It was a dark and stormy night! OK that is a pretty lame way to start a narration but it was a dark and stormy night. I was four years old and about to live through my first really bad storm. The great Northeast hurricane of 1938.
One of my earliest cherished memories of childhood and through the teen years and beyond was spending summers at my Grandmother’s cottage on Thousand Island Park. I am told I was first there at age two with a photo to prove it but those memories are long gone. The house, at 53 Ontario Avenue, had been built around the turn of the century by Henry Docksteder, a Conductor for The New York Central Railroad. The NYC logo was proudly placed at the peak of the front roof where it stands to this day. There were many items in the cottage carrying the NYC logo. Glassware, dishes and a “Gentleman’s” chair from a New York Central club car all acquired by Mr. Docksteder under what circumstances we never knew. (That chair is in my family room today.) Grandfather Parkhurst, a successful insurance broker in New York City, bought the place around 1908. He passed away when I was only six months old but my Grandmother and her sister kept the cottage for the family to enjoy and enjoy we did.
The cottage was electrified. Each room had a single bulb hanging from the exact center of the ceiling. The kitchen, spanning the full rear width of the house, had two. I mention this because my Grandmother never fully trusted the idea of electrical current and would literally pull the plug at the slightest indication of a real or perceived weather threat. That plug was in a black box mounted on the wall of the front upstairs bedroom. A single glass fuse and a large knife switch lay inside that disconnected the house wiring from the line running to a pole across the street. The switch had a hole in the handle so Grandma had fashioned a hook at the end of a broomstick. Her method was to carefully open the box cover, stand back, place the hook into the switch and pull.
The real source of energy in the cottage was kerosene. A fifty-five gallon drum of the liquid was mounted on its side in the back lattice porch. There was a four burner cook stove and a kerosene fired hot water heater in the kitchen, Grandma and her sister, Great Aunt Lena, each had portable kerosene space heaters in their bedrooms. Just in case, Grandma kept several kerosene lamps at the ready. Almost every home on the Park and other occupied islands had similar arrangements creating the very real danger of fire which over the years would claim many cottages.
Going to the Park was an adventure. A trip that today would take four to five hours back then took nine or longer. No Interstate highways or even four lane roads in the early 1930s. And it was mandatory to get there before sunset. There were two ferries running from the New York side to Wellesley Island. One was at Fishers Landing, the TI Park ferry which docked at a cement pier next to the Main Dock. The second was at Collins Landing where the American Span now crosses. The ferries did not operate after dark unless there was an emergency and getting there late was not considered an emergency. 1938 would be the last year of their operation since the new bridge system was set to open in August.
Very early on a June morning we piled into the family car and headed north. Route 10 ran past our house in Livingston, NJ so that was the first leg. New Jersey is called the Garden State with good reason. The dark cultivated earth on both sides of the road were, I was told, truck farms. My father said they were growing celery. I hated celery. Railroad tracks ran near the roadway and as luck was on my side a locomotive pulling freight cars was spotted. Waving frantically I was rewarded with a returning salute from the Engineer. Aside from the Burma Shave signs, the best part of the trip so far. We’d pick up Route 11 in Pennsylvania then through Scranton and into New York State. Binghamton was the first landmark then Cortland, Syracuse and Watertown. We were getting close. Past Watertown 140 would take us to Route 12, either ferry dock, then across the St. Lawrence and Grandma’s house.
Seventy five years have passed since 1938 so a fading memory of exactly what I did over that specific 1938 summer is more than a bit hazy. A conglomerate memory of those early childhood years included swimming off the rocks in the cold waters of the St. Lawrence. Walking to the “corner” as my Grandmother called it, for water and buying groceries at the store was a regular practice. Waiting for mail and occasional visits to The Brownie Gift Shop were also on the agenda. Best of all was getting an ice cream treat at what my generation years later would christen The Guzzle. (Credit Alan Yehle a charter member of our River Rat crew.) Another treat would be to get up early and catch the mail boat at the main dock for a trip to Clayton. An hour or so to shop while the mail bags and items of cargo were sorted and put aboard, then back to the Park. (Can’t resist a sidebar here: My Grandmother had a dining room table and six matching chairs sent to the Park from her home in New Jersey. The items came by train to Clayton then loaded on the mail boat. That table is in my dining room as I write this. The address was written in white paint on one of the table leaves: “Mrs. George H. Parkhurst 1000 Island Park, NY.” The writing is still legible today.)
