Boldt Castle and 1000 Islands, New York

When Doug and I decided to play it safe [with COVID still looming] and do a road trip around our home state of New York instead of our previously planned trip to Ireland or a road trip around some US states in the southwest, the 1000 Island region was one of the first things on my list. I had seen picture of this beautiful place called Heart Island with a GORGEOUS castle sitting on it, and I knew I had to see it for myself.

Boldt Castle, Heart Island

The 1000 Islands (pronounced as thousand, not one-thousand) are located in the northwest region of New York State in the St. Lawrence River, so for us Long Islanders, it is a bit of a drive. Strategically, we had planned this as our last stop on the road trip and we drove from Plattsburgh rather than Long Island, so it was only approximately 3.5 hours away instead of 8. We left Plattsburgh a little before 9AM, as we had made reservations to take a boat tour with Clayton Tours at 1:30PM around the 1000 Islands. This gave us plenty of time to get there and grab a bite.

The towns along our route to Clayton are the exact opposite of what you would normally picture when you think about New York. We barely saw any people as we drove through but there were cows just about everywhere, literally everywhere. Each house we saw was on acres and acres of land, and I lost cell service about every 4 minutes. Honestly, I didn’t mind that part too much. When we arrived in the town of Clayton it was [Thursday] around noon and my stomach was roaring. We had no idea that finding a spot to eat would be so difficult. Most of the restaurants were closed during the week or didn’t open until 4 or 5 PM. Not even a McDonald’s was close by. We finally found a charming little diner type restaurant called Koffee Kove. At this point, we only had half an hour to eat and get to the marina for our boat tour and my anxiety starting kicking in. Thankfully, the service there was amazing and our food came out super quick. Since I have the appetite of a child, I ordered a simple grilled cheese and it was exactly what I needed in that moment. Koffee Kove was extremely affordable as well and a great spot to stop for lunch if you’re ever going to the 1000 Island region.

We quickly headed for the marina and were happy to find out that the boats were operating at a 50% capacity, so not only was it safer for us COVID wise but we also got to enjoy the tour on a bit more of a personal level. There were only 16 other people on the entire boat with us, which may seem like a decent amount, but it was a pretty big tour boat and we were all really spread apart. We began our journey through the 1000 Islands with our captain, Matt, and our tour guide, Daniel. They were both particularly knowledgeable about the area. Captain Matt got us to Heart Island and back to Clayton without any issue while Daniel filled us in on the rich (quite literally) history of the 1000 Islands and more specifically, Boldt Castle.

Since I am a bit of a history geek myself, I found all of the stories and facts Daniel had to tell us really interesting, so I figured I would share some of that history with anyone else who loves history like me. If you don’t like cool history or fun facts then this next bit is not for you, but I promise you’ll be missing out on some cool stuff. *shrug*

I was freezing, can you tell?

Some 1000 Island History

The 1000 Islands are made up of 1,864 individual islands with some of the islands being owned by Canada and some being owned by the United States. 1,863 of those islands are natural islands that formed when glaciers ripped through a mountain region that use to live on that land. One of the islands is an artificial, man-made island that Hudson P. Rose built for his wife when she was bored and unimpressed with the other 1,863 islands. Talk about superficial, am I right. Guess what? She STILL didn’t like the island he made specifically for her.  

Most of the islands once were home to gigantic mansions and castles until everyone’s favorite thing came about: income tax and property tax. The taxes on the mansions and castles were too much for most people to handle, so they knocked down their stunning homes and put cottages and smaller houses on all of the islands, which is what you see there today. Coincidentally, there were A LOT of “mysterious” fires that burned down many buildings throughout the 1000 Islands conveniently around the time where the owners of the buildings could not afford the taxes imposed. In all fairness, many buildings did actually burn down without insurance fraud being the factor behind it. Getting the fire department and all of the appropriate equipment was/is a difficult task in an island region. When fires were more prominent back in the day, the equipment usually wasn’t up to par to defuse the fire either. In 1911, Hotel Frontenac (a 7-story, 400 room hotel) burned to the ground all from one cigarette being thrown in a trashcan by a musician who was performing there that evening. The irony of this story you ask? The man who owned the hotel, Charles G. Emery, invented the machine that rolled cigarettes.

One of the islands had an underwater passage that lead INTO the island.  This is where one specific man (or pirate), William Johnston, hid out for years. Johnston was a wanted man by both Canada and New York State. He swam under the island and came up inside in a cave. His daughter would leave food and supplies for him on the outside of the island. He finally decided to turn himself in; well he had his son turn him in to New York State for the reward that was placed on his capture. Johnston wasn’t the only pirate to be found in the 1000 Island region. There are many tales of other pirates terrorizing the area and taking over passing boats and cargo ships.

