Thursday, September 28, 2017


How the Island Swamps Survived War, Cattle, Millionaires and Methodists so Beavers Found a Home

East Trail Pond Spring 2001

In the late 1980's after Old Ernie stopped trapping them, the beavers on Wellesley Island made a series of ponds along three nameless creeks that drain into South Bay, a small shallow bay at the west end of the 8 mile long island in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. In 1994 after vacationing on the island for 20 years, my wife, our 7 year old son and I moved up from Washington, DC, and winterized the summer house in Thousand Island Park, New York, that I inherited from my father. Not many of the 330 houses in the summer resort are occupied in the winter. The old trapper and his wife, who were lost in the summer bustle, became more or less our nearest neighbors in the winter. A carpenter by trade, he had helped my father renovate the house and at times I nailed planks under his direction. Nothing warms a winter evening more than dropping in on a legend.

The Old Trapper

He was born on the island in 1914, and his roots went deep. His grandmother was a Mohawk. I saw him once while he was trapping. The owner of the biggest and fanciest house in our cove paid him to come out of retirement to trap the muskrats who wintered in his boat house. The old trapper stooped up to his traps in a way that reminded me of the quiet and careful ways of some Sioux Indians I worked with in California during a college work term.

He spoke with a North Country accent that I thought reeked of tradition. Genealogists have traced his family along a route farmers looking for land took: Massachusetts to Connecticut to Vermont to New York, first St. Lawrence County where the Mohawks flourished and then Jefferson County and the islands.

Connecting his family back to England is a bit tricky. Judging from what I've heard over the years from BBC TV imports, the North Country accent is much like an accent in northern England, say Yorkshire, with the rising sing song and lingering “ars” and “ows.” And indeed there were economic dislocations in Yorkshire in the 18th century that sent farmers and people in the wool trade to America. Beavers were long extinct in Britain but beaver felt competed with Yorkshire wool. Some of the biggest men in the fur trade were Yorkshireman, Joseph Frobisher for example, who died in 1810 just outside Montreal in his mansion named Beaver Hall.

After we moved to the island I bumped into many beavers but I was a bit timid about discussing that with the retired trapper, not wanting to spur him back into action. Nor did I want my greenhorn's excitement checked by his superior understanding. However, that first fall on the island in 1994, I had to tell him I had just seen 5 otters, tried to chase after them and fell flat on my face. He told us there were no otters on the island. In all his years of trapping he had never seen one. 

 Otters in the snow, 2001
That planted the seed for this history. If the old trapper had never seen an otter on the island, then what I was seeing marked a new epoch on the island. I became more serious about the journal I was keeping and eventually bought a camcorder. The more I saw, the more eager I became to share notes. The early days of the web made that easy. In 2004, I spun that thread, so to speak, all the way to an international conference on otters (in Frostburg, Maryland), only to find that no one was seeing what I was seeing. The otter experts graciously web published a paper I delivered which amounted to a concise description of six encounters between otters and beavers.

Meanwhile I kept seeing beavers and otters, sometimes bumping into them bumping into each other again. For 18 years the way the bark eating beavers and the fish eating otters shared the ponds fascinated me. For awhile I tried to cook up another paper, but it struck me that the meat and potatoes of science is measurement. I confess, I made halfhearted effort to measure some things, which I will duly report in this book, but I much preferred sitting on the banks of ponds watching the show.

Slowly, for it takes time to track otters and understand beavers, my journals and images began to amount to something. I kept sharing journal entries on the web and blogs that tried to analyze what I was seeing. But what about the big picture? I had capped my Washington career by writing a 700 page book on the city's founding so I knew how to weave a thousand details into History.

 My history of Washington published in 1991

True the beavers I watched didn't build a Capitol but something happened between the roaming otters and the beavers who worried three small creeks into an aquatic mammals' paradise. We primarily enjoy animals because their lives seem simpler than ours. But I became convinced that the way otters and beavers related was not dictated by their instincts. I saw a clash of cultures.

