Sunday, August 15, 2010

We're Home

We left Association Island at 8:30am. Thursday, 8/12, and were home at around 3:30pm. Although it rained most of the way, the trip was uneventful and the trailer made it home with all parts intact.

Some final thoughts: we originally considered this trip as a tour of New England but wound up spending most of our time in upper New York State. New England was fine, but it was also what we expected it to be. I think, even though we've been in upstate New York several times prevously, my past impression of the area may have been tainted by my familiarity with downstate New York. Its a bit like out-of-staters impression of New Jersey. If one isn't familiar with west and south Jersey one may think the state is all like the NJ Turnpike corridor, and we've all heard the Jersey jokes. I guess a few recent TV programs haven't done much to change out-of-staters impressions of the Garden State either.

Well, upstate New York is really phenomenal -- beautiful mountains, farmland and lakes. And what lakes. Not just the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario, but it seemed that no matter where we went there were big, beautiful lakes. The Adirondacks, of course, is loaded with lakes, but there are lakes all over the state. and that was a bit of a surprise.

Until next time...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Another Castle and Some Neat Boats

Alexandria Bay is sort of the tourism center of the Thousand Islands area and the base of Uncle Sam’s Tour Boats. I’m pretty sure this is a figurative Uncle Sam and not a euphemism for the Federal Government.

Anyway, Uncle Sam took us to Singer Castle on Dark Island. It was named Dark IslandDSC_0494 because the many trees on the island makes it look, um, dark. I haven’t decided whether it made more sense for turn of the century millionaires to call their vacation homes “cottages” as in Newport, or “castles” as in the 1000 Islands. The former seems a bit understated, and the latter seems a bit overstated, but then, they didn’t ask me.

In any case, Frederick G. Bourne was the fifth CEO of the Singer Sewing Machine Co., and he thought a nice vacation castle on an island would be just the thing for a couple of weeks a year. DSC_0497 So he bought Dark Island, hired a bunch of workmen who were also working on Boldt Castle, and had them build a smallish European-style castle complete with turrets, secret passages, and a dungeon. Now I queried the tour guide about the use of the dungeon and she said that as far as she knew it wasn’t utilized for much of anything. However, the dungeon wasn’t part of the tour, so visitors are not given the opportunity to judge the dungeon accoutrements for themselves.


As far as New World castles go, the place looks quite livable, if you don’t mind spooky suits of armor scattered about. And yes, that is a Singer sewing machine being guarded by the knight. The machines are found throughout the house but were not part of the castle’s original furnishings. The have been donated over the years the place has been open to tours.

Unlike Boldt Castle, Singer Castle was lived in by the Bourne family and later by the McNally family to which is was sold. Those are the Rand-McNally McNallys, in case you need a map to figure out who I mean.

There’s a story about a resident of a neighboring island who was a little annoyed about the noise of construction when Singer Castle was being built. But Frederick Remington was apparently a good neighbor since he is said to have sent over a bouquet of flowers when the Bournes moved in. DSC_0503 There is also a Remington sculpture on the mantel but it isn’t known whether Freddie gave it as a gift or whether one of the resident families purchased it.

Singer Castle was bought from the McNally heirs and is now owned by a European Corporation that buys castles around the world and opens them to tourists.

About midway between Alexandria Bay and Cape Vincent is the town of Clayton. An attractive little town on the St. Lawrence River, Clayton is home to the Antique Boat Museum.


The museum has a wonderful collection, both in water and on land, of non-motorized, sail and power boats dating back to the turn of the century thorough the 1950s. These include racing power boats of every description,DSC_0514 old wooden yachts, more modern racing hydroplanes, marine engines and other fascinating displays. You can even take a ride in an antique speed boat for an additional fee. Included in the price of admission is a tour of La Duchesse, a 1903 houseboat, or more accurately, house barge, which was built by George C. Boldt, the guy who built Boldt Castle. DSC_0516 The houseboat was moved around by a tug boat, and provided luxury accommodations for Boldt’s friends. The Boldt family apparently didn’t spend much time on board themselves, since the boat was actually rented to Boldt’s friends. I guess he was trying to expand his hotel empire to the St. Lawrence River. The rental fees included the tug boat and a pilot, but you needed to provide your own servants. DSC_0512 In case you’re wondering, the houseboat got it’s fresh water from the river, which is also where it dumped its waste water. But it must have been okay since the intake pipe was at one end of the barge and the waste pipe at the other end.

