A Holiday in New York's Thousand Islands

Posted on: July 5th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya

Ahh, vacation. It’s a lovely word. It is a time where you kick off your shoes and stop thinking about anything related to work. Unless, for example, you love history and you’re vacationing along the St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands in upstate New York -- where I was last week.

Being there reminded me of a college seminar that took me along the James River in Virginia to look at plantation houses. The houses were built in such a way that visitors coming by boat would be treated to the homes' best faces as they floated by.  At the time (and really, even now) I secretly wanted to live by a river -- not only because it seemed incredibly decadent, but also because the views epitomized inspiration.

I experienced this firsthand with my trip to Thousand Islands, where I stayed in a 1890s cottage in Thousand Islands Park just steps away from the river.  Even when the temperatures soared you could cool down by standing outside and letting the breeze off the water wash over you. Perfection may be too strong of a word, but it was definitely close.

Each of the homes at Thousand Island Park embraced individuality, with intricate latticework and roof profiles that appeared to be shaped like a barn. My favorite was a house that had painted a sun at the top of its steepled roof, adding that extra bit of personality. Since we were there early in the season my morning runs consisted of watching owners run through renovations (including one house that was re-doing their wood windows by themselves).

Perhaps the coolest part of the trip was when we took a boat tour along the St. Lawrence River to see homes built and used at the height of the Gilded Age. This included a stopover at Boldt Castle, a home that was never lived in by owner George Boldt (also the owner of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City), due to the unfortunate demise of his wife prior to its completion.

The castle serves as a preservation story in and of itself. It sat as a monument to Boldt’s dead wife for 72 years, in disrepair until the 1970s when the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired it. The Authority now uses visitation to fund its ongoing restoration.

In addition to the standard "let's look at the fancy houses" fun, we also got a glimpse of the river's importance in shipping, and learned how the water is kept fresh through the introduction of sea-life that filters the entire river every 72 hours.

When I came back from my trip I took the time to do a little research and learned about how the river was home to a variety of Native American and Canadian tribes, and was "discovered" by Jacques Cartier, who claimed it for France in 1535. The river was also incredibly important during the French & Indian War as a major transportation hub, and even home to various groups of pirates that hid on one of the 1,800 islands during Canada's Patriot's War.

Knowing each of these elements helped me understand this place a little better. A trip that at first seemed light on context now teems with history from native cultures, the age of exploration and colonization, and Canadian-American relations -- all along the magnificent shores of the natural wonder that is the St. Lawrence River.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Reflections, Travel