It was under a clear blue sky, on that warm September afternoon, that the twin diesel engines of the cruise ship, Thousand Islander II, gave a final thrust as the captain placed the boat gently against the floating dock at Heart Island, New York State. Our tour of a medieval castle was about to begin, and an intriguing tale of romance and tragedy would unfold.
It was the end of September, and it was my turn to plan our wedding anniversary outing. Each year Linda and I take turns to plan the day’s activity for our wedding anniversary. Our wedding anniversary has often found us a long way from home in new surroundings. New surroundings make planning a day trip for this special occasion relatively easy. Planning a day to remember when we were close to home was a challenge.
The final plan included a short drive, a riverboat cruise on the St. Lawrence River, and a tour of a medieval castle, a day to remember.
The St. Lawrence River
The St. Lawrence River separates eastern Canada and the United States. Out on the river, south of Gananoque, Canada, stretching east and west is an area known as “One-Thousand Islands.” The islands of the St. Lawrence River are small outcrops of granite, carved smooth during the last ice age. These granite islands have pine trees clinging to thin soil. The trees bend with the prevailing wind. A wind that carries with it the aroma of pine, wilderness, and adventure.
To reach Heart Island, Linda and I had left the cruise line dock in Gananoque, Ontario Canada, two hours earlier. The cruise ship, Thousand Islander II, had taken us through some of the most scenic areas of the St. Lawrence River’s 1000 island region. The weather had been perfect.
The Heart Island story is a real-life romantic/tragedy from the late 19th century. The millionaire, George Boldt, purchased an island in the St. Lawrence River, then officially changed its name to Heart Island. It was on Heart Island that he built his medieval-looking castle. The castle looks medieval but contains all the modern conveniences available during construction between the years 1897 and 1904.
Today you can take the self-guided audio tour. The audio tours are available supported by interpreters who wander about in 19th century costume. You can stop and talk to these interpreters as you stroll the castle and its grounds. You learn the background and you feel part of the story and the history. The tale of Boldt Castle is a tale of love and heartache equal to any written by Shakespeare.
A Wedding Anniversary Special Outing
With our thirty-third anniversary approaching, my mind searched for an interesting idea for an anniversary day trip to remember. The idea came to me suddenly when I saw an advertisement in a magazine that Linda had placed back on the coffee table in our RV. It was an advertisement for a. river cruise and tour of Boldt Castle. The cruise line dock is only half an hour from our campsite at Rideau Acres RV Park, Kingston. I realized that we could make this our day out.
For most men, planning a wedding anniversary special outing is a nightmare with so much that could go wrong. The plan quickly became the Boldt Castle tour, and I developed the checklist in my head, nothing must go wrong. By 9:25 am on the day of the cruise, the list was almost complete.
- 7:00 am – Check weather. We recently had a few cold days and lots of rain. The forecast was sunny and warm. Done.
- 7:45 am – A shower, dressed and walk the dogs. Done.
- 8:25 am – Have breakfast together in the early morning sunshine. Done.
- 8:55 am – Leave RV park and drive to Gananoque where we would board the boat. We had to be at the dockside ticket office by 9:30 am. Done.
- 9:20 am – Find parking. There was space in the car park at the dockside. Done.
- 9:25 am – Arrive at the ticket counter. “Passports please”, asked the clerk. “You will be stepping off the cruise ship at Heart Island onto U.S. soil.” Devastating news for me, there was not time to go back and get the passports. Linda was smiling as she pulled two passports from her bag and handed them across the counter. I claim the task as complete, but I also got the “Where would you be without me look”, from Linda.
- 9:45 am – We boarded the boat and agreed on seats on the open-top deck. The top deck gave the best views of the river and that “wind in your face” experience. The start of a great day. Done.
- 10:00 am – The cruise ship left the dock, nothing else would go wrong.
The Cruise Through the 1000 Islands
The border between Canada and the United States meanders up the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. The U.S./Canada border never touches any of the islands scattered over this stretch of waterway. Island owners require bottomless pockets to cover their costs. These people have built weekend homes for themselves and their families in this area since the industrial boom of the 1880s. A typical stretch of these isolated luxury homes, identified by our captain, was a half a dozen houses known as “Millionaire Row”. Millionaire row is a name locally given to these homes. Homes built on these isolated islands are an expensive lifestyle. A lifestyle that requires the basics of life, such as drinking water and fuel oil to be shipped in, garbage must be shipped out.
The path of our cruise ship, Thousand Islander II, wove between islands and used part of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The St. Lawrence Seaway is a joint Canadian and United States effort opened in 1959. This deep-water shipping channel passes beneath the one-thousand island road-bridge as the bridge leapfrogs between islands and the two countries. Road traffic moves across the bridge between country boarder checkpoints. The elevation of the road-bridge allows freighters to pass below it unrestricted, connecting the heartland of Canada and America to cities around the world.
