Before my first visit to Grenell, my husband, then fiancé, tried to describe Grenell and surroundings. When he mentioned the Hub, the little ½ acre island 400 yards east of our point, he made a face and said, “I want to burn it down.”
He described a dilapidated barn that was built out over the water. To Gary, it was nothing but an eyesore plopped in the river directly across from our cottage, too close to ignore. Eventually, Gary got his wish, but he didn’t burn it down—a local volunteer fire company did.
Hub has always been a fascination to me even in its ugly duckling years. Our first canoe rides of the season were usually around the Hub and back, taking time to marvel at the rails that came out of the water and into the cavernous barn structure at the foot of the island. When our kids got older, they would swim to Hub Island and back. Gary would usually accompany them in the water and I would row along side in our St. Lawrence Skiff as safety escort.
Even then, I wondered about the island’s past. I’d read somewhere that Sam Grenell had kept his hogs on Hub Island for a while, a short row away from his farm on Grenell. Later as I delved into the history of the island, I learned about the grand hotel that once stood there, built there in 1879. Olivia wrote in her book, The Story of Grenell, that the hotel had an icehouse on the lot next door and that the maids would row over with the laundry to hang it here to dry. At first I believed the lithograph, made to publicize the hotel was taken from the lot next door and perhaps the skiffs belong to the Hub House and were the very ones used to haul the laundry and retrieve ice. But after further scrutiny I decided it was probably taken from the little island, we on Grenell call, Pullman Island.
A newspaper article describes it as covering the head of the island, actually hanging over the river. It would have directly faced our little point. It was a three-story structure said to be very similar to Thousand Island Hotel in Alexandria Bay, but a tad smaller. But not small for the island. It covered almost the whole island sticking up through the water. Two grand piazza porches wrapping around the hotel giving guests the opportunity to fish from their rooms.
Fishing was a big draw. I’ve read newspaper clippings about the muskellunge caught from the Hub House dock. I’m sure it was the fishing that attracted Gary’s Great Uncle Otis, who stayed at Hub House. He must have loved it, because in 1880. He bought the point of land on Grenell, directly across from Hub House.
I found several newspaper articles that described how the lights and the music from the hotel must have appeared to our island ancestors.
Hub House nightlife as described in this 1902 Ogdensburg Daily article:
“Midway between Thousand Island Park and Grenell Island, it [Hub House] was a convenient place for dancing parties and many are the stories told of days and nights of hilarity at the famous hostelry. The young people of Thousand Island Park, who enjoyed dancing, which was at that time strictly tabooed by the management of the association, would frequently join the many parties at this place as well as others from surrounding islands, and trip the “light” till the light of the morning. Many will also recall the popularity of the famous “Hub Punch” dispensed there, as well as other concoctions which a sleek “mixerologist” was constantly springing to tickle the palate of his customers. Bart Keether, of Oswego, was in charge of the hotel bar at the time, and was first to mix the famous Hub Punch. The name was afterward applied to a brand of punch made by a wholesale liquor dealer and became famous, but it was never equal to the original. The Hub was a famous resort for Oswego yachtsmen, when on cruise, and Landlord Best always got up a ball for the Oswego visitors.”
In her book, The First Summer People, Susan Smith includes a newspaper clipping from the Gananoque Reporter about the Hub:
“Mr. Geo. H. Bes, proprietor of the new and elegant popular summer hotel, known as the Hub House, having extended an invitation to a few gentlemen of this place to visit him, same evening and “bring their friends,” on Tuesday evening last the favourite steamer Geneva was chartered for the occasion and left Brough’s wharf [Gananoque] a little after eight o’clock with over a hundred ladies and gentlemen aboard. Additions were made to the party at Tidd’s and Coral Islands and also at Clayton, which must have swelled the party aboard to over 200. Arriving at the Hub, which was brilliantly illuminated, Mr. Best placed all the public rooms at their disposal, including the spacious dining hall where dancing was indulged in for a couple of hours to the strains of Montgomery’s band, which accompanied the excursion. The Geneva arrived home again shortly after two A. M.”
And here I thought this was a quiet spot back in the 1880s. On the contrary! It seems like it was a hopping place. Not just in the evening, but also during the day.
