Aerial view showing some of the many islands of the Thousand Islands.
The Thousand Islands is an archipelago consisting of exactly 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada-U.S. border in the Saint Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 80 km on St. Lawrence Seaway, but the largest clustering of islands falls between Cape Vincent and Alexandria Bay in the United States and Kingston and Rockport in Canada. The islands range in size from over 40 square miles to smaller islands occupied by a single residence, to even smaller uninhabited outcroppings of rocks that are home to migratory waterfowl. The number of islands was determined using the criteria that any island must be above water level all year round, have an area greater than 1 square foot, and support at least one living tree.
The largest of these islands is Wolfe Island which is about 29 km long and 9 km at its widest point. It has a resident population approximately 1400 people. By comparison, the very aptly named “Just Room Enough“ is the tiniest island that squeezes a single house and a couple of wrought-iron benches pushed hard up against the shingles onto its banks.
A large number of these islands are inhabited, often bearing a single and at times a tiny house, and are serviced by ferry boats from the mainland. Today most of the islands boast of having hydro electric power and telephone service being carried by underwater cable from island to island.
Around twenty of these islands form the Thousand Islands National Park, the oldest of Canada’s national parks east of the Rockies. The park hosts campgrounds, inland walking trails, annual family events, as well as a national heritage building. The Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch region was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2002.
Recent zoning regulations forbid building on islands of less than 2 acres, mainly because of the space required for septic tank systems. Islands not able to accommodate septic systems are now required to have holding tanks, which are pumped out on a regular basis.
Drinking water is not a problem around here. Islands that do not have wells draw their water directly from the St. Lawrence but most have filtration and chlorinating systems.
This section of the river freezes over solidly in winter, but downstream near the 1000 Islands Bridge, the water flow is much swifter and the river stays open all winter. Around here the river is about 7.5 km (5 mi.) from shore to shore and you’d have to go some 450 km (300 mi.) east of here before you would see tides. There is no salt water here, it is all fresh water, most of it originating in the Great Lakes. Just to give you some idea of the size of the St. Lawrence River, you would have to go some 1’850 km (1300 mi.) east of here before meeting the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At this point you are 85 m (254 ft.) above sea level.
Making use of this tremendous water highway is the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today, oceangoing ships from around the world can visit right into the heart of North America, calling on such industrial cities as Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and Duluth.
The 1000 islands were formed almost 12’000 years at the end of the last ice age. Three previous ice ages also contributed to the formation of the islands and they actually form a connecting bridge between the Canadian Shield to the north and the Adirondack mountains to the south in New York State. Both the Canadian and American governments have designated some islands as national parks. Park Canada became a reality back in 1904 with the proclamation of the St. Lawrence Islands National Park. Even to this day, they are very popular destinations for both boaters and campers. Beau Rivage and Burnt Islands, in the Admiralty Group of islands just west of Gananoque and Gordon and Mulcaster Islands, in the Lake Fleet Group, east of Gananoque, are typical of these well utilized government parks.
In addition to the many trees and plants common to Canada, there are two species unique to this area. They are the Deer berry, a type of blueberry and the Pitch Pine Tree. The ability of the pitch pine to withstand alternate soaking and drying made it useful wood for the making of mill waterwheels and sluice boxes. They also provided pitch for the seams of wooden boats and slivers of its wood were used as small candles, hence it’s other name: “candle wood”.
There are no bird species unique to the 1000 Islands but the area is important as a staging area for migrating waterfowl in the spring. The islands are like stepping stones so they don’t have to fly across the wide expanse of Lake Ontario. If you watch carefully, you’ll be able to see ducks, Canada Geese and loons that are resident here.
Bird watchers will be interested to know that three species that had almost totally disappeared are now making a strong comeback. Wild Turkeys were reintroduced to Hill Island, near the 1000 Islands International Bridge in 1984 and are spreading widely in the deciduous forests. Ospreys are returning to the 1000 Islands using man-made nesting platforms erected on small rocky islands. Bald eagles are returning to the islands as well.
White Tail Deer are also being seen in ever increasing numbers in the area but are mainly seen on the mainland or larger islands like Hill Island.
The 1000 Islands has been a famous fishing destination for many years. One Muskellunge caught in the area has set a new world record at 31.397kg (69 lb. 14 oz.). Another record breaking fish was a 105.5kg (235 lb. 6 feet) sturgeon. Sturgeon, an ancient fish species in the St. Lawrence since the end of the ice age, was thought to have disappeared, until 1994 a small population was discovered. Bass, pike, pickerel and perch are still popular catches to be served at the famous 1000 Island shore dinners, cooked and served by the local fishing guides. In addition to the catch of fish, other mouthwatering treats like bacon, egg, steak, coffee and French toast, covered with Canadian Maple Syrup are served.
