BY: Lenka Walldroff
When it comes to the Thousand Islands region, we can echo Loretta Lynn’s sentiment in saying: “We’ve come a long way, baby.” How different today’s Thousand Islands must be from the vast wilderness encountered by its earliest European visitors! That being said, I’d like to think that the area that Jesuit priest Father Simon LeMoyne first encountered in the summer of 1654, while equipped with a few more amenities today, still retains some of its original majestic beauty.
Much of the land that we now call the “north country” was part of a large investment made by a wealthy merchant named Alexander Macomb in 1791. In the years following the American Revolution, Macomb purchased 3.6 million acres from New York state with the intent of subdividing the land into parcels and reselling them to settlers. What has come to be known as “Macomb’s Purchase” includes much of today’s Northern New York region; in fact, the deeds for most of the land in Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, as well as portions of Franklin, Herkimer and Oswego counties can be traced back to Alexander Macomb’s original land purchase. The story has an ironic twist worth noting: Macomb was originally a fur trader and a Loyalist sympathizer who made a fortune during the American Revolution- and then lost it all when he bought land from the nascent country whose very formation he had politically opposed. Unable to sell the land as quickly as he initially hoped, he fell behind with his creditors and went into bankruptcy; a cautionary tale about integrity.
Macomb’s Purchase is pertinent to the story not because of what it included, but what it excluded- specifically the Thousand Islands themselves. At the time, the islands in the St. Lawrence River were somewhat of a no-man’s land as the process of hammering out an international border between the United States and Canada was not begun until after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814 (officially ending the War of 1812.)
Looking at the density of development along the St. Lawrence today, it’s difficult to imagine that no one would be interested in such prime real estate, but that was indeed the case for three decades following Alexander Macomb’s ill-fated land speculation. New York State didn’t even bother including the islands in its State Survey of 1820!
In 1823 Elisha Camp, who would go on to become a hero in the American Civil War, wised up and bought all of the islands on the newly established American side of the St. Lawrence for $600 (about $12,000 in today’s money.) The islands passed through a variety of owners until 1845 when an Alexandria Bay businessman named Azariah Walton bought the same islands- about 1,500 of them comprising over 15,000 acres- for the tidy sum of $3,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just over $80,000 dollars in today’s currency.
Since the Treaty of Ghent, the islands had passed through numerous hands, but they were always bought and sold en masse . That all changed in the early 1850s when Seth Green of Rochester, N.Y. approached Mr. Walton with an offer to purchase an individual island. The story has it that neither Mr. Walton nor his business partner Andrew Cornwall had ever heard of such a bizarre request and couldn’t understand what anyone would do with a single island. Amused however, they agreed to sell Mr. Green an island for $25- and he could have his pick of the lot! This is generally acknowledged to be the first individual sale of an island on the St. Lawrence. It is not known precisely which island Mr. Green chose, but it is suspected that he bought one of the smaller islands near Alexandria Bay. A naturalist, it is said that Mr. Green returned to his island every summer, spending weeks in study of the natural environment, and eventually built a small cabin there to house his family when they accompanied him. The Greens of Rochester, therefore, have the distinction of being the first regular summer visitors to the Thousand Islands. They would prove to be trendsetters.
However, one naturalist in the middle of the St. Lawrence River does not a vacationland make. While a handful of small hotels were built in the ensuing years, the region’s big break came in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant visited the region, traveling through Watertown via a special train. He then continued on to Cape Vincent where he met with George Pullman, who, together with his wife hosted the presidential party for five days. Thanks to the press coverage that the visit received, the world sat up and took notice of our sleepy little corner of Northern New York. The development of the region was kicked into high gear, with Mr. C.G. Emery of Clayton (and American Tobacco) leading the charge. Emery owned Calumet Island in addition to a dozen other islands. Reasoning that the development of the region would positively affect his own land investments, he financed the construction of the Frontenac Hotel, one of the most beautiful of the river hotels that would become so evocative of the Thousand Islands.
1880 through the first decade of the 1900s saw the belle époque of the river, with a steady stream of glamorous, famous, and moneyed visitors; this was the age of May Irwin and the Boldts, the grand hotels, our world renowned dressing, the Victorian cottages, and Thousand Island Park.
While over the years, the tourism levels in the region reacted to fires, the growing popularity of the automobile, various economic downturns, and the first World War, the breathtaking natural beauty of river has continued to hold the imagination of visitors and locals alike, securing for itself the merited title of “Vacationland.”