Maybe. Or call my writing this penance. Humans almost succeeded in killing every beaver and otter in North America. When he checked his traps the old trapper had a pistol holstered at his side. Later he told us that muskrats could put up an awful screeching fight. Beavers were resigned to their fate. But they were not treated like Yorkshire sheep. The pliant beavers got a bullet in their head. Put it this way, beavers and otters are more cultured than us. When they leave, the land is still green and there are still fish in the ponds.

Within a month of moving up to the island, I bumped into a beaver, who came out of a small pond I would soon call Middle Pond. 

Middle Pond 1996 two years after the beaver stood before me on the farthest and darkest shore in this photo

I was sitting on a shaded rock sweating late-July. The beaver stood up like a bear, I was that close, then lifted up a delicate paw to bring a green leaf close to a mouth not at all like the mouths of cartoon beavers. The beaver mouth recedes under a strong upper jaw. The four big incisors are unobtrusive. Here was a quiet type which was OK with me. If we had decided to pass the time of day, I was the one who had a lot of explaining to do.

Not that this book, this history, makes a case again the old trapper. I count him as one of the beavers. A story told at his funeral goes like this: he was hired by the cottage owners on a neighboring island to take care of their “beaver problem” so when they came back in the summer their boathouses would be clear of them. When he went over to collect his fee, they asked how many beavers he had killed. “None. I just told them to move over to Picton Island and they did.”

As the beaver stood before me I tried not to move let alone do any explaining. Then the tree he and his mate had been cutting fell. I turned my head and he slipped back into the muddy water.

If I had done that explaining, I would have said that the human war against beavers was nothing personal against beavers. The overarching goal of the fur trade was to separate Indians from their land by using brandy, iron pots and trinkets to get the Indians addicted to killing animals, especially the beavers that were not prolific enough to survive intense trapping. So the whole sordid slaughter moved west making it easier for whites to take and farm Indian lands or, in the mountain regions and far north, have easier access to the mineral wealth they were sure was there. 

 1718 French map of the players in the fur trade. The Thousand Islands are in the northeast corner of "Lac Ontario." The tribes circled in red were "detruite", i.e. destroyed

That explanation is grim enough. Worse still, although prized, a beaver pelt was not a trophy. Hat makers in Europe didn't use the pelts as pelts. They boiled the fur to turn it into felt, again, nothing personal.

Given the centuries long war against them, how did history unfold on and around the island so that despite the fur trade, beavers, otters and I met on Wellesley Island? Lets put the place on the map, help you focus on the island.

Beavers are not what anyone thinks of when they first encounter the Thousand Islands. The water is clear, the current understated and the islands either bristling with trees or bare pink granite seem so comprehensible if not familiar. Never was going from Point A to Point B more inviting, if you know where the shoals are. Go to Point C and life suddenly becomes complicated. So “beautiful” doesn't quite sum it up. The islands, after all, have to be learned. Finding the American shore or six miles away the Canadian shore is no help. The islands give no appearance of being appendages of any mainland feature, not a sinking peninsula nor a rising mountain chain.

Saying so might please our sense that given time man can achieve oneness with his environment but there is no evidence that Indians were comfortable in Thousand Islands either, with one exception. Before power dams were built down river, eels from the sea spawned in a round bay, Eel Bay, almost two miles wide half surrounded by Wellesley Island and on the west side by Murray, Picton and Grindstone Islands. Well into the 19th century holding torches over canoe gunwales on the darkest nights, the Indians speared the eels. A campsite with 13th century Indian artifacts was unearthed on Grindstone Island.

So once Indians learned of the insatiable appetite of Europeans for furs, Indians probably killed beavers especially on 8 mile long Wellesley and 4 miles long Grindstone. In the early days of the fur trade, Indians brought their furs down river to Montreal and no pains were taken to account for where the beavers came from. So the only measure of what the island meant in the trade is how the French settled the area.

In the late 17th century, 1677, King Louis XIV gave the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle permission to expand a small fort on the north shore of Lake Ontario commanding the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands thus controlling the trade in furs coming across the lake to the river. The King gave neighboring islands to LaSalle too. LaSalle had big plans for the area but those plans didn't include trapping beavers. He wanted settlement and farming, even industries. By 1677 the leading edge of the slaughter of beavers was far to the west.

         Fort Frontenac with islands at mouth of the river then called Iroquois or Catarakui River

LaSalle planned other forts in Saint Louis and beyond to better oversee the actual beaver killing. Then he was distracted by the Mississippi River and murdered somewhere between what would become Houston and New Orleans leaving what would become Kingston, Ontario, some 1500 miles behind.

The fur trade was such a fanatical geopolitical push by Europeans that it's good to pay attention to how the Indians assess the trade. They wryly observed that beavers flourished during wars between humans because during those wars men were too busy to kill beavers. From 1757 to 1814, eastern North America was often at war. And there is evidence that even where the fur trade had moved on, beavers had not been trapped to the point of extinction. In 1775 troops aiming to capture Montreal were vexed by beaver dam after beaver dam as they tried to paddle up Maine's rivers. The Indians who had trapped those rivers were fighting for the British.

The St. Lawrence River valley was a theater in all those wars. But there is no record of the beavers returning to the islands, nor to the mainland even though two French surveyors were looking for them. In the 1790s they explored a huge tract of land stretching about 30 miles south of the river and about 50 miles east of Lake Ontario. To attract French buyers fleeing the French Revolution the land company called the huge area Castorland. Yet the surveyors didn't see any beavers, "castor" in French, even on the Beaver River. They did find a beaver skull in an old Indian camp.

Evidently the word castor had positive romantic connotations for Frenchmen. Beaver felt had warmed their heads for two centuries. There was an image of a beaver on the company's seal.
1796 Coin with beaver under the lady trying to lure Frenchmen to Castorland

Meanwhile up on the river people were looking for trees not beavers. Despite losing the Revolutionary War, the British really controlled the river and they invited Loyalists from the states to settle the north shore of the river. New Yorkers and New Englanders who had served in the British army got a generous land grant the size depending on their rank. Loyalists came bent on making a better life than they had in the States.

The British did have a nice sense of commitment to their Indian allies and they graciously encouraged the remaining Mohawks, by then Christians and settled on land down river from the islands, to lease the islands to the likes of William Wells from a New Hampshire lumbering family. Wells cut all the trees he could and floated them down river.

No eyewitness described his operation but it is easy to picture. Wellesley Island flanks both the US and Canadian channels flowing down to Montreal. Even today trees on the sloped island shores look like they are leaning toward the river easy to cut down.

To commemorate his enterprise that invited farming, husbandry and development locals began calling the island Wells Island. (Yes, it is said he killed a bear with a hatchet which impressed the Indians and despite their genius for linking many descriptive syllables to name places and people, they named the island “Wells.”)

Then just after the end of the War of 1812, in June 1815, the British Admiralty sent Captain William Fitz Williams Owen (he was the illegitimate son of a naval officer named Williams) to Kingston to map the islands. During the last war too many navy ships had gotten delayed trying to navigate them. 

 Early maps of the Thousand Islands left much to be desired
Owen re-named all the islands he could, obliterating French names, Indian names and local names. He couldn't strike and replace the French name for the neighboring US mainland. Most historians view early 19th century French settlement in Northern New York as a Romantic lark. The British who had fought them for centuries didn't. So Capt. Owen named islands fronting “Castorland” after rortin' snortin' British heroes.

By defeating Napoleon, Arthur Wellesley became the Duke of Wellington and the new most famous man in the world. (Napoleon had knocked George Washington off that pedestal and Washington eclipsed Frederick the Great.) So the captain called the central group of islands facing Castorland the Wellington Islands and the longest of those islands Wellesley Island. The rest of the Wellingtons are named after the Duke's generals.