The human impact on the 1000 Islands was considerable. Canada was an important source of timber for Great Britain in the 18th century. Large trees were harvested, lashed together in timber rafts and floated down river to Montreal and Quebec. When the steamship era began and wood was needed for their boilers, further denuding of the area occurred. Happily, some areas had unusually enlightened rules for that time, if you bought two islands, you could only cut timber on one. Meanwhile trees have made a strong comeback and the islands are largely back to their original state, thanks to a desire for conservation by the local residents.
The first native people came to the 1000 Islands around 7000 years ago. We know of their presence from a stone hunting point found on Gordon Island, just east of Gananoque. It came from a Palaeo-Indian culture that inhabited southern Ontario from 9000 to 7000 years ago.
Between 700 B.C. and 1600 A.D., the 1000 Islands were a favorite camping ground of the Iroquois, who referred to the islands as Manitouana or the “Garden of the Great Spirit”. Several Iroquois tribes of Onandaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Tuscarrora and Oneida formed a confederacy. They lived on the American and Canadian main shore and traveled to the islands by dug-out canoe and then birch bark canoe. They took advantage of the excellent fishing to store the smoked fish for winter consumption. There are some 40 archeological sites in the islands that attest to the presence of the early people.
The St. Lawrence was discovered by Jacques Cartier on August 10, 1535. The early explorers made use of the St. Lawrence River as a highway to the interior of Canada and the United States. Many of the famous explorers passed through the area including such well known names as Champlain, de Courcelles, Comte de Frontenac, René-Robert Cavalier. The latter two men built Fort Frontenac, at the site of present day Kingston. The first reliable charts of the area were made in 1687 by Jean Desbayes who named the area “Les Milles îles”, or translated to English, the 1000 Islands.
Military activity was much in evidence throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The St. Lawrence was a highway for military activity, a vital route that delivered warships and men during the war between France and Britain from 1754 to 1759, the American War of Independence between Britain and the United States in 1776 and the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. A smaller conflict was the Patriot War in 1837-1838 when there were acts of piracy among the 1000 Islands. Many forts, blockhouses and military installations still dot the area and serve to remind us of our stormy past. Today we boast of the longest undefended border in the world between the United States and Canada.
European settlement of the islands began around 1783 with the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists, who moved from the United States after the American War of Independence in order to remain loyal to the British Crown. They came up the river in boats powered by oars, towing them through the rapids with ropes. Before long, the loyalists were joined by other Europeans, mainly English, Scottish, Irish and German. While the area adjacent to the islands wasn’t settled as quickly as other areas, the marginal farmland was used for pasturing dairy cattle. In the 19th century, the Counties of Leeds and Grenville became one of the province’s top producers of cheese and today, world famous Leeds County aged cheddar cheese can be purchased from local stores in Gananoque.
In 1816, a British hydrographer, Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, completed his survey of the Islands assigning names to over 1800 Islands. He created 8 groups of islands, among which is the Admiralty Group with 64 Islands, named after the British Lords of the Admiralty. He also included the Navy Group with 33 Islands, named after officers in the Royal Navy and the Lake Fleet Group of Islands, which also number 33 and named after ships of the Royal Navy.
The boundary agreement in 1793 between the U.S. and Canada decided that no island would be split in two, that the boundary should be 100 yards from any shore and if that was not possible, the line would run right down the middle between the two shores. This explains why the boundary between the U.S. and Canada follows a zigzag line. Two thirds of the Islands are in Canadian territory but the total acreage of the Canadian and American Islands is roughly equal.
The beauty of the area was noted by many who went through the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Islands’ accessibility to prosperous urban areas such as New York, Boston, Montreal and Toronto soon led to the development of the Islands as a prime summer vacation area. Many of the area’s first visitors were American governors, senators, presidents and legislators. Media interest in their activities soon led to a flood of favorable publicity with lavish description of the area.
It wasn’t long until whole families wanted to come to the area and as a result, large luxurious hotels began to spring up. On the American side, as many as 20 trains a day were required to bring all the summer visitors. On the Canadian side, a railway connected Gananoque to the main Canadian National Line, a few miles north of the town. The influx of visitors wanting to see the Islands grew and soon, there was an evident need for boats to carry passengers. The first tour boat operator in Gananoque was a local mailman who delivered mail to the island residents and took passengers as a sideline to his mail delivery business. Soon the sideline outgrew the mail route and he started what is now the Gananoque Boat Line.
During this period, many opulent homes and mansions were built in the area. The most famous was Boldt Castle, built by Mr. George C. Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Names such as Pullman, the inventor of the railway Pullman car, John Jacob Astor a financier of New York City, and Helena Rubenstein, of cosmetic product fame, were all known in the area at that time having built luxurious summer homes in the 1000 Islands.
This Golden Age started changing as a result of two world wars, the introduction of income tax, the Great Depression and more importantly, the invention of the automobile. This altered transportation patterns and changed the way we spend our recreational time. Today, people can visit the area within an easy one day drive from the large urban centers in Eastern U.S. and Canada