Another pastime was watching the tour boats go by, hearing the announcers note that “Thousand Island Park, a former Methodist Camping Ground, was to the right, Grennell Island another summer colony to your left.” Those tours would take vacationers completely around Wellesley and Hill Islands starting and ending at Alexandria Bay. No tours during the war years but many before and after WWII. There were the Uncle Sam boats: Uncle Sam II and IV and Maxine V. (We never found out what happened to numbers One and Three.) Also smaller operations like the Ward and Gloria Boat Lines and The Pilgrim, a boat notable as the only completely varnished tour boat. Great fun of us kids, grab the inner tube and head to the water for a ride as their wake made shore. Further out across the river, lake boats could be seen and, at night, their whistles would echo across the water.
My Grandfather had once owned an inboard, stored in a boat house just past the green a bit right of Ontario Ave. First in line and more exposed to winter storms than others in the row, seasonal ice had taken out the boat house and destroyed the craft some years before. The engine had been salvaged and sold to the Lindsey Brothers who ran a boat building and repair shop on Hub Island. The boat itself was too badly damaged to save. Watching the brothers going to work in their “Sunny Skies” inboard was another morning tradition. We did have a St. Lawrence skiff so when my father was with us, fishing expeditions were the order of the day. After dinner it was always the tradition to sit on the porch and just talk, watch an occasional boat go by and chat with those out for an evening stroll. Street lights were turned off at 10:00pm each evening, a perfect signal that it was well past bed time. Our present generational kids; saturated with cell phones, television, iPads, iPods, iWhatevers, video games and a gaggle of other electronic pastimes would not have been happy campers. I did not know any better so was very happy to be included in adult conversation.
Hurricane of ‘38
In 1938 my parents had made the decision to stay at TI Park later than their usual first or second week of September return to New Jersey. The next year, 1939, I would start school which in our town began the day after Labor Day.
Earlier in the month of September a tropical depression formed off the eastern coast of Africa. The depression slowly made its way west across the Atlantic Ocean, turned into a tropical storm then a full-fledged hurricane as it neared the Leeward Islands. Picking up a forward speed of 70 MPH, one of the fastest moving hurricanes in history, the now massive storm slammed onto Long Island and southern Connecticut on the twenty first of the month. The hurricane was estimated to have killed 700 to 800 people and caused damage of over 300 Million, about 42 Billion in today’s dollars. In contrast hurricane Sandy, while causing massive destruction in the same general area, resulted in minimal loss of life, a strong testimony to the value of advance severe weather warnings.
Storm Six as it was called, naming hurricanes had not yet begun, lost some of its 120 MPH winds as it made landfall but not by much. The storm did something previous hurricanes had not done. It followed the Hudson River northward for a bit then headed to the northwest. Blasting across New York State, in a north northwesterly direction it traveled just to the north of Utica and Syracuse. Not respecting national boundaries, Storm Six crossed the St. Lawrence into Canada between Brockville, Ont. and Ogdensburg, NY. Curling to the west then south in the shape of a button hook, it finally dissipated over southern Ontario to the northeast of Toronto. Not technically a hurricane at that point but still a powerful force of nature.
News sources at T I Park were few. Day old newspapers were available at the gift shop and some cottages had radios, ours was not one of them. Word did spread about the storm but the Atlantic Ocean was nearly three hundred miles away and no one thought seriously bad weather was anything to worry about.
My mother and grandmother had heard that the storm was coming our way but maintained the usual pattern of activity. The only concession was with my sleeping accommodations. My “bedroom” was the screened in porch accessed through two doors from the front bedroom facing Ontario Ave. A cot was the bed and that was just fine with me. The cot was brought indoors in the face of the storm.
Storm or no storm after dinner that evening we went out to sit on the porch. Now every cottage had bats in the attic. That’s just the way it was. An occasional flying mammal that would enter the main living areas of cottages would usually be met with old tennis rackets turned into “bat rackets” designated for the purpose of dispatching the intruder as quickly as possible. My Grandmother was more of a “catch and release” person. She used an old fishing net to trap the animal in midflight then take it outside to be released. Watching bats head out for their overnight meal of flying insects was part of the evening’s entertainment. After an hour or so that evening my Great Aunt made the observation that the bats were returning. We thought a storm was near, the bats knew for sure. The wind was picking up; it was time to go inside. Chairs were taken around to the inland side of the porch and Grandma closed the shutters on the down stairs windows facing the river. She also pulled the plug on electricity. Out came the kerosene lamps and I was off to bed. But there was not much sleep as the storm hit and hit hard.
We watched the scene from the upstairs front bedroom window. I remember most vividly the almost constant flashes of lightning and the crash of thunder. Wind whipped around the house while rain fell in sheets. Our swimming rocks were reached by going down a well-worn path past Harry Burhans’ flag pole some six feet or so from ground level. From the lightning we could see wind driven waves breaking over that ground with water spilling onto the green.
On the river side of the “T” intersection where Ontario and Coast meet was a large and somewhat unusual looking tree. It was some kind of pine with a round ball of greenery perched on top of the trunk. As we watched an especially strong blast of wind sent that tree crashing down toward our house pulling the electric wires with it. The falling tree did not hit our place but landed across Coast Ave. straight down Ontario with the crown in front of the next door Smith cottage. I don’t remember being frightened but I do remember being tired. Despite the raging storm I eventually fell asleep.
The next morning was cool and cloudy, there were still strong winds but the rain had stopped. The St. Lawrence was rolling with high waves still breaking over our swimming rocks but not as high as the night before. The ground was littered with small branches, the remains of someone’s porch chair and leaves that had begun their fall change from green to gold and red. TI Park Association workmen made quick work of the fallen tree. Manpower, saws, axes and a horse drawn wagon did the job and it was gone by that afternoon.
Word spread that the owner of the Gloria Boat line was going to Gananoque in The Baby Gloria, the smaller boat of the fleet, no matter what the weather. Later that day he did indeed go past headed for the Narrows and Eel Bay rolling heavily from side to side in the rough water. He made it over and back without incident. Grandma Parkhurst thought he was crazy.
My father had planned to come up to bring us home just about the time the storm hit the mainland of The United States. He had wisely waited not wanting to drive through torrential rains but also to assure there was no damage to the family homes in Livingston. Three days after the storm he arrived, glad to see no harm had come to us or the cottage. The place was closed up for the winter. That skiff, as always, stored in the living room. The shutters were closed and latched, side steps up on the porch with storm doors fastened in place over the double front doors and each of the side doors. Our water supply was turned off at a valve toward the rear of the cottage with the pipe on the side lot disconnected to drain the plumbing. And, although crews had quickly repaired the wiring, Grandma never did push the electric switch back in until the following spring.
The Thousand Islands Bridge system, linking New York State with the Province of Ontario had been dedicated earlier with US President Franklin Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King doing the honors. It opened to traffic on August 18th. Despite the high winds, rain, thunder and lightning, all five spans had survived the storm without any damage. My first trip across was on the way home, early October 1938.
There were other trees down, some limbs taken as well and scattered minor structural damage but overall the Park did not suffer any serious impact from that 1938 storm. I do remember the TIP Ferry had been tied up at the cement dock next to the main dock during the storm and was pretty badly damaged.
Man-made intellectual damage would come in ensuing years but thanks to the dedication and tenacity of many, Thousand Island Park to this day remains a jewel of history remembered. The wonderful contradiction of everything new but never changed. I spent several years working at WHEN Radio and TV in Syracuse which made it easy to spend precious time at the Park. Years later a job transfer would take our family far from the 1000 Islands. Today, I write this from near the exact geographic center of the contiguous 48 United States which is now my home. Part of my heart, however, will forever be at Thousand Island Park, NY.
Deane C. Parkhurst - Olathe, Kansas
Deane C. Parkhurst was born June 8th 1934 in New Jersey. He writes, “So-so grades in school endured ten months of the year in NJ, happy at TIP for two. In college "majored" in the college radio station instead of class. Drafted into the Army in 1957 and served two years in the Signal Corps.” He worked in commercial radio and television in New York State until moving to Missouri. He completed his career selling high end computer systems to media companies and retiring in 2005. Today Deane lives in Olathe, KA on the border of Kansas City MO. He writes, “ Living in the Kansas City area has been great, it's just so hard to find ocean front property.”