Lynn Freehill-Maye
Lynn Freehill-Maye

The Castles, and Mysteries, of the Thousand Islands

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Lynn Freehill-Maye

When you first see the cedar-shingled T-shirt shops and smell the diner-fried eggs of Alexandria Bay, New York, you might have trouble picturing the down-to-earth town as a millionaires’ haven. But look across the St. Lawrence River and you’ll see a castle, and then you might start to understand this place has a storied past. Still, it will take some time to appreciate the grandeur of an earlier century—and the mysteries behind today's casual summer village.

The first surprise for many might be that the Thousand Islands is an actual place. These days, it’s perhaps more famous as a tart salad dressing—but it’s also a real group of 1864 islands on the watery border between New York and Canada. The area basked in 30 years of glory as the summer colony for America’s wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, and even President Ulysses Grant vacationed there. The story goes that The New York Times stationed a Thousand Islands correspondent there to report on high society’s doings

The millionaires bought their own private islands and built castles that remain today—along with questions. Take a cruise with a local charter, like Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours, and you can consider them up close.

Singer Castle

Exactly how creepy is Singer Castle? This European-inspired castle rose up on Dark Island as a hunting retreat for Frederick Bourne, the president of the Singer sewing machine company. He seemed to build it ready for his ghost to one day haunt. The stone walls feel medieval. Turrets, armor, and secret passageways are tucked all over.

How eerie does it feel? You can hop off your boat cruise and tour it during the day, but that won’t fully reveal the answer. The brave, curious, and deep-pocketed can rent it for the night (at rates around $700) to find out.

Boldt Castle

 

Why wasn’t Boldt Castle finished? The president of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel commissioned this 120-room showplace for Heart Island. The official story is that he planned to give the over-the-top summer home to his wife, Louise, on Valentine’s Day. That January, she died of “apparent heart failure” at 42. Construction stopped—and never resumed. Boldt was heartbroken—or was he? Some whisper to this day that Louise died of a drug overdose, or ran off with the chauffeur.

For nearly 75 years, the castle sat unfinished. Then the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority began a slow renovation. They're said to be around $38 million in. Entire floors are left to restore. But the ballroom, dining room, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated. Regardless of the real heartbreak behind it, Boldt Castle now inspires modern-day romance, hosting some 150 weddings per year.

Where did they stash all that liquor? During Prohibition, rumrunners used to skim across the watery international border in the St. Lawrence River smuggling liquor from Canada to the U.S., with legend saying they would hide whatever they were carrying to reclaim later when law enforcement got too close. But the border is so jagged, it’s hard to know which side your boat is on at any given moment. The owner of Zavikon Island, for instance, built a 32-foot bridge to the islet he also owned behind it. Saying Zavikon is in Canada and the little island is in the U.S., he called it the world’s shortest international bridge. But even that’s in dispute—some say it’s a tourism ploy, and that both islands are Canadian.

With a border so questionable—and tens of thousands of possible hiding spots–where did the bootleggers tuck their stashes? Unfortunately, those answers may have died with them.

A circa 1903 postcard depicting Calumet Castle. Image Credit: New York Public Library // Public Domain

 
What happened to Calumet Castle? An elegant water-tower-turned-lighthouse is all that stands of a third castle. Calumet was actually the first of the Thousand Islands’ castles, built by tobacco tycoon and hotelier Charles Emery in 1894. Like Boldt, Calumet has a tragic story of loss. Emery’s luxury Thousand Islands hotel, the New Hotel Frontenac, burned down in a fire that started (ironically for a man who made his fortune in cigarettes) with a musician smoking in his room. Emery’s first wife died young, and his second wife, Irene, died in Calumet Castle on his birthday in 1907. After that he shut the castle—which had hosted lavish parties with 10,000 Japanese lanterns illuminating the St. Lawrence River—for good.

Four decades later, in 1956, the massive stone building burned down. Was it arson? Did the owners, who'd been bad about upkeep, have it torched themselves? The place was cleared of contents, which were auctioned off before the fire; you can gape at the ruins and draw your own unofficial conclusions.

What is Skull & Bones up to in the Thousand Islands? Yale's shadowy society keeps an island nearby, reportedly given to them in 1949. May the Force be with you in finding out answers about this one. Certain facts about this elitest-of-the-elite group are known—it started in 1832, supposedly after the founder visited an occult society in Germany; 15 Yale seniors are tapped to join each year; and American leaders like George W. Bush and John Kerry have been members.