The Boldt family lost interest in the houseboat and left it in one of the family boathouses where, due to neglect of the wooden hull, it sank up to the bottom of the second deck. Eventually Boldt’s son convinced Mr. McNally, of the Singer Castle, to purchase the sunken houseboat for $100. McNally raised it, rebuilt in on a steel hull, and eventually donated to the museum.

One final note on the Antique Boat Museum – a couple of days ago a motorhome pulled into our campground towing an antique racing hydroplane. It pulled out the next morning, but today we spotted it at the museum, still on its trailer. DSC_0524 It turns out that the museum sponsors an antique racing boat regatta and race, which begins tomorrow, and this boat, which was a record-holder in its class during the 1970s and 1980s, is going to participate. So we were camped next to a star for one night.

Well, we’re planning to head south tomorrow, but based on what happened last time I said we were heading home, I’m not going to say that this time. So this may, or may not, be the final episode of this trip’s blog.

Historical Highlights

Here’s a little more historical trivia about Association Island, where’ we’re camped. Before it was home to the GE association, and long before it was a campground, it was a French outpost. This was in 1756, so I guess the British got it from the French, and we got it from the British—twice.

Speaking of the War of 1812, Association Island is in Henderson Harbor, NY, which is just down the road a piece from Sackets Harbor, NY. Now, Sackets Harbor may sound familiar to history buffs and horse racing enthusiasts, but for two different reasons.


For history buffs, there were two battles at Sackets Harbor during the war of 1812 and there’s a battlefield in town to prove it. General Zebulon Pike, the guy Pike’s Peak was named for, was killed in one of those battles. He was buried in the Sackets Harbor Military Cemetery  and there’s a monument DSC_0481 there commemorating his death and the death of several others who died with him. The official history of the battles at Sackets Harbor doesn’t mention this, and neither does that source of all correct information, Wikipedia, but according to the AAA TourBook, in one of those battles “…five British battleships  were repelled by one US ship and a group of farmers on shore with a single cannon. The only British shot to land near  the farmers was loaded into [their] cannon and returned. It took down the mast of the British ship.”


The Military Cemetery contains quite a few tombstones labeled “Unknown Child” with no date of death or burial.

In addition, there are quite a few graves marked simply “U.S.” Soldier,” again with no date of death or burial. DSC_0484 I’m sure there is an explanation about these graves somewhere in the archives of Sackets Harbor, but for now I don’t have an explanation.

For horse racing fans, Sackets Harbor will be familiar because it’s home to the bunch of regular folks who own Sackatoga Stables, the racing stable that owns Funny Cide, the winner of the Kentucky Derby a few years ago.

Since we’re pretty close to the Canadian border, we decided to grab our passports and hop on a ferry to Kingston, Ontario. Actually, we DSC_0486 hopped on two ferries, just with the truck, not the trailer. This was a good thing because the first ferry was so small the truck barely fit, cross-wise. This ferry took us from Cape Vincent, NY, which is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, to Wolfe Island, Ontario, which may just be the most boring border crossing in the US. Wolfe Island is the westernmost of the 1000 Islands and the largest. This little Ferry is run by NY State and cost us $15 for a 7 minute ride. Across the island is a ferry to Kingston, Ontario. This is a 15 minute ride on a bigger ferry run by the Canadian government, and its free. Let’s hear it for Democratic Socialism.

We had lunch in Kingston, drove around a bit, got lost a bit since the replacement GPS, much to my surprise, only has maps of the US, not Canada, then made our way to the Thousand Island International Bridge, and came back to the campground. Interestingly, the GPS woke as if from a deep sleep to tell us where to go once we crossed the border back in to the good ‘ol US of A.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

So, You Wanna Buy an Island?

As mentioned in the previous post, the western end of the St. Lawrence River, which is also the western end of the St. Lawrence Seaway, is at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. For the first 50 miles or so the river is loaded with islands, large and small. There are actually about 1800 islands, but whoever named the area 1000 Islands back in the late 1800s apparently missed a few when he did the count.DSC_0436  In all fairness, however, some of the islands are very small, and according to Andy, our tour guide, some islands didn’t exist in the 1800s but became exposed when the water level dropped. Andy also told us that to be officially called an island, the piece of land or rock has to have at least two trees. But some folks cut down a tree or two to build their homes, so islands that were islands then wouldn’t be considered islands today, thus the approximation of 1800 islands.


