, the early land developers came on the scene. These land barons claimed ownership of the properties, producing papers, and subsequently demanded rent from their “tenants”. One such person came to Farmer Comstock and demanded 1 1/2 per cent per acre fee to rent his own land. Mr. Comstock paid.
After a time, along came another land baron claiming that he was the owner of the property. The land rent was paid a second time. When a third man appeared claiming ownership, Tom’s father became angry and refused to pay. This third land baron sent the local sheriff over to collect the rent. Tom’s account describes the sheriff as “a fat, pussy man, full of bombast.”
At that time, Farmer Comstock was sick and on his deathbed. The sheriff attempted to forcibly enter the Comstock house to collect the money or to eject the Comstock family. Farmer Comstock’s wife, “a Canadian French woman, who was brave and fearless” grabbed a double-barreled shotgun and fired at the sheriff. Her aim was off. The sheriff turned and ran. As he ran across the property, she fired again, narrowly missing the sheriff’s head. The sheriff returned to town and reported “that he never had such violent exercise in all his life.” A posse was formed to return to the Comstock property and collect the rent, but by that time, Farmer Comstock had died.
Tom’s recollections continue in this newspaper account revealing the misadventures of reckless childhood play, the dangers of the logging industry and numerous near-drownings on the River. Over and over, Tom was credited with saving some hapless boaters from a watery grave. In spite of his heroism, it was reported some boaters “walked off without saying thank you…(Tom) has never had a medal or any other substantial token.”
Tom himself lived for ten years on Hayden’s Island (AKA Fairyland). He believed that he had been given the island, but he had never filed papers. When the previous owner died, the island was sold, and Tom had to vacate the property.
In the 1890’s, John Haddock wrote a series of books entitled A Souvenir; The Thousand Islands of the Saint Lawrence River from Kingston and Cape Vincent to Morristown and Brockville. Haddock called upon some celebrity friends to submit accounts of life on the River in an attempt to promote tourism in the Thousand Islands. One such friend of Haddock’s was Thomas Gold Alvord, Lieutenant Governor of New York State. Alvord was an avid sportsman and had spent many seasons fishing the waters of the Saint Lawrence River. In one essay, Alvord wrote an account of his fishing trips which centered in Alexandria Bay. He described staying at the Crossmon House, meals eaten, the boats of the early days, and the experiences of fishing with a guide among the Thousand Islands.
Alvord also reminisces, “The remembered oarsmen or guides of the day were old man Griffin, Ned Patterson, Alph and Tom Comstock, the last named being my favorite and after my first visit invariably my guide…”
Tom Comstock, River man, son of a modest family of Wells Island, was recorded in John Haddock’s history as a favorite fishing companion of one of New York State’s most prominent men. Wouldn’t you love to hear the stories they shared over hours of fishing the waters of the Saint Lawrence River?
© Linda Twichell 2019
Linda Lewis Twichell, a fifty-six-year resident of Westminster Park, has collected historical information on the Westminster community, since the 1970’s. Presently, her research focuses on the lives of the people who settled here in the last quarter of the 19th century, and the cottages they built. A book of Westminster Park, its people, and their stories is in the works. Be sure to check out Linda’s other historical research published in previous issues of TI Life.