Written by Thomas Pullyblank
posted on September 13, 2013 07:21
"Where do your stories come from?" is a question we writers like to hear. In my case the answer is specific: the stories found in Napoleon's Gold come from my experiences at the Brown cottage in Westminster Park, