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Who? George Rockwell [1821-1897]

Who? George Rockwell? Never heard of him! No, it doesn’t surprise me as he flew under my radar for a while.

Let me start at the beginning. I first came across the name Rockwell while doing research on the Howard Pyle article. [It’s in the February 2010 issue of TI Life] Pyle, newly hired by Scribner’s Monthly, was given the assignment to write an article on the Thousand Islands during the summer of 1877. The article “Among the Thousand Islands” was published in the April 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. Rockwell’s map was included in Pyle’s article.

The 1874/1875 map was well done but the name Rockwell meant nothing to me. I was collecting illustrations at the time but had no reason to download the map. Sometime later, still acquiring illustrations of the Thousand Islands, a cottage called Sunnyside appeared in a brochure. It was located on Cherry Island and owned by George Rockwell. Where had I run across that name before?

It turned out that Rockwell bought Cherry Island [all nine or ten acres] from Cornwall and Walton probably in the early 1870s. Cornwall and Walton were partners who had acquired a great many of the islands near Alexandria Bay many years ago and were now selling them. The islands were sold with the understanding the buyer would soon erect a structure. Rockwell built a cottage which he named Sunnyside. Later he sold a part of Cherry Island to Mrs. G. B. March and Mrs. A. B. Pullman. [mother of George Pullman] Mrs. Pullman built a cottage and named it Melrose Lodge while Mrs. March called her cottage Ingleside. The Pullman and March families, both from Chicago, were great friends.

Rockwell became a part of Thousand Island lore in 1854 when he was appointed pastor of the Reformed Church of the 1000 Isles in Alexandria Bay. He held the position for twenty three years when deafness forced him to retire. In 1878 the Village of Alexandria Bay decided to incorporate and Rockwell was the surveyor on the project.

Rockwell next appeared when he is reported to have written the steamer Island Wanderer’s 1881 travel guide. This pamphlet provided information on the various points of interest on the steamer’s sightseeing trips. Notice the word “reported” as the pamphlet does not include an author and thus far I can’t positively verify the person responsible. So until someone has better information, we’ll give Rockwell the credit. The pamphlet was the first known travel guide used on tour boats in the Thousand Islands.

The Island Wanderer, built in 1879, replaced the steamer Cygnet to better accommodate the growing tourist trade. Tourism in the Thousand Islands was not just growing, it was exploding. Both the Island Wanderer and the Cygnet were owned by Captain E. W. Visger but Visger sold the smaller Cygnet when he built the Island Wanderer. The Island Wanderer’s forty mile tours were an immediate success. The steamer made two trips a day leaving the Cornwall Brothers’ dock once in the morning and then again in the afternoon. In addition to the travel guide, a map of the Thousand Islands was available to passengers at a small cost. My guess is that the map was Rev. Geo. Rockwell’s 1874/1875 map. One has to be impressed with the approach to business at the time.

Best map by Rev George Rockwell
Map of Part of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River. Rev. Geo. Rockwell. Photo from R. & P. Matthews

It didn’t occur to me until later the significance of an early map. Doing research, one frequently runs across an island whose name isn’t recognized. For example, according to Rockwell’s map Wellesley Island was also known as Wells Island. Names were frequently changed by new owners for whatever reason. An older map will help in identifying an island. This explanation should have been written by our editor, Susan Smith who probably spent months researching early island names for her book The First Summer People. She certainly knows this subject better than me.

The 1881 travel guide was the first of four editions attesting to its popularity. At that time tourists were curious about information on the various islands, such as ownership, and the pamphlet did not disappoint. The front cover of the pamphlet read “The Steamer Island Wanderer” while the title page on the inside reads “Meanderings among a Thousand Islands or an account of Capt. Visger’s daily trip on the River St. Lawrence.”  (Click here)

By Robert L. Matthews, Fishers Landing 

Robert L. Matthews is our “go to reference” for Thousand Islands memorabilia. This is his twentieth article for TI Life.

Robert  is also the author of two popular books:  Glimpses of St. Lawrence Summer Life: Souvenirs from the Thousand Islands: Robert and Prudence Matthews Collection, and A History of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club, published in 2009.   He and his wife Prudence (well known River artist whose work was presented in Hooked on Prudence in 2009) have one of the most extensive collections of  Thousand Islands memorabilia.  When not at their beautiful River cottage at Fisher’s Landing, they live in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Editor’s notes: 

(1) Wellesley Island Name.  Note the map index “copied from an old Canada Map of 1816-18 – Names as known in 1874”.  The 1816 Canada map was drawn under the direction of Captain William FitzWilliam Owen, British Admiralty.  (see )  Owen recorded the name Wellesley Island, but the island was locally known as Wells Island for many years.  Wells was a Canadian lumberman  including lumber operations on the St. Lawrence, in the Bay of Quinte and the Thousand Islands.  (see NY Jefferson County information)

(2) This year on my birthday, I received a very special gift.  A CD with dozens of illustrations that Robert and Prudence Matthews have collected over the years.  The card accompanying the gift suggested that I may wish to share these treasures with our readers… and I will certainly do so! Thanks so much.

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