An 1881 article in the Oswego Morning Express states:
“Seventy-five people are there [Hub House] as regular boarders for the season, beside a large number who stop as transient travelers. On Sunday last three hundred and fifty meals were given. The room is nearly all taken up in the hotel. The little steamer E. A. Van Horne belongs to Mr. Best and meets all boats at the park to take passengers to the Hub…”
And later that same month the Oswego Morning Express ran this article:
“The hotel has been filled to overflowing for months. So great was the demand for board and rooms that even the parlors have been filled with sleeping cots each night. Everything is done to make the stay of guests as comfortable as they need to be in their own house and the guests seem to appreciate that they are enjoying comforts they could hardly secure elsewhere. They have a steam yacht and row boats at their disposal free of charge. They go on fishing excursions and pleasure excursions; men, women and children fish from the hotel wharf or out in the river; they visit the little islands and the big park just when they like and have a delightful time generally. The proprietor, Geo. W. Best and the clerk, Mr. Fred Fralick, are genial and courteous as the overwhelming patronage they receive amply testifies. The Hub House, although young, is making a good record as one of the best hotels for families and travelers in the northern part of the State.”
But the Hub didn’t always get such glittering reviews. The New York Tribune says this about Hub House in a 1902 article:
“A number of years ago a hotel [Hub House] was located on this island, which was noted along the river because of the trouble it gave the trustees of the Park Association. Liquor was sold there, and its guests brought quantities into the park, much to the annoyance of the good Methodist brethren, who were then more rigid than now.”
In 1881, Geo. W. Best bought a little steamer, the E. A. Van Horne, which made regular trips from Clayton and back and forth to the T. I. Park dock. Eventually, the Park Association would not allow the Van Horne or any other steamer that went to Hub House to land at its dock.
But the most interesting news about Hub House I found not in a newspaper, but in Walt Whitman’s 1884 biography. In 1880, Whitman’s friend and first biographer, Richard Bucke, accompanied Whitman on a trip to Thousand Islands and writes:
“On the evening of the 1st of August, 1880, as we were sitting together on the veranda of the “Hub House,” among the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence, I said to Walt Whitman…”
After further research I found this in an article about Walt Whitman and Richard Bucke:
“During the summer of 1880 Walt Whitman visited the thousand islands with his friend, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, the Superintendent of the London (Ontario) insane asylum. Whitman and Bucke would have come close to Stanley island since, according to Whitman’s diary and Bucke’s letters, they stayed twenty-five miles east of Kingston at the Hub House Hotel on “a little mote of an island” on the American side…”
1880 was the year Uncle Otis bought our little point on Grenell. Had Otis stayed at Hub House that season? Had his paths crossed with Walt Whitman? The possibility of this interaction thrilled me. But possibly, Walt Whitman stared out from the Hub House at our little point of land where Uncle Otis and Aunt Alice were tenting.
On the evening of Sunday, December 2, 1883, disaster struck. A fire started in a defective chimney, spread to the roof and within minutes the entire structure was wrapped in flames. Henry Robbins and wife, who were the winter caretakers of the hotel, barely had time to escape with their lives. The whole island was ablaze and it was feared the fire would spread to Grenell House. It could very well have spread to our little cottage on Rum Rock, but all the structures on Grenell Island remained safe.
Mr. Robbins lost everything he had. The Watertown Re-Union reported that Mr. Best “was nearly crazed at his loss.” There were some that were happy with the news. A 1902 New York Tribune article reported: The hotel finally burned down one night and the members of the Park Association offered prayers of thanksgiving for their deliverance from such an evil. The house was never rebuilt.
After the fire, George W. Best had planned to rebuild, but in the end he decided against rebuilding. Perhaps because so many bigger and better hotels were popping up in the neighborhood... Columbia, Pullman, Frontenac.
After the fire that burned Hub House, Hub Island sat idle until 1902. During those years, it was only used now and then by an occasional camper. According to the Ogdensburg Daily Journal in 1902: the famous Hub Island sold to Andrew Craig Fields, of Dobb’s Ferry for $2,500 and hereafter will be known as “Craig Isle.” Fields boasted that he owned the largest houseboat on the river, the Lysander and the little island was to be her home. He built a grand dock and a few outbuildings and had plans for “a new cottage of generous proportion.”
The name “Craig Isle” didn’t stick. Fields plans didn’t pan out either. The “cottage of grand proportion” was never built and in 1907, some sort of scandal hit impacting Field’s career. Fields sold the island to a colleague. The little steamboat Imogene and the houseboat Lysander were part of the package. The island was sold the same day to E. G. Robbins. It’s unsure if the boats were sold as well. Perhaps the two men were in partnership: one owning the boats and one owning the island. The steam yacht and the houseboat were chartered for the summer.