Castorland lined up against the Duke of Wellington's Generals
Nothing the captain did influenced the development of the island. What's in a name? Perhaps he set a vibe. He honored the jig-saw puzzle shape of the island with more names to give Frenchmen pause. He named the southern spur of the headland of Wellesley Island after the 1809 Battle of Talavera, the victory in Spain that made Arthur Wellesley the Viscount of Wellington. He called the high point of the headland Buzacoe Head (which being of interest in four languages has various spellings) after a height in Portugal  that Wellington held against repeated French attacks. 

Capt. Owen, that old sea dog, sensed the islands like the otters did. Those I tracked often scatted and made scent mounds on Buzacoe Head. (In 2010 after 15 years of tracking them, it dawned on me that otters also mapped the island's strategic points.)

From the back Buzacoe Head otters commanded South Bay

A year after Owen made his map, surveyors from the rival countries came to mark the international boundary. No Indian tribes were invited to join even though ratification of the official boundary would extinguish all Indian claims. In the wake of war the cry was not for justice, but development. To make that simple both Britain and US wanted no island divided between the two nations.

Thanks to one of the British surveyors being a legendary fur trader, we can get a sense of how far removed beavers were from this division of territory. David Thompson began working for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1790 as a trader, learned surveying, and moved on to work for Joseph Frobisher's Northwest Company. He traveled some 51,000 miles in a broad arc of well watered land from Georgian Bay to the Columbia River, and also down throughout the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the northern US. Thompson had just returned East from Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast where the long war against beavers was finally running out of space. He collected what was due to him from the fur companies in Montreal and settled down with his half Cree Indian wife and family. Only 40 years old, he got restless, signed on with the British surveying team and made a short trip, just the entire southern border of the Province of Ontario, then called Upper Canada. Thompson made no note of seeing beavers on the islands.

Among the American surveyors whose work carefully paralleled Thompson's was a chap who kept a journal and planned to observe the flora and fauna. Unfortunately, and write this down, mapping 1800 islands is a tough job. The new surveyors were rather disappointed with Owen's map. He missed many of the small islands. So Major Joseph Delafield spent much time reconciling maps and managing logistics.

If Delafield or anyone with him saw a beaver, let alone killed one, he would have reported it. Before reaching the island, Delafield reported seeing mink, porcupine, many deer and one dead otter. As I have, he saw a deer swimming across the deep narrows between Wellesley and Murray Islands. (The local name, Hemlock Island, slipped to oblivion not that anyone really remembers Sir George Murray, the Duke's quartermaster general.) Oarsmen killed the deer with their oars. 

Not that the small islands mattered that much. Since 8 miles long Wellesley Island hugged the US mainland, roughly a half mile away, the international border would be off the north side of the island. Once that line was agreed upon Wellesley Island would become undisputed American territory and put up for sale. So a good map was wanted.

The American surveyors camped along the middle of the island facing the US mainland with a clear view up and down river. Remember Wells had cut the trees. Then the exposed rocks of the island amplified a fierce wind that flattened the surveyors' tents.

The next camp was just beyond a granite slope, where I would live 180 years later, nestled on a hundred acre sandstone flat gracefully curving back from the channel. The new camp welcomed the prevailing southwest winds with open arms so to speak rather than with walls of stone. 

The problems with the camp was that the view from it made the Thousand Islands look too easy with no big islands in the way of  Lake Ontario to the west. (Today on a clear day I can see the wind towers along the lake 20 miles away.) So Delafield & Co. rowed north across the mouth of South Bay and below the 50 foot high pink granite wall of what no one even then called Buzacoe Head and onto the shores of Eel Bay. (That granite is the best argument that geologically speaking the islands belong to Canada since that rock is the first exposure, as you head north, of what we call the Canadian Shield.) Since you can't see Eel Bay from the American channel and can't see the Canadian mainland from it, you might say the surveyors finally lost themselves in the islands.