From the upper deck of the Thousand Islander II, you get a close-up view of the ships and the islands. The islands are on both sides of the channel, their wind-swept trees and rock formations sparkling in the sunlight. The bright sunlight provides you with a firsthand view of the Canadian shield. It is images like these that inspired the Group of Seven painters of the 1920s. Painters who captured on canvas, pictures of islands, rock formations, and trees of the Canadian north.
George Boldt built his castle on an island in the St. Lawrence River. From the islands south side dock, you can see the mock Tudor, black and white structure of the Boldt castle boathouse. The boathouse was built on the United States mainland and enabled material for the main house to be stored. Material for construction was then shipped to the island as needed. Shipping was by boat during the summer and over the frozen river by sled in winter. George Boldt imported unique European moulding and carving along with skilled European artisans. Today the boathouse contains samples of wooden boats from the end of the nineteenth century.
George Boldt (April 25, 1851 – December 5, 1916). The entire George Boldt’s story is a real tale of rags to riches, but the narrative of Heart Island and Boldt Castle stands alone as a real-life romance turned tragedy from the turn of the nineteenth century.
Millionaire George Boldt always admired the magnificent medieval castles of Europe. The majestic and stately grandeur of these castles appealed to his sense of majestic beauty. George Boldt, as manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, met daily with the world’s most powerful and wealthy people of his time. It was his connections that helped George Boldt plan and build his castle on an island. An island purchased just to allow George to build his palace. An island whose name he was able to change to “Heart Island” in keeping with his romantic theme.
Today as you walk into the entrance hall, your eyes follow the refurbished and polished wooden stairway. Your head tilts back until you see the stained-glass dome and the European support mouldings four floors above. The glass dome contains Boldt’s heart motifs in its delicate decorative design. Over one-hundred and twenty years ago, the luxuries incorporated into the plan set the island and castle apart from other homes, with features such as an indoor pool, a bowling alley, and a ballroom. A showpiece kitchen, and a personal chef, set a high standard for a home and a place to entertain guests. The castle’s gasoline-driven power plant allows all rooms to have electricity. The design of the gardens and their pathways make for relaxing romantic strolls. George Boldt carried his heart motif out into the flower beds.
With construction of the main house virtually complete, George planned to give the island and the castle to his wife Louise on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1904. A gift of love.
But tragedy struck. In January of 1904, Louise died at the age of 42. The death of Louise left George with an island, a castle nearly seventy-five percent finished and three children. With Louise’s death, George had all work stopped, boxes of raw materials, and unique European mouldings simply abandoned. His European craftsmen had to find other work or return home. George never stood on the island again.
The castle and its island lay dormant for 79 years, open to vandalism and theft. On the third and fourth floor today, you can see graffiti covering the last 100 years.
The Island and Buildings Today
The St. Lawrence Bridge authority assumed ownership of the island and castle in the 1980s. They started to refurbish the castle to the original plans. With George Boldt’s innovative ideas and toll money from the road-bridge, the St. Lawrence Bridge Authority has performed magnificent restoration work on the grounds, docking areas, and all the buildings beginning with the foundations and roofs. It is still a work in progress.
This visit was an eye-opening educational experience, a glimpse of one man’s wealth, and love story. A Romantic Tragedy that took place on this island in the St. Lawrence River.
A Day to Remember
We stopped for coffee on the dockside coffee shop before getting back on the Thousand Island II. Just when I was congratulating myself for a well-chosen destination for our wedding anniversary day out, Linda said with that smile of hers, “I am so glad that you picked up that magazine advertisement that I left out for you, I thought that this would make a perfect setting to enjoy our wedding anniversary.” Oh well, so it was not my idea, after all. Back to the RV, and I cooked supper on my outside stove. We were both happy. It had been a good day.
It was at that point that one of the ship’s officers came running down the dockside. “Are you two coming with us? Because this is the last boat off the island, and we are now late in leaving, we are waiting for you.” If we had missed the boat, it would have been my fault. I am retired. I don’t wear a watch; we were enjoying ourselves, but it was me who had said we had time, and me who wanted coffee.
Our magical tour of Boldt Castle, a medieval replica, was complete. It had been an anniversary to remember.
Rideau Acres RV Campground
1014 Cunningham Rd., Kingston K7L 4V3
Gananoque Boat Line – 1000 Island Cruises
280 Main St., Gananoque K7G 2M2
Boldt Castle Boathouse Tour
Book through the Gananoque Boat Line or when on Heart Island