One of the “must do” activities when in the Thousand Islands area is an exploratory trip on a boat. We’re not talking about paddling a kayak or canoe around for a few hours. We’re talking about a trip on a boat with a little size and, more importantly, an engine. While paddling can be a fun activity, the area is just too big to explore without a motorized vessel. Where we are in Clayton, the river is six miles from shore to shore with many islands in between.
If you don’t have access to your own power boat, the next best thing is to take a cruise on one of the many tour boats available. In Clayton there is a small, three vessel, tour company called Clayton Island Tours that operates from a spot right next to the village dock.
One recent sunny morning Pam’s mother, Fran, joined us for a two hour cruise through nearby islands on their glass bottom boat.
The Thousand Islands consist of 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada-U.S. border in the St. Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 50 miles downstream from Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian islands are in the province of Ontario, the U.S. islands in the state of New York.
The 1,864 islands range in size from over 40 square miles to smaller islands occupied by a single residence, or uninhabited outcroppings of rocks that are only home to migratory waterfowl. To count as one of the Thousand Islands these minimum criteria had to be met: 1) Above water level year round; 2) Have an area greater than 1 square foot; and 3) Support at least one living tree.
A little over a mile directly across from Clayton is Grindstone Island. It is the fourth largest of the Thousand Islands and, at seven miles long and three miles wide, is the second largest American island. During the early 1900’s the island was home to a number of large dairy farms and at one point had enough residents to support a small school. Today the farms are deserted and about 45% of the land is protected by TILT, the Thousand Island Land Trust. The picture below shows on of the old dairy farms. TILT has cleared the land around it to make the farm visible from the river.
There are many small, privately owned islands where the house covers most of the land.
Just up the river from Grindstone is Wellesley Island, the largest of the American islands. Wellesley is the most populated island as it is connected to the mainland by the main span of the Thousand Island Bridge on I-81.
Once across the main span of the bridge, you can exit the highway onto Wellesley Island or continue to another smaller span leading to a Canadian Island and continue into Canada. Wellesley Island is the home to Wellesley Island State Park with 429 campsites, a boat launch, the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center and Museum, and three golf courses. At the west end of the island is the Thousand Island Park Historic District. Founded as a Methodist summer retreat the district includes 294 buildings, mostly homes that are examples of substantially intact late 19th century and early 20th century resort architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. You can see some of these old homes as you pass by the island on the river.
The house pictured below is of some local historic significance. In 1978 a man named Barry Freed helped found an environmental group to preserve the St. Lawrence River called Save the River. Locals were shocked a few years later when it turned out that Barry Freed was really Abbie Hoffman, a 60’s radical on the run from a federal drug charge.
Rock Island Light House is a stop on one of the other tours offered by Clayton Island Tours. Originally commissioned in 1847, it is one of six lights put up along the St. Lawrence River to guide traffic to and from Lake Ontario through the waterway. The Rock Island station is the best preserved, as all of its structures still survive. It was refitted in 1855, rebuilt in 1882, and moved in 1903. The light was closed in 1955 after more a century of service. Today, the lighthouse and island are maintained by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.
Just east of Rock Island is the site of one of the many ship wrecks along this part of the river. This one is a favorite of scuba divers as the water is not real deep so it is not difficult to get down to the wreck.
As we turned back toward Clayton we passed Round Island, once the site of one of the biggest hotels in the country, the Frontenac Hotel.
Unfortunately the hotel suffered the fate of many old hotels located on these islands. In 1911 a fire broke out and the hotel burned to the ground. There are a number of summer homes on the island today and the old post office now houses a small museum.
We mentioned at the beginning of this blog that we were on glass bottom boat so we need to include a picture of the “glass bottom” part of the boat. Most of the time the river is too deep to see much through the glass (really plexiglass). But it was nice to check out the bottom in shallow areas and the boat goes over the site of some old timbers from a sunken ship at one point.
As we said earlier, a trip around some of the islands is a must if you are in the area of the Thousand Islands. From the shore it is difficult to tell just where one island ends and another one begins. But travel just a short distance by boat and you find a whole new world you can’t see from the shore.