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The Thousand Islands constitute an archipelago of 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada–US border in the Saint Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 50 miles (80 km) downstream from Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian islands are in the province of Ontario and the U.S. islands in the state of New York. Canada is home to the majority of islands with just over two-thirds in Ontario.
The 1,864 islands range in size from over 40 square miles (100 km2) 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, emergent land within the river channel must have at least one square foot (0.093 m2) of land above water level year-round, and support at least two living trees.
Large freighters frequently ply the Saint Lawrence Seaway, but the area has so many shoals and rocks that foreign vessels must use maritime pilots to help them travel through the hazardous waterway. Under the Canadian span, a vessel less than 25 feet (7.6 m) offshore can find itself in over 200 feet (61 m) of water. Similarly, rocks and shoals less than two feet (61 cm) underwater can be found in the center of channels 90 feet (27 m) deep.
Because of the great number of rocks and shoals just above or below the water's surface, it is unwise to travel the waters at night, unless one stays in the main channels and has charts, a chart plotter, or knows the area well. The water is so clear in some areas that a rocky bottom can be observed in 80 feet (24 m) of water. Before the advent of the zebra mussel, visibility of only 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) was usual, slightly decreasing as the years passed. Water clarity improved markedly in the mid-1990s with the arrival of zebra mussels, which feed on algae. The area has several shipwrecks, and although most of them are over 100 feet (30 m) underwater, some are a mere 15 feet (4.6 m) down and can be seen from the surface.
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. Thirty New York state parks are also located in the Thousand Islands region, including Wellesley Island State Park and Robert Moses State Park.
The Thousand Islands Bridge connects New York State and Ontario by traversing Wellesley Island at the northernmost point of Interstate 81 in Jefferson County and meets Highway 137, which leads to Highway 401. The Thousand Islands Parkway provides a scenic view of many of the islands.
The largest island in the group, Wolfe Island, is located entirely in Ontario. Adjacent to Wolfe but part of New York is Carleton Island, the site of a ruined fort, Fort Haldimand, built in 1779 by the British during the American Revolutionary War. The island was captured by three American soldiers during the War of 1812 and remains part of the United States today.
The Thousand Islands is a corridor for nature lovers, and both Ontario and New York have government-regulated parks along the waterfront. The waterfront is served by New York State Routes 12 and 37 and by the Thousand Islands Parkway in Ontario. Ontario also has the Waterfront Trail alongside the Parkway for cyclists who wish to see the area in an alternative way.
The Thousand Islands gave their name to the popular Thousand Island dressing around the turn of the 20th century. Local accounts state that the dressing originated when Sophie LaLonde, of Clayton, New York served the dressing at dinners for guests of her husband, a popular fishing guide. As a result of one of these dinners, she gave the recipe to Clayton hotel owner Ella Bertrand and New York City stage actress May Irwin. Irwin shared it with hotel magnate George C. Boldt.
From 1964 until the mid-1970s Motown legend Aretha Franklin vacationed in the Thousand Islands each summer. Although an American citizen, Franklin always summered in the Canadian section.
There is evidence of humans inhabiting the Thousand Islands area circa 7,000 years ago. The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy camped and hunted in the Thousand Island area between 700 B.C. and 1600 A.D. Their name for the islands was Manitouana or the "Garden of the Great Spirit".
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many distinguished visitors made the region widely known as a summer resort. Several grand hotels provided luxurious accommodations while steamboats offered extensive tours among the islands. Wealthy and middle-class summer residents built summer homes. Some masonry "castles" remain as international landmarks. The most famous extant examples are "The Towers" on Dark Island, now called Singer Castle, and the long-neglected Boldt Castle on Heart Island, much of which has been completed over the recent decades in accord with Mr. Boldt's original plans – hitherto, it had been left unfinished for over 75 years upon the untimely death of his wife. The original plans were updated to incorporate numerous current technological conveniences.
O boating on the rivers,
The voyage down the St. Lawrence, the superb scenery, the steamers,
The ships sailing, the Thousand Islands, the occasional timber-raft
and the raftsmen with long-reaching sweep-oars,
The little huts on the rafts, and the stream of smoke when they cook
supper at evening.
— Walt Whitman, A Song of Joys, 1855.
During the half century (1874–1912) of the resort's greatest prominence, most wealthy vacationers came from New York City, joined by prominent families from Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other cities of the United States and Canada. The region retains a historically important collection of vacation homes from this time. The Thousand Islands have long been a center for recreational boating. Large steam yachts, many designed by Nathanael Herreshoff required distinctive yacht houses. The region was known also for innovative power boating during this period.
Three local yacht clubs hosted the Gold Cup Races of the American Power Boat Association for nine consecutive years. The Antique Boat Museum of Clayton retains one of the world's major collections of recreational freshwater boats.
The region was also a part of the War of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States. Many sites from the war can be found, such as Fort Wellington in Prescott, Ontario and the garrison on Chimney Island, Mallorytown, Ontario. Museums about the war can be found on both the Canadian and American side of the river.
Popular boating, fishing and vacationing locations
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- One of the few beaches in the Thousand Islands, Potter's Beach (conserved by the Thousand Islands Land Trust - see below) on the American Grindstone Island has a fine, shallow sandy bottom with a very gradual slope, and serves as a location for boats to set anchor and spend a day at the beach or hiking on the trails that extend around Grindstone Island.
