The Thousand Islands Navy, or the Admiralty as it is known by some, was established in 1940 by W. Grant Mitchell, my great-uncle. He was instrumental in the building of the Thousand Islands Bridge, during the dedication of which he rode in the car with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King. He was the Executive Secretary of the bridge for over 40 years, owned the Monticello Hotel in Alex Bay for decades, and became known as Mr. 1000 Islands because of his efforts to promote the region.
Hence, the “stated” and primary purpose of the Admiralty was to promote the region, though the members also engaged in sometimes scurrilous activities, as told in one of this spring’s additions to the Riverstories.org website — Initiating the Neophytes into the 1000 Islands Admiralty.
Although our sensibilities might have changed in the decades since the events told in the story, I present it in the hope that people will find humor in this history and not be offended.
At the same time, the story allows me to present another more admirable history of the Admiralty, one involving a promotional gimmick that took Grant Mitchell to New York City to appear on a national radio show with Arthur Godfrey, a CBS radio star of the 1940s and 50s.
Unfortunately, the story was not recorded by any of the participants, but from pictures, news stories, and secondary sources, a colorful anecdote, with a significant long-term result, emerges.
It appears to begin with a song recorded by Arthur Godfrey in the mid-1940s for a Broadway Revue, The 1000 Islands Song, one of the hits from “Angel in the Wings.” You can hear the song on the website.
The song, a takeoff of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, describes a search for the missing “Florence.” In order to help Godfrey find the lost maiden, the Admiralty orchestrated a barge, literally, with a piano and what appears to be a chorus line of costumed sailors. The barge and “tug,” festooned with banners and flags, belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, and was the construction barge for his company. Pictures can be seen on the website.
The publicity was successful. Grant Mitchell traveled to New York City where he appeared on the Radio Show and presented Godfrey with a deed to his very own island along with a map showing Godfrey where the island was located. According to Grant's grandson, Tom Mitchell of Alexandria Bay (son of Charlie and Joan), the island belonged to Grant and was located along the border in the International Rift between the stone bridge and the Lake of the Isle.
"The island was in Canada, but the dock was in the United States," according to Tom Mitchell.
At some point, a large sign was erected on the island, labeling it as Island 793, the island mentioned in Godfrey's song. A post card was also created showing the sign on the island and a caption indicating it as Godfrey's island.
It became a featured talking point for passing tour boats back when the boats were smaller and the International Rift was part of the cruise. Godfrey and Grant became good enough friends that Tom Mitchell recalls Godfrey visiting the Monticello on multiple occasions. It was a marketing coup all around.
Initiating the Neophytes into the 1000 Islands Admiralty
The story of the Initiating of the Neophytes actually came to be told because my grandfather was explaining Sturgeon Fishing — another highlight of this Spring’s additions to the Riverstories.org website.
These “prehistoric” monsters of the river (see the picture of my grandfather holding one as tall as he is) used to be harvested in the spring, and my grandfather and others made a substantial amount of money hauling these huge fish out of the river.
My grandfather claims the biggest one ever caught was over 200 pounds. On the website, you can hear him explain how they baited 1000-foot nightlines and grappled “these monsters” into their small boats.
“What a thrill it was when you had one on,” my grandfather exclaims. “When you see a seventy-five pound sturgeon, under water, now you’ve seen a fish.
“As we got up near the boat, we’d gaffe ‘em just under the mouth or behind the gills, get ‘em in the boat, and then throw life preservers, bumpers, and everything else we could over the damn fish. They pounded so on the bottom of the boat we were afraid we’d sink, and then we’d hike right for shore immediately, quit everything, and get the fish in the fish cage before it died. That was the whole secret to keeping the fish alive.”
The Drowning of Captain Nunn
On a more tragic note, my grandfather tells the story of the Drowning of Captain Nunn during a major spring storm on April 1, 1929.
My grandfather was only a teenager at the time, but he recalls how the water came up over four feet. “Old Man Nunn” (identified as John W. Nunn in a local paper reporting the death) went to look after Alonzo Robinson’s boats. Nunn worked for Robinson, a wealthy summer resident of Thousand Island Park who owned a lumber company in Binghamton. It is theorized one of the large boathouse doors swung open and knocked Nunn into the slip.
The recording describes how they grappled for Nunn’s body and pulled him from the river. Later, he was eulogized by the local minister, Rastus Pratt, who said, “what greater could a man do for his employer than to give his life,” but Alonzo Robinson “just sat there and never blinked an eye, just as stone faced as they make ‘em.”
Peter Lamar’s Blood
Finally, there is the story of Peter Lamar’s Blood. Lamar was an older man on the Park, a canaller when they harvested the ice (see picture from circa 1900). At the time he was dying, my grandfather was sent to fetch Father Racette from Fisher’s Landing. He rowed over in a punt, as this was before the bridge, while there was still ice in the river. He was warned not to talk to Father Racette because he would be carrying the Holy Eucharist. Gramp never said a word, but he “forgot to tell Henry, and he talked every minute, but Father Racette never said a word.”
Later, after Peter died, an undertaker from LaFargeville named Ralph White was punted over to the island. A hearse was kept in a shed behind the church in Fineview for taking the bodies from the church to the cemetery by team. The preparation of Peter's body for burial was done in his home along South Bay at Thousand Island Park.
White hired Andy Slate to help. Peter was in the living room laid out on a bed. Ralph pumped the blood out of the body through a vein in the arm and forced embalming fluid back into the body.
“Andy was a young fellow and didn’t have any experience with this kind of thing,” my grandfather says. “They’d put the blood into a big bread pan. Andy said, ‘What are we going to do with the blood?’
“Ralph thought a minute and said, ‘See that marsh across the road? Take it over there and scatter it around out in the marsh.’
“And that is what they did with poor old Peter’s blood.”
By Tom French
Tom French was raised on Wellesley Island at Thousand Island Park. His book, River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, was recently awarded a Silver Medal for Best Regional Non-Fiction Book in the Northeast in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards. (see our Publications page for details). His work has been featured in Mac|Life Magazine, Adirondack Life, Stereo World,TI Life and The Watertown Daily Times. Several of his commentaries have aired on North Country Public Radio . In addition, he is a member of the band, The Buoyrockers.
Be sure to see all of Tom French’s previous articles written for TI Life as well as a book review written by Susan W. Smith, Thanks to Tom French History Comes in 3-D.