The 1000 Island region was also a popular hideout spot for many others in that time as well. The most interesting is that of the Hermit of Maple Island whose real name was John Payne. John Payne kept to himself and only left the island once a month to get supplies from the town on the mainland. One night there was a bright glow from the island that could be seen all the way from the mainland. It was assumed to be a fire (business as usual in the 1000 Islands), but the next morning when it was investigated, Payne was found murdered with three crosses carved into his chest and his cabin burned to the ground. The three crosses were supposedly the mark of a secret society, which John Wilkes Booth was a member. Does that name sound familiar? Yeah it should since he was the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Rumor has it that Payne was holding a $100,000 bounty, and Booth was supposed to head north to the 1000 Islands to collect the bounty after he killed the president. Unfortunately for Booth, he accidentally head south and never made it to the bounty. Unfortunately for Payne, other members of the secret society found his hideout and murdered him right there on his little island. It isn’t known if they were able to find the money, but it is safe to assume they did.

There was an island within the 1000 Islands called Hart Island, which was purchased by George C Boldt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Boldt quickly changed the name of the island to Heart Island, as he was building a castle on this island for the love of his life, Louise. Sadly, in 1904, before the castle was complete, Louise died and George completely abandoned the castle and the island. Boldt didn’t just own Heart Island, he also owned a huge Boat House across the river from the castle and a few other spots throughout the islands. If you want more Boldt history in the 1000 Islands, click here!

Not only did he build one of the most beautiful castles I have ever seen, but George Boldt also brought a delicious condiment to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC, where is became an instant success as a salad dressing, and thus Thousand Island dressing was born.

One quick last fact I learned on the tour! One of the Islands, I believe Rock Island, was the last stop along the route for the Underground Railroad. Boats would take anyone who made it to the island over to Canada where they found their freedom. A beautiful place to end a long, exhausting, and stressful journey to freedom.

I left out so much of the history I learned that day, but at least now you got a snippet of how much there is about the 1000 Island region.

Back to our adventure at Boldt Castle

Before we disembarked onto Heart Island, Daniel, our tour guide, told us that after the island was abandoned by the Boldt family it was sold to the Thousand Island Bridge Authority for the steep price of $1 with the condition that all of the proceeds made would be put back into the castle. To date, over $40 million dollars has been put into the upkeep and maintenance of the castle, so it looks as if it did when George and his family last saw it (maybe with a few new museum type signs in each of their rooms and a gift shop).

We pulled up to Heart Island and thankfully the rain had stopped just in time. We were able to take advantage of all of the beauty outside the castle as well as inside the castle. We hopped off the boat and didn’t know where to start. I stood there starring at the water surrounding the island taking in the beauty of the glacier blue color it held, while Doug pointed out how much the castle reminded him of Hogwarts. He wasn’t wrong; it truly had a magical feel to it.

Power House for Boldt Castle

We made our way to the main entrance to the castle, and walked in to find a grand staircase leading up to the second floor of the castle. The first and second floors were completely finished. There were staircases on the side that led up to the third and fourth floors, which were mostly empty and unfinished from when George abandoned the project. We wandered around each room taking in all of the beauty in each unique room. I am pretty certain every single room had a balcony/outdoor area off of it, but there was so much to see I could definitely be imaging that part.

Outdoor area from a room on the second floor of Boldt Castle

After seeing all of the rooms in the main castle and a quick trip into the gift shop so I could get my shot glass, we head outside to see the grounds and the other buildings on the island. First, we made our way to the Alster Tower, which was mainly used as a playhouse for the Boldt children. There were two bowling alleys inside for them to play! This was also the main building used by the family while the castle was under construction. The Alster Tower was tall and narrow, so we quickly saw the open areas, which included one of the bowling allies and left to see more of what Heart Island had to offer. Next up was the Power House, which honestly could have been a castle itself. It was breathtaking to see from the outside, and the picture perfect spot! When you walk around the interior of the Power House it is a little history museum, and you can learn all about the castle, the island, and the family. While walking around the Power House I noticed a loud wave crashing sound and quickly realized that one of the doors led straight out to the St. Lawrence River and had no dock or anything blocking it. Of course, that door was locked, but it was really neat to see/hear!

Bowling Alley in Alster Tower

After seeing all of the buildings, we wandered around the grounds to see all of the beautiful landscaping and décor that it held. There was an adorable gazebo, a fountain, some statues, and colorful flowers everywhere. Walking around the outside of the castle was a relaxing and genuinely happy experience all together.

Fountain at Boldt Castle

Touring Boldt Castle is one of those experiences that instantly takes you back in time and gives you the opportunity to let your imagination run wild. I kept picturing what it would have been like to live there, especially back in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I completely fell in love with being there, and wish it wasn’t so far from my home, so I could keep going back over and over again.

Have you ever been to a castle before? Did you fall in love with it as much as I did with Boldt Castle and Heart Island? Comment below!

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