Still, Skull & Bones members take an oath of secrecy, and its rituals are a black box. Some hazard guesses about Deer Island—Atlas Obscura, for instance, reports that each initiate has to visit the mostly-in-ruins island as part of their long introduction ceremony. Do they simply party like college kids there, or is there more to it? The island’s uses remain unclear to this day.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

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The World’s 10 Most Beautiful Metro Stations
T-Centralen Station in Stockholm, Sweden
T-Centralen Station in Stockholm, Sweden

Some of the most beautiful places on earth lie just below the surface. For proof, look no further than T-Centralen in Stockholm, Sweden, which has just been named the most beautiful metro station in the world by Expedia.

The travel site used Google Trends to analyze the most-mentioned metro stations in the U.S. and Europe, but Expedia ultimately chose the order of its top 10 list and threw in a couple of other hidden gems. Russia and Sweden frequently popped up in their research, so it’s no surprise that stations in those countries secured the top two spots on Expedia's list.

Dubbed “the blue platform,” T-Centralen is the main station of Stockholm’s subway system, and it’s also one of the most ornate. Royal blue flowers and plant patterns creep up cave-like walls, and another section pays tribute to the workers who helped build the Metro. It has been suggested that the color blue was chosen to help commuters feel calmer as they go about their busy days.

A section of T-Centralen
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It was the first station in Sweden to feature artwork, which stemmed from a 1956 competition to decorate the city’s metro stops. Over the years, more than 20 artists have contributed their work to various stations throughout the city, some of which have tackled important social and environmental themes like women’s rights, inclusivity, and deforestation.

In second place is Moscow’s Kosomolskaya Station, which also has an interesting origin story. When the Metro started operating in 1935, it was designed to help promote Soviet propaganda. Kosomolskaya Station, named for workers of the Komsomol youth league who helped build the first Metro line, had marble walls with gilded mosaics, crystal chandeliers, sculptures of fallen leaders, and painted scenes depicting important moments in Russian history. “Unlike the dirty, utilitarian systems of many cities around the world, the Moscow metro drives through a former—but not forgotten—stage of history that sought to bring palaces to the masses,” Expedia’s report states.

Komsomolskaya Station
Komsomolskaya Station in Moscow, Russia

Most of the stations on Expedia’s list are in Europe, but three are in the U.S., including two in New York City and one in Washington, D.C.

Here’s the full top 10 list:

1. T-Centralen Station (Stockholm, Sweden)
2. Kosomolskaya Station (Moscow, Russia)
3. Arts Et Métiers Station (Paris, France)
4. The Wesfriedhof Station (Munich, Germany)
5. Toledo Metro Station (Naples, Italy)
6. Staromestska Station (Prague, Czech Republic)
7. Metro Center Station (Washington, D.C, USA)
8. Mayakovskaya station (Moscow, Russia)
9. Abandoned City Hall Station (New York, USA)
10. New York City’s Grand Central Terminal (New York, USA)

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iStock
India's Supreme Court Demands That the Taj Mahal Be Restored or Demolished
iStock
iStock

The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable monuments on Earth, but over the years it's started to look less like its old self. Smog and insect droppings are staining the once pure-white marble exterior an unseemly shade of yellow. Now, The Art Newspaper reports that India's Supreme Court has set an ultimatum: It's threatening to shut down or demolish the building if it's not restored to its former glory.

Agra, the town where the Taj Mahal is located, has a notorious pollution problem. Automobile traffic, factory smoke, and the open burning of municipal waste have all contributed to the landmark's increasing discoloration. Insects and acid rain also pose a threat to the facade, which is already crumbling away in some parts.

India's highest court now says the country's central government must seek foreign assistance to restore the UNESCO World Heritage Site if it's to remain open. Agra's state of Uttar Pradesh has taken some steps to reduce pollution in recent years, such us banning the burning of cow dung, which produces heavy brown carbon. In 2015, India's Supreme Court ordered all wood-burning crematoriums near the Taj Mahal to be swapped for electric ones.

But the measures haven't done enough to preserve the building. A committee led by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpu reportedly plans to investigate the exact sources of pollution in the area, a process that will take about four months. The Supreme Court plans check in on the status of site every day from July 31.

Air pollution isn't the only factor damaging the Taj Mahal. It was constructed near the Yamuna River in the 17th century, and as the water gradual dries up, the ground beneath the structure is shifting. If the trend continues it could lead to the building's total collapse.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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