Annotated view from space (the letters marked the beaver ponds I watched)

But the surveyors didn't work in obscurity. Since the White House burned by the British was still being restored, President James Monroe began his term of office with a tour of the northern states. He didn't neglect the northern border where the town fathers of Ogdensburg, an old Catholic mission village 40 miles east of the island renamed after a land speculator, and Sackets Harbor, a speculation on Lake Ontario strategic enough to be fought over, urged him to build forts to secure the border.

Tagging along with the president were land speculators. Delafield took Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont and son across the headland of Wellesley, across Eel Bay to a narrow point forming the northwest tip of the island to wait for a ship on the Canadian side. The current there is swifter and more unpredictable so the ship was two hours late.

The New York City land speculator had married the daughter of a more prominent speculator, and they got a half million acres east of Castorland from her father as a wedding present. Not enough. Pierrepont promised to use the new maps when he bought islands. He agreed with Delafield that it was the best way to “obtain an accurate knowledge of this strange configuration of land and water.”

I shudder to think of what a man who already owned a half million acres planned to do with an island or two. As it turned out, Pierrepont bought and made his mark on Brooklyn Heights on the other end of the New York and gained some wealth and fame making gin.

When the islands went up for sale, a speculator from Sackets Harbor made the plunge. Those who bought from him then confronted the British citizens like Wells who leased land from the Mohawks. That battle over who owned the latest raft of logs about to be sent down river played out on nearby Grindstone Island which was better shaped and sized for farming. (Despite the in-fighting locals never wavered from calling it Grindstone rather than Gore after a battle scarred general.)

Wellesley Island developed more slowly. According to the 1850 census 334 people lived on it, mostly farmers and woodcutters supplying wood to fuel the steamships. In 1890 Hiram Moore bragged that he had resided on the island longer than anyone. He came in 1837 with his grandmother when he was 13 and by the time he was 19 he had helped clear a thousand acres of land. 

But in 1838 a man could still find a good hiding place on the island. Bill Johnston, a 56 year old ex-Canadian smuggler who thrived in Clayton, the mainland village across from Grindstone, led a band of Canadians and locals who struck a blow for Canadian freedom from British tyranny during the so-called Patriot War of 1837-39. They burned a British steamer, the Sir Robert Peel, as it docked at mid-point of the island to get firewood.

Needless to say that a man President Martin Van Buren called a Pirate once roamed in a vacation resort is a big deal. So today it takes two weekends every August to celebrate his exploits. It is said he hid in Devil's Oven, the closest uninhabitable island to the many bars of the Village of Alexandria Bay, opposite the east end of Wellesley, where the celebration takes place.

As I discovered in US State Department papers Johnston actually  took advantage of the jig-saw puzzle piece shape of Wellesley Island. Johnston modified a wooden Durham boat built for taking freight downstream by forgetting the freight and adding 8 oars men. For short sprints the boat could go faster than the steamers of that day and was light enough to be carried over land short distances. Wellesley Island had several low points where Johnston could portage from the American side to the British side to escape the US or vice versa to escape the British. A long bay in the middle of the island called Lake of the Isles (Lake Waterloo on the Owen map) made escaping even easier.

 Aerial view of Wellesley Island from the east; where couldn't a pirate hide?

Authorities came closest to capturing Johnston in a Grindstone Island farm house. But hailed by locals as a hero, when the Patriot War got serious (the British began hanging rebels) Johnston gave himself up and got light time in US courts. The next president, Harrison, pardoned him and another president, Pierce, appointed him the light house keeper on Rock Island, across the American channel from where I live.

An island with swamps, marshes and scrubby woods enough to hide a pirate must have seemed inviting to beavers too. But in the 1840's what I call the second war against the beavers began. In the first war the Indians' hunt for beavers was communal and tribes competed with each other. Rural whites waged the second war usually alone and usually chaffing at the discipline required. One had to set traps and then hike out again and again to check them. Poorly made traps that went off for no reason made setting a line of traps hardly worth the gamble. 

In 1823 about 100 miles south of the river, Jewell Newhouse invented a light, reliable, steel trap, and in 1848 the Oneida Community, a religious group Newhouse joined, began manufacturing his traps by the thousands. 