Most of the 1000 (or 1800 +/-) islands are privately owned and some of the larger ones are made up of colonies of a number of homes. Since the St. Lawrence is the US-Canada border, the islands were divied up between the two countries by treaties a long time ago. (I could say exactly when if I wanted to look up the date, but I don’t.) Each island is either Canadian or US, none of them are split.

The homes on the islands, which are all summer homes, range from shacks to mansions, with everything in-between. DSC_0444 Andy told us (and he insisted that he doesn’t get a commission) about several islands currently on the market. The average price seemed to be about $1.5 million, and that includes the island, the house, and often the furniture. Add to that the cost of the boat you’ll need to get to and from your island, the cost of bringing in whatever you need, the cost of removing waste, the cost of parking your car on the mainland, you can start getting into serious money for a place you can use just a couple of months a year.

Unbeknownst (that may be the first time I’ve ever written that word) to us, we took our tour of the 1000 islands on Pirate Invasion Day, an annual celebration of a mini revolution that occurred when a local resident decided they should secede from both the US and Canada. He organized some friends to join the movement and staged raids on both sides of the river. (I don’t remember when this happened, so if you are interested I’m sure there’s something in Wikipedia.) The dude, who was eventually captured, became known as a pirate. Thus Pirate Invasion Day.

DSC_0448  That’s the dude on the bow of the pirate ship. The day includes pseudo-reenactments of an invasion, cannon and small-arms fire from shore (I assume with blanks, since none of the boats sank and I saw no blood) and assorted water-borne high jinks including what started with water pistols, graduated to super-soakers,DSC_0452 and eventually went as far as fire hoses, at which point the Coast Guard intervened due to perceived hazards to navigation. One of the evil pirates strafed our tour boat with a super-soaker, and I got mildly soaked, but I did protect the camera, which is why there are no photos of the foul deed.

Anyway, the Pirate Invasion occurs annually at Alexandria Bay, NY, which is just across from Heart Island, the site of Boldt Castle, which really isn’t a castle, but one of those gilded-age summer cottages built to look like a castle. In another tale which proves that moneyDSC_0466 can’t buy happiness, George C. Boldt came to the US from Prussia in the 1860s, and through hard work and some luck built a hotel empire which included the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

He wanted to do something special for his wife Louise, so he enlisted 300 craftsmen to build her the summer house which was modeled after 16th century European mansions. It has 127 rooms, an Italian garden, and all of the features anyone would want in a summer retreat. DSC_0468

The little turreted, chateau-like structure in this image was the power house which housed generators, fuel storage, and luxury quarters for the engineers needed to operate it.

But alas, in 1904, before work on the castle was completed, Louise died. Having lost the love of his life, George ordered all work on the castle to stop, so the 300 craftsmen dropped their tools and left the island. The unfinished castle was abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair until 1977 when the Thousand Island Bridge Authority assumed ownership and began a rehabilitation program. DSC_0455

The rehabilitation continues to this day, with Boldt descendants providing some furnishings and other items from the family’s collections. The castle is operated as a tourist attraction and the Bridge Authority claims to return all revenues gained from admission charges to the rehabilitation work.

A final thought about the St. Lawrence Seaway. As I mentioned, Canada is on one side, the US on the other. The Seaway is patrolled by the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, and local and state police agencies. But the seaway is 2300 miles long, including the Great Lakes. In the area comprised of the St. Lawrence River, something like 800 miles, there are literally thousands of pleasure boats moored on both the Canadian and US side. If I were a bad guy and wanted to sneak into the US from Canada, this looks like a lot easier way to do it than, say, trying to get through a formal border crossing.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

1001 Islands

I know, it should be 1000 islands, but for the purposes of this blog I wanted to add one. And that one is Association Island, which is where we are presently camped.DSC_0418

The Association Island RV Resort and Marina is a 65 acre island in Lake Ontario, not too far from the eastern end of the lake near the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the 1000 islands. Association Island isn’t one of the 1000 islands, but since we’re on it, and since it’s near the 100o islands, while we’re here I like to think of it as 1001.

And it’s and island with a history. The following is from the RV resort’s web site: “The National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) bought the island in 1905 from private owners and named the property Association Island.  NELA started the tradition of using the island for the Association's management meetings.  In 1911, General Electric acquired NELA and further expanded NELA's tradition by using Association Island as a corporate retreat and training center for GE executives, customers, and employees through the 1950's.   On the property were a Town Hall, Dining Hall (with full staff of waitresses and housekeepers), Black Catte (snack bar),DSC_0424 Island House, bungalows, residential "huts", cottages, 9-hole golf course, recreational trap shooting, tennis court, and marina with boat transportation  to/from the island.

General Electric's use of Association Island has been the subject of many academic papers, and was even the inspiration for Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, in 1952.  In the novel, Vonnegut writes of an island called “The Meadows” to which all of the engineers and managers of a large corporation make an annual retreat, to reaffirm devotion to the system and to become a more productive workforce.  Vonnegut depicts what went on at corporate retreats in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a satire of old boys at summer camp, using GE’s Association Island as its model.

In 1959, GE donated the island to the YMCA which operated the facilities until 1967 as a recreation center.”DSC_0427 The island was later sold, and went through several owners and uses including as the training center for the US sailing team in the 1976 Olympics. The island is now owned by a family which has been rehabilitating the historic buildings and operating the site as a campground. 

Accessible by a private causeway or by boat, the campground provides views of the lake from virtually every camp site. DSC_0430  Association Island is probably unique as a campground. In all of our travels we have yet to find another that is on a private island with water views from everywhere. 

I’ll discuss the other 1000 islands in the next post.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Its Really Erie

I've got a mule, her name is Sal,
15 miles on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal,
15 miles on the Erie Canal

We've hauled some barges in our day
filled with lumber, coal and hay
And we know every inch of the way from
Albany to Buffalo.

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we're coming to a town
And you'll always know your neighbor, you'll always know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

We better get along on our way ol'gal,
15 miles on the Erie Canal

'Cause you bet your life I'd never part with Sal,
15 miles on the Erie Canal.
Git up there mule, here comes a lock,
We'll make Rome about 6 o'clock
One more trip and back we'll go, right back home to Buffalo.

No more mules on the Erie Canal, but a lot of dedicated people keep the old waterway working. Actually, the original canal was completed in 1825 as a means to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market.  It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated barges carrying 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for Sal and her friends.

The original canal was mostly filled in when the current canal was built nearby in in 1918.DSC_0405 This is actually the third version of the canal since #1 was widened and deepened substantially in the late 1800s. The current Erie Canal is 12 to 14 feet deep, 120 to 200 feet wide, and 363 miles long, from Albany to Buffalo. 57 locks were built to handle barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, with lifts of 6 to 40 feet. Today most traffic is recreational boats rather than cargo-carrying barges.

DSC_0411 Our 5 mile tour from Herkimer, NY went through lock #18, then back to Herkimer.


The lock dropped the tour boat more than 20 feet. Well, dropped sounds a bit abrupt. Its more like descending on a very slow elevator.DSC_0414  Our captain, who retired from working on the Canal after more than 30 years, referred to Erie as “the best canal in the world.”DSC_0415  Apparently it was the first canal using this type of lock system, which has been copied around the world. Current canal workers maintain the 1918 equipment and operate the locks from spring through fall. The canal is closed down in winter months.

DSC_0410Adventurous boaters can actually travel from Lake Erie to Key West Florida, by cruising east on the Erie Canal to Albany, then down the Hudson River to New York City, and south on the intracoastal waterway.   But it would take a while. This boat that passed us was from Ft. Lauderdale. Houseboats can be rented on the Erie Canal, and the captain said they are actually quite comfortable. 

The captain kept referring to work on the canal in the first person. “We polish the brass on the electrical equipment so it looks new…” “we sometimes have to replace the wood edges of the lock doors.” When I asked him, since he’s retired, why he still speaks of working on the canal in the first person, he said: “Once a canaler, always a canaler.” Just like the Marines.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Lake George and Oopsie

We’ve been to Lake George, NY, at the southern end of the Adirondacks, several times previously, but not with the trailer. The Village of Lake George is sort of a cross between a Jersey Shore town and Coney Island, with a much smaller beach. Lots of visiting New York metroites, lots of tee shirt shops and pizza joints. The village itself is at the very southwestern end of the lake.


