The Thousand Islands (French: Mille-Îles) constitute a North American archipelago of 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada–US border in the Saint Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 50 miles (80 km) downstream from Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian islands are in the province of Ontario and the U.S. islands in the state of New York.
The islands range in size from over 40 square miles (100 km2) to smaller islands occupied by a single residence, or uninhabited outcroppings of rocks. To count as one of the Thousand Islands, emergent land within the river channel must have at least one square foot (0.093 m2) of land above water level year-round, and support at least two living trees.
The Thousand Islands archipelago is at the outlet of Lake Ontario at the head of the Saint Lawrence River. The region is bisected by the Canada–United States border and covers portions of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties in the U.S. state of New York, in addition to parts of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville and Frontenac County in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Geologically, most of the islands are where a branch of the Canadian Shield, known as the Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch region, runs south across the river to join with the Adirondacks. This region was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2002.
The Thousand Islands Bridge connects New York State and Ontario by traversing Wellesley Island at the northernmost point of Interstate 81 in Jefferson County and meets Highway 137, which leads to Highway 401. The waterfront is served by New York State Routes 12 and 37 and by the Thousand Islands Parkway in Ontario. Ontario also has the Waterfront Trail alongside the Parkway for cyclists who wish to see the area in an alternative way.
Seawaymax lake freighters often ply the Saint Lawrence Seaway. As is usual in inland waters of the USA and Canada, vessels must use maritime pilots to help them travel safely. In places, a vessel less than 25 feet (7.6 m) offshore can find itself in over 200 feet (61 m) of water. Conversely, rocks and shoals less than two feet (61 cm) underwater can be found in the center of otherwise deep waters. Due to the great number of rocks and shoals just above or below the water’s surface, navigation outside of the marked channels at night can be dangerous.
Before the introduction of the zebra mussel, visibility of only 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) was usual, slightly decreasing as the years passed. Water clarity improved markedly in the mid-1990s with the arrival of zebra mussels, which feed on algae. The water is so clear in some areas a rocky bottom can be observed in 80 feet (24 m) of water. The area has several shipwrecks, and although most are over 100 feet (30 m) underwater, some are a mere 15 feet (4.6 m) down and can be seen from the surface.
Prior to European colonization, the Thousand Islands region was home to, or visited by, members of the Iroquois Confederacy and Ojibwa people. Their name for the islands was Manitouana or the “Garden of the Great Spirit”.
The region was a part of the War of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States. Many sites from the war can be found, such as Fort Wellington in Prescott, Ontario and the garrison on Chimney Island, Mallorytown, Ontario. Museums about the war can be found on both the Canadian and American side of the river.
Historical postcard views of Alexandria Bay (left) and a steamboat touring Lost Channel, c. 1900
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many distinguished visitors made the region widely known as a summer resort. During the half century (1874–1912) of the resort’s greatest prominence, most wealthy vacationers came from New York City, joined by prominent families from Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other cities of the United States and Canada. Several grand hotels provided luxurious accommodations while steamboats offered extensive tours among the islands. Wealthy and middle-class summer residents built summer homes, and the region retains a historically important collection of vacation homes from this time.
Among the lavish homes built during this time were several masonry “castles”, some of which remain as international landmarks. The region’s first castle, Castle Rest, was built in 1888; it was destroyed in the mid-20th century. The most famous extant examples are “The Towers” on Dark Island, now called Singer Castle, and the previously long-neglected Boldt Castle on Heart Island, which had been left unfinished for over 75 years upon the untimely death of George Boldt’s wife. It has since been completed over the recent decades in accord with Boldt’s original plans.
The Thousand Islands have long been a center for recreational boating. Large steam yachts, many designed by Nathanael Herreshoff, required distinctive yacht houses. The region was known also for innovative power boating during this period. Three local yacht clubs hosted the Gold Cup Races of the American Power Boat Association for nine consecutive years.
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