We recently spent a day exploring a little bit of Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands Region. The entire Thousand Island Region is absolutely gorgeous, and we really wanted the chance to explore it a bit more (we recently took a weekend to see Sackett’s Harbor and Wellesley Island which you can read about HERE), so we decided that a boat tour was the best way to go. Not only did this give us a chance to see the waterways, the summer vacation homes that most of us dream of, we also were able to stop at Boldt Castle, a well-known spot in the region. *A note that you can visit Boldt Castle and Singer Castle by personal boat if you have your own- they have docking options. *
Let’s back up a bit and touch a little on Alexandria Bay. Alexandria Bay was originally home to the Iroquois & Algonquin tribes, who would use the area as a Summer Hunting and Fishing spot. During the American Revolution (and shortly after) the land was purchased, then it passed hands after the War of 1812, the continued to be passed around for some time. Eventually the goal was to bring the Islands and Alexandria Bay to become a premier Sumer destination and, after the Civil War and a visit by Ulysses S. Grant, it did. Another period of time that did the region a lot of good was Prohibition when the narrow river ways would allow alcohol to be covertly brought into New York from Canada. To this day you can still find bottles at the bottom of the water from when they were tossed over as law enforcement approached.
While we were in the area our main focus was the boat tour and Boldt Castle, but we did wander up through James St (and pick up a wine slushie- delicious) and a little bit along the river walk. There is plenty for us to go back and wander through and I can totally see the allure of this area as a summer hotspot. It brings all the charm of a “Bay Town” with just enough history and a variety of things to do. It’s also close to the Canadian Border (when it opens) if you want to pop over.
Now, on to our main events, Uncle Sams Boat Tour and Boldt Castle.
Uncle Sam’s Boat Tour is one of the companies that operates tours throughout the water ways of the St. Lawrence River. They have several different tour options for you to choose from, each a variety of sites to see and costs. You can also choose to simply take their ferry over to the castle if that’s all you want to see. I personally would recommend taking one of the full tours so you can see the area a bit more in depth. We chose to do the American Narrows Tour (link) which gave us a good variety of the Islands, a stop at Boldt Castle, and was a good amount of time for our children too. Each tour comes with a tour guide on hand that takes you through this history and current information for the area AND a snack/drink bar. At some point I would like to do the tour that takes you out to Singer Castle as well.
A couple of tour highlights for us were the Skull & Bones Society clubhouse. Story goes that the original owner of the Island was a part of the Skull & Bones Society at Yale and upon graduation (club rule) willed the entire Island to the club. There was also an island that had a partially sunken boat where the captain decided that steering the boat as it was out of the narrows was not worth it, so he simply left it on the side. Another interesting spot that gained some fame? An island that was owned by The Claudia Family that has both a home and an old monastery. Not only the monastery claimed to be haunted, but the island also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The TAPS team from Ghost Hunters and Meatloaf came out to film an episode of the show and feature the “haunted island”. One final fun story (or rather not fun for the people involved) was our tour was about a man-made island. Story goes a man wanted to buy an island and summer home for his wife, so he sent her up to the region to search for the one she wanted. She searched and searched and didn’t find one she liked, so he purchased some of the underwater ground and BUILT an island for her. He then built the house on it and presented it to her. But, as you may see where this is going, she didn’t like it, and ultimately decided she didn’t like him. The island and home still stand today, presumably with a happier family in residence.
The last, well only, stop on the tour is at the famed Boldt Castle.
George Boldt immigrated from Prussia to America in 1864 at age 13. He started at the bottom as a kitchen worker before climbing up the chain of the hotel industry. At 30 he purchased his own hotel (The Bellevue) and thus continued his rise. Ultimately, he would become the proprietor of the merged Waldorf Astoria (after mediating a feud between William and Jacob Astor). He is also the very man who made the Thousand Island Dressing so famous, having his maître-d include it on the menu of his hotel restaurant.
In the beginning of 1900, he purchased Heart Island with the sole purpose of building a Rhineland Castle as a symbol of the love he had for his wife, Louise. The plan for the castle was a 6-story building with 120 rooms, along with tunnels a powerhouse, Italian Gardens, a Children’s playhouse, drawbridge and more. It was to be a massive castle. Work had been underway on the home for a few years before Louise suddenly died from pneumonia, at which point George, in his grief, ordered all work to be stopped and never stepped foot on the island for the rest of his life.
An ultimate symbol of love (if you ask me).
As the home and island fell into disrepair, it was eventually purchased by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority to restore and open the home/grounds. You are able to tour both the home (both the completed and incomplete areas) and the grounds and all proceeds from shop and ticket sales go directly back into the restoration.
Now, let me say this straight away, the home and grounds are IMPRESSIVE. We loved our day there and I’ll share all the things about it, BUT I don’t know if I would classify it as a castle, more so as an estate. Semantics, I know, but that’s just my thoughts.
So, some of the highlights for us…
The Entry Arch. Modeled off of the Roman Arches and maybe a little inspiration from the Arc De Triumphe, this was supposed to serve as the formal entry point to the island. It is topped with 3 Stag Deer (a theme throughout).
The Power House and Clock Tower. This is the most photographed spot on the property (and probably one of my favorite little nooks) and served as the home to the 2 generators that would have been used to power the home and island. It was designed to appear like a medieval tower rising directly from the water and features a beautiful bridge across the water for access. The clock tower was modeled and formed off of the chime tower at Westminster in London.
The interior of the home was where I really saw the more modern (or rather of the time) American inspiration. Yes, we feature the massive fireplaces and the brick/stonework that you could find in other European Castles, but the marble flooring, the grand staircase, and the overall look of the interior was much more of its time and place. You can see both the hotel and concern for guests in the home, as well as the fact that he wanted to make it homelike for his family. The library and kitchen were personal favorites of mine, but I also wouldn’t have minded one of the open windowed natural light bedrooms on the second floor (I believe it was intended to be Louise’s).
Of course, one cannot forget the Mother in Law suite that we learned about while on the boat. Allegedly the little house directly to the side of the main Island, accessible only by boat, was intended for George Boldt’s Mother-in-Law. There was a long funny story that was told to go along with this information, but I don’t know how factual any of it was, so I won’t share it here. It was funny though.
Finally, we stopped over to the Yacht House across the river from the main house. The Yacht house served as the lodge for the Boldt’s houseboat and various yachts and speed or race boats they owned. There is a free shuttle from Heart Island that takes you over and you can either purchase tickets at Boldt Castle (a combined ticket) OR at the boathouse. The Yacht house currently holds a collection of antique boats on display, as well as a steam engine, and a steam Yacht that is on loan, but would have been similar to what the Boldt’s would have owned. The building itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Overall, we had such a beautiful day exploring the Islands, the Castle, and a little bit of Alexandria Bay. I can see this being a spot we come back to again.