But the lake is 32 miles long, and once you get away from the village, you will find an exquisite mountain lake with scattered resorts and cottage communities. Since the lake is in the Adirondack State Preserve, there are numerous public parks, and campgrounds as well. Incidentally, the public campgrounds don’t offer the necessities of cable, electric-water-sewer hookups, or wi-fi, so we’re “camped” at a privately owned RV city a few miles from the lake. This place has almost 1000 campsites, with more roads than Flemington. Think of a picturesque forest, then add tents, RVs of every size and shape, millions of kids on bikes, and billions of adults (perhaps an exaggeration, but after the sparsely populated parksw we’ve been in, it seems that way) within the forest, and you’ll get the idea. But things do get very quiet after 11pm.

Now for the oopsie part. We had a slight mishap with the truck. I was backing out of a parking lot onto the road, and apparently another pickup truck snuck onto the shoulder right behind where I was backing. I was almost stopped when our truck touched the other one, which was allegedly parked. We have a broken taillight and his truck has a dent in the side. Police were called, reports were filed with insurance companies, and I got a ticket for improper backing. Bummer.



It seems that at least half of the historic homes we visit were once lived in by somebody from the Vanderbilt family. This spring we visited Biltmore in Ashville, NC, and earlier on this trip it was the Breakers in Newport. I wonder if we named our house a Vanderbilt would adopt us. Probably not.

Great Camp Sagamore, smack in the middle of the Adirondacks, is a little different than what I remember from my early camp experience at No-Be-Bo-Sco in northern New Jersey, although there is a lean-to like we had at No-Be-Bo-Sco. But this one was equipped with an intercom so guests staying there could contact the servants. I don’t recall servants at No-Be.

A Vandy didn’t build Sagamore, but Alfred G. Vanderbilt bought the place in 1901 from William West Durant, who’s daddy was involved in the railroad business. This was the third great camp built in the Adirondacks by Willie Durant, who talked New York State into selling him something like a million acres for pennies an acre on the promise that he would run railroad tracks into the forest so the lumber could be more easily removed and so that the forest could be more accessible for tourism. Unfortunately, the railroads didn’t get built, Willie went broke and sold Sagamore to Vandy, who added to it quite a bit. The place was used by various Vanderbilts for summer vacations until 1954 and was visited by luminaries such as Gary Cooper, Richard Rodgers and Hoagy Charmichael. I don’t know that Hoagy was quite the luminary as the other two, but I really like typing Hoagy Charmichael.


Durant is widely credited with developing the Adirondack style of architecture, with rough-hewn logs, bark wall coverings, and naturalistic tree branch railings. Durant didn’t care too much if the stuff was really rustic, as long as it looked rustic. DSC_0368

For example, the logs that give the main lodge it’s log cabin look are really half logs attached to normal frame construction as siding. The idea of these camps was to provide luxury accommodations to family and friends, but with a sense of rustic charm. Even though the camp was built in the late 1800’s it had indoor plumbing with many bathrooms and it’s own hydroelectric generating station, meaning electric lights were installed at Sagamore well before the towns in the area had  them.


The long, narrow building in this picture is the bowling alley. No automatic pin setters though, that’s why they had servants.

Sagamore is the only of the remaining Adirondack Great Camps open to the public. It is operated in cooperation with an organization called EXPLORITAS, Adventures in Lifelong Learning, and although there are some opportunities to stay there without having to learn anything, the purpose of the place is for educational and interpretive uses, many designed to inspire individual responsibility for the preservation of history and nature. Oh, and there are no telephones, no television, no air conditioning and no cell service. Guests are called to meals by a bell at 8am, noon, and 6pm. Our RV has cell service, air conditioning, and TV, and we eat when we want to, so we didn’t stay there. We took a very informative tour of the place instead.

Most of the buildings are now designated as National Historic Landmarks, including one called the Wigwam. I have no pictures of the Wigwam because it is deep in the woods, and besides, it was raining when we visited it. The Wigwam was built by Al Vanderbilt as an escape for himself and his male friends. At the time it included several bedrooms and a wet bar, and was situated so sounds from there couldn’t be heard in the rest of the compound. We have it on good authority that Mr. V. and his friends regularly enjoyed the company of a number of women of questionable reputation from local towns. It is not known whether Mrs. V. was aware of these activities.