- A popular location for swimming or anchoring out of the wind, the Lake of the Isles is a secluded area cut off from the rest of the St. Lawrence River by Wellesley Island and neighboring Canadian Hill Island. Access is limited through two narrow passages, one around the northeastern end of the island, and the other being the International Rift, which is a small, shallow, winding canal that leads you through to the north side of the island passing right underneath the customs bridge.
- Known for its fishing, especially pike, Eel Bay is a shallow bay just southwest of Wellesley Island.
- Wellesley Island State Park is a public camping ground located within the Thousand Islands, with hundreds of sites equipped with fire pits and bath houses.
- The Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT) conserves over 8,200 acres (33 km2) of land in the Thousand Islands region. This land includes many creeks, nature preserves and over 30 miles (48 km) of trails that are open to the public, year-round, free of charge. TILT hosts an annual series of programs - TILTreks, TeenTreks, KidsTreks and TILTKids Camp - that give individuals and families the opportunity to participate in regional field trips, a variety of recreational activities, and attend presentations on wildlife or habitat preservation. TILT's community events help further their conservation efforts in the Thousand Islands region.
- Boldt Castle, a testament of one man's love of his wife, has been under renovation by its owner, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority since 1977, and can be visited by boat or tour cruise. This 120-room mansion is located on Heart Island just across the shipping channel from Alexandria Bay. The grounds consist of the main castle, the power house, the play house, and a boat house tucked in across the bay on the inside of the island.
- The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton houses antique wooden boats used or built in the region. The museum also features exhibits on the region's maritime culture and is home to the LaDuchess, George Boldt's luxury houseboat.
- Though not as famous as George Boldt's Castle, Singer Castle on Dark Island is privately renovated and is open to tourists. Frederick Bourne had his castle constructed with secret passageways and hidden wine cellars so that he could spy on his guests while keeping his liquor out of sight during the prohibition era.
- The Thousand Islands is also said to have some of the best fresh water wreck diving in the world. Numerous wrecks lay at the bottom of the seaway including The America, The Islander, and The Keystorm. There are wrecks that are appropriate for all diving skill levels.
Aviation and airports
Passenger air service to the Thousand Islands region is available in both Ontario and New York. Watertown International Airport (ART) in Watertown, New York has daily service on American Airlines connecting through Philadelphia (PHL). Norman Rogers Airport (YGK) in Kingston, Ontario offers daily service on Air Canada connecting through Toronto Pearson. Both airports also offer private aviation services.
Other private aviation airports
Maxson Airfield (FAA LID: 89NY) is a privately owned, private-use general aviation airport located two nautical miles (4 km) south of the central business district of Alexandria Bay, a village in Jefferson County, New York. It once had commercial service provided by Mohawk Airlines. At that time, the airport bore the IATA airport code AXB. Maxson is available to the public by Maxson Airfield, LLC.
Brockville-Thousand Islands Regional Tackaberry Airport (IATA: XBR, TC LID: CNL3), also known as Brockville Municipal Airport, is a registered aerodrome located in Elizabethtown-Kitley Township, 4.8 nautical miles (8.9 km; 5.5 mi) northwest of the city of Brockville, Ontario, Canada.
- Deer Island, about two miles (3.2 km) north of Alexandria Bay, is owned by the secret society of Skull and Bones.
- A pair of islands southwest of Grenadier Island are collectively called Zavikon Island. A popular but incorrect tale is that the larger island is in Canada, while the smaller one is in the United States, and the foot bridge between them is the shortest international bridge in the world. Zavikon Island is entirely located in the Canadian territory and belongs to the Leeds and Grenville municipal unit.
- Longue Vue Island is the only artificial island in the region.
- Ironsides Island is home to one of the largest Great blue heron rookeries in northern New York State, where over one thousand herons return to breed each April. The uninhabited rocky island near Alexandria Bay, New York is owned by The Nature Conservancy and was listed as a National Natural Landmark in 1967.
- In the 1950s, John Keats bought "Pine Island" as a vacation home for himself, his wife and their three children. At the time of his death in 2000, he was living in Kingston, Ontario, to where he had moved in order to be close to the island featured in his 1974 book "Of Time and an Island".
- Wellesley Island is one of the largest of the Thousand Islands, and is home to Wellesley Island State Park which has the largest camping complex in the region.
Thousand Island dressing
According to The Oxford Companion of Food and Drink, the name for Thousand Island dressing "presumably comes from the Thousand Islands between the United States and Canada in the St. Lawrence River." However, several different versions of the dressing's origin exist. One common story describes how a fishing guide's wife, Sophia LaLonde, made the condiment as part of her husband George's shore dinner. Often in this version, actress May Irwin requested the recipe after enjoying it. Irwin in turn gave it to another Thousand Islands summer resident, George Boldt, who built Boldt Castle between 1900 and 1904. Boldt, as proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, instructed the hotel's maître d'hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, to put the dressing on the menu in 1894.
Sociologists attempting to determine the true origin of Thousand Island dressing found that several conflicting origin stories exist, and that they vary between the various islands and villages of the Thousand Islands region. None appear to have any strong written evidence to support their specific claims.
Thousand Islands near Ivy Lea, Ontario
- Amherst Island
- Carleton Island
- Dark Island
- Deer Island
- Grenadier Island
- Grenadier Island
- Grindstone Island
- Hochelaga Archipelago
- Longue Vue Island
- Murray Isle
- Sugar Island
- Wellesley Island
- Wolfe Island
- Zavikon Island
- List of islands in the Saint Lawrence River
- List of islands of Lake Ontario
- Frontenac Axis
- New York
- Southern Ontario
- Upstate New York
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