I need only quote the company's guide to trapping to make my point: “I know several men in Jefferson County, New York, who paid for good farms with furs that they caught within eight miles of home. It is not uncommon for two men to make five hundred dollars in a trapping season.” (The name Castorland did not stick, though not a few French moved to it, including a Bonaparte. Most of it became Jefferson County. By the way, Jefferson was rather pro-French.)
Many of farmer also supplemented their income by trapping, but perhaps not those on the island. An 1864 map of the west end of the island listed 10 farmers, three of the them Moores, all ranged along the southern shore of the island. Plus there was and a cheese "factory." The cheese makers got milk from the farmers' cows. So what land wasn't used for farming was used for pastures. Cattle clear the brush beavers might eat so hard cheese for any beavers who might have moved into the swamps in the center of the island and survived the Newhouse traps.

1864 map of island landowners (the island was still called Wells)

Then after the Civil War, Americans came to realize that there was more to life than farming and cheese making. In 1862 a visionary anticipated the future of the islands. George Pullman, a 41 year old Chicago railroad car manufacturer who grew up in New York villages along the Erie Canal, bought an island in the St. Lawrence River just off Alexandria Bay. When he bought the island he hadn't invented the Pullman. That sleeping car opened the floodgates. In 1872 when President Grant came in his Pullman to visit Pullman there was no house on the small rocky island. They tented and having once been stationed at Sacket's Harbor, Grant knew how to while away the hours. They fished. The New York Central Railroad made roughing it in the Thousand Islands easy.

Trains were the half of it. Steamships picked up vacationers at the Clayton train station and distributed them throughout the Thousand Islands.

No epoch of American history is less understood today than the late 19th century. The mass of people, rich and poor, did not crave solitude. They wanted to revivify together. All they needed was a tent and a map, not a trail map, but a lot map.

In 1875 Frank Hines of Watertown, NY, the seat of Jefferson County, liberally distributed some 1800 building lots across the headland of Wellesley Island. Talavera Point and Buzacoe Head were eclipsed by Thousand Island Park. Newsome traps and cattle menaced beavers who might have returned to the island's interior swamps. Now a summer resort threatened the shores of South Bay and Eel Bay. 

Hines worked under the direction of a committee of Methodist ministers, the Thousand Island Park Camp Meeting Association. That map was sent not to just anybody, but to any Methodist who craved a summer camp, tent or cottage, where there was no drinking, no gambling, camp meeting revival every Sunday (an open air Tabernacle was soon built) and religious services sanctifying the rest of week – and yes clean air, salubrious grounds and fishing.

The 1875 grand Methodist plan for summer time salvation

The Camp Meeting Association did not sell the lots. It gave a 99 year lease to lot holders and for an annual fee provided services. It also regulated behavior. That's better put this away: it regulated the behavior of your neighbors. Tents gave way to houses and soon there were 300 houses, big along the river, small on the grid of streets in the flat middle of the community all packed tighter than in any village. Here was every home a castle Methodist style. Neighbors could easily see and hear what was happening inside your castle. (The place remains a treasure of small scale Victorian cottage architecture endorsed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Fortunately, most of the land marked out for lots in the 1875 was not developed. The Association also owned the peninsula that formed the north shore of South Bay, Buzacoe and back all the way to the shore of Eel Bay. On paper the north shore of South Bay looked more inviting than the south shore where the crowd of houses were being built. Hines was an honest map maker and showed the marshes along the south shore. On the other side of the bay, he showed how one road could rise from  the rocks of the Narrows and go up a small valley that led up to a raised meadow.

The north side of Thousand Island Park soon to be connected by bridge to the rest of the park 

The Association built a wooden bridge across the entrance of the bay that invited all to explore the north shore. But fortunately for the beavers in my future, religion promotes the gathering of people not their dispersal. A few lots across the bridge were sold. One man did build a house on Eel Bay which was soon forgotten by everyone else. Winter ice soon took down a large chunk of the bridge and it wasn't replaced. The bridge lasted long enough for one summer's trash to be rolled over and dumped behind some granite boulders.

With no bridge, the north shore of South Bay was immune to development. One could still walk around the bay, but hold your nose. On the peninsula between two marshes at the back of the bay, a slaughterhouse sated the appetites of Thousand Island Parkers and their guest. (You can still find cattle bones where the abattoir once flourished.) The Association compensated for not expanding across the bay by going vertical.

Where people gather, even Methodists, fashion takes over.  The open air Tabernacle began to boast less of salvation and more of being the Northern Chautauqua. “Camp Meeting” was soon dropped from the name and the Association built and filled a large hotel during the summer season. (Methodists still came to the Park. My mother's uncle a Methodist preacher from Chicago began coming in 1930 and soon bought a house that eventually became mine.)

The second of two hotels to grace the green of TIP. 

Four smaller hotels flanked the big one. Most of the big Victorian houses along the river took in boarders. 

Cattle hoofed it from the islands farms to the end of South Bay, stealing food from browsing beavers (if there were any.) The man running the slaughter house got rights to graze cattle on the 400 acres the Park owned and didn't develop north and east of South Bay. A long granite ridge separated the slaughter house from the crowd of people. You can still find the barbed wire on the north crest of the ridge.

The ridge ran east from the open air Tabernacle for about a mile. North of the ridge and east of the slaughter house was one of the creeks that I saw the beavers turn into a paradise. On the Hines map lots lined the south crest of the ridge overlooking a pleasure ground "Oriental Park" and between that and the river were a few more hundred lots along a half dozen streets.

 The east end of Thousand Island Park

Those streets were never laid out. On the map the lots along roads curving up the hills behind the flat looked most desirable with views of the river and sunsets. But what looked good on paper did not work on granite. In 1875 the east end of the park was a working farm and for over 50 years it stayed that way, soon expanding its dairy barn and cheese factory. Much of the ridge was used for pasture. The association also fashioned a 9 hole golf course accessible by boat.

Briefly I saw beavers living in a pond beside the 3rd hole. Otherwise the golf course was a relatively minor attraction. After all who takes their golf clubs when they cruise the Rhine. George Pullman became the first millionaire to build a castle on his island. Following Pullman's lead an archipelago of millionaires clustered in the American channel south of Wellesley Island. Across from Alexandria Bay, German born George Boldt who owned the Waldorf Astoria topped them all by building a castle that belonged on the Rhine. He built his enormous yacht house on the island and developed farms to grow produce to be shipped by train to New York City.

Then Boldt's friend Edson Bradley, who was educated in Germany and made his millions off Old Crow Kentucky whiskey and representing the Whiskey interest in Washington, broke ranks. On the north shore of Wellesley Island, Bradley built "Arcadia" which with 45 rooms was hailed as the world's largest bungalow. The acres behind the mansion which included part of the shore of Eel Bay pastured Bradley's herd of Ayrshire cattle. All the rocks made the island much like the hills of Scotland.

Most likely Bradley bought a herd already established on the island. Hiram Moore who bragged to be the oldest resident of the island bred Ayrshire and Galway cattle on 508 acres. Gardner Putnam who lived in Thousand Island Park leased 96 acres near it where he bred Ayrshire and Durham cattle. Another Park resident had Percheron horses.
It was proudly said that on some summer weekends 7000 people lived in Thousand Island Park. Probably a few thousand head of cattle browsed the west end of the island 52 weeks a year. But don't weep for the beavers. There were none to be crowded out by development.

Thanks to the efficacy of the Newhouse trap by 1900 the New York State Department of Conservation decided there were no beavers in the state. The 14th edition of the trapping guide published by Oneida Manufacturing advised that if you wanted beavers, you best go to Canada. In 1905 the state began releasing beavers from Canada and Yellowstone Park in an effort to restore beavers to the Adirondacks. The State estimated there were 1,500 to 2,000 in the Adirondacks in 1914 and proudly listed where they were. In the 1920's the state allowed beaver trapping again.

If any beaver made it to the headland of Wellesley Island it may have found large wooden boat houses to den in. The owners would be far away during the long winter. But the cattle browsed along the shores of the creeks draining into South Bay. A goodly number of people like Ernie the old trapper stayed year round working on the building projects large and small that could proceed at a slow pace once the summer crowds were gone. Plenty of time for trapping, but he said that when he grew up, it was all pasture all the way to Eel Bay. He didn't remember any boyhood trapping, fishing yes, but not trapping. Then the beavers and I got lucky.

George Boldt finished the outside and but not the inside of his castle. His wife died and then he died in 1916. Perhaps because his friend George was gone, when the Bradley mansion burned down in 1922, he and his family changed course. He had also built an outlandish mansion in Washington complete with a 500 seat theater. He had that torn down stone by stone and shipped to Newport, Rhode Island, to form the nucleus of the grandest mansion imaginable. The super rich left the west end of the island. None were there when Thousand Island Park had to sell its land between South and Eel Bays.

Middle class Methodists didn't make out so well either. The business model of the Park Association failed. When the big hotel burned down in 1896 it was rebuilt but not after it burned down again in 1912. Even building grand suspension bridges from the US and Canadian mainland to the Wellesley Island and neighboring Hill Island and connecting those two islands with a small bridge (Old Ernie worked on the small one) did not spark a boom in TI Park. Packing trains and steamers with vacationers worked. Leaving people to their own devices didn't work as well. What seemed so magical to get to by train was tedious by automobile. The Association sold stock and became a Corporation. Not enough.

Meanwhile, a woman broke from the crowd in Thousand Island Park. As part of Chautauqua at the Park, Cornell University professors gave summer courses on nature, including drawing lessons from Anna Botsford Comstock. In her over 900 pages long Handbook of Nature Study, first published in 1911, Comstock didn't mention beavers or otters. So when Minna Anthony Common, the grand daughter of one of the original tent dwellers, looked for something to draw she didn't think of the swamps. She hiked up the granite ridge behind the Tabernacle and then made a trail to lead others in drawing birds and flowers. She said she followed old Indian trails which is probably true since red oaks grow where the soil between granite ridges are thick enough. Deer love acorns.

Welcoming plaque at TI Park Nature Trail

The Park managers could not contrive a way to make money off the nature trail. The easiest way to stave off bankruptcy was to sell undeveloped land.

The heirs of the Bradleys showed the way. With his death in 1938, long bickering over his estate began. The land on the island was an afterthought and in the early 1950's it was sold to New York State. The pasture along the river became rather nice camp sites in Wellesley Island State Park.

Meanwhile Minna Anthony Common's daughter had married a local newspaper publisher and wound up on the Thousand Islands  State Parks Commission board. A newspaper reporter, as well as an artist and naturalist like her mother, Catherine Common Johnson hatched the plan for New York State to buy the golf course, the ridge above, the pasture below the other side including the two creeks and all of the north shore of South Bay and south shore of Eel Bay and all in between. Her family also contributed money to build a Nature Center high on the shore of Eel Bay to share and interpret the wildlife in the Park.

Planned as a great place for teaching people about nature, no one gave a thought about what it would mean for beavers when the pastures south of the Nature Center returned to swamps.

Like Ernie the Old Trapper and my father, for that matter, Mrs. Johnson was born in 1914. I had a chance to meet her because to entertain my visiting brother we went to a ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Nature Center. I had talked to her husband on the phone once when I did a story for Progressive Magazine (not published) about Abbie Hoffman who after a nose job and a name change spent a winter on Wellesley Island and organized an environmental group to Save the River from winter navigation by ocean going vessels. 

Mrs. Johnson was with her husband at the ceremony but I blush to  say I was more inclined to meet the local congressman and joke to him about my escaping Washington. But I didn't. I was done with hobnobbing with the big bugs. A few days earlier I had bumped into that beaver in the Middle Pond.

Now let's be more particular about why that beaver was there: next chapter - Introduction continued

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