Between 1907 and 1922, things are a little hazy. I know for instance Thousand Island Park Yacht Club had talked of leasing the little island and building a grand dance hall. That was in 1911. Evidently, they changed their minds. In 1921, John E. Lindsey came to the island. From an old picture I found in the Antique Boat Museum library, there was a long boathouse at the head of the island. A note at the bottom said that a bad storm in December of 1921, took the roof off the boathouse and damaged Sharples houseboat. Sharples was the millionaire with a grand summer home in the center of Grenell Island. I’m unsure if the houseboat was moored at Grenell or if the houseboat was in the boathouse on the Hub.
The arrival of John E. Lindsey changed the character of Hub Island again. Lindsey started the Lindsey Boat Company, though this hardly was his first brush with boatbuilding. Until he arrived on Hub Island, John was known mostly as an engine builder. He had lived in the region for some time, first in Clayton and then in Gananoque. But by 1922, engines were manufactured and not hand-built and he turned his efforts toward boat building and boat repair. John lived at Thousand Island Park and commuted every day to Hub to work on boats.
The boatworks that my husband grew to hate was built in the early months of 1922. In those first few years, there were as many as 10 boat builders working at Hub Island. At least 2 boats were built in 1922. Our boat Lindsey Lynn and Long Rock II, a commuter boat for the Leonard family on Long Rock, a small island at the head of Grenell. Long Rock II is currently at the Antique Boat Museum, the only example of a Lindsey boat in the museum. No one knows how many boats were made at Hub Island by the Lindseys, perhaps only a handful remain.
A 1929 Log Book gives a glimpse of John’s day-to-day work life…repairing and maintaining wooden boats as well as making new boats. In 1929, it appears he made three boats ---boats No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. It’s unclear whether he was just numbering these boats for his own reasons or if these were actually Gold Cup race boats known as number boats. A 1982 Thousand Island Sun article said that Lindsey built several Gold Cup race boats.
John E. Lindsey died in 1945, the island passed to John G. Lindsey, his son. The boating world changed drastically after the war and the Hub became more of a service and repair shop. Gwen Smith of Grenell Island wrote about the closing of the boatworks when John G. died in 1964.
The passing of John Lindsey Sr., whose machine shop is on Hub Island, is a great loss to all islanders. He could always be counted on to help and was so cheerful. He was one of the few mechanics who had patience with women drivers who needed help with their boat engines. Everyone will miss him.
From there the building deteriorated, twisting in on itself, the roof finally collapsing. The building was burned down in 1982.
Finally, after being empty for decades, new life was breathed into the little half-acre isle. Gault and Phyllis Farrell bought the island in 1995. Grenellians watched as barge after barge ferried dump trucks to the island to fill in and level off the island so a cottage could be built there. Steve Taylor, a Thousand Island Park contractor and designer, built a nautical looking cottage, which the Farrells called Lady Slipper. (Get a close up look via Thousand Islands Life article: Hub Island's "Miss Lady Slipper" Written by Paul Malo posted on May 15, 2008 )
We were thrilled when Gault paddled over in his canoe to invite us to a party on Hub. I’d looked out at the tiny island every day. I’d paddled around it many times, but had never stepped foot on this tiny island. I took a tour of the little cottage. So strange looking back at our place through the upstairs bedroom window.
Things are much quieter on Hub Island these days. Gault volunteers at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton and captains one of the museums replica boats. We hear him often on Tuesdays as he slows in front of Hub Island. Last year the Farrells celebrated a wedding on Hub. The Farrells’ son married in the Grenell Island Chapel. After the wedding, the wedding party and guests were ferried back to Hub where the celebration continued on into the night. A live band played music and the reflection of the lights danced in the water of the St. Lawrence…a reminder of how the nights might have been back in the early 1880s.
What a rich history this “little mote of an island” has had. Such a wide range of uses: a pig farm, a grand hotel, dockage for the largest houseboat on the river, boatworks for world-class racing boats, and now a lovely family summer home.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Once again we thank Lynn McElfresh for her special stories. Lynn is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. Lynn has been researching many new stories this past summer for our winter issues – we will learn a great deal more in the coming months. See all of Lynn’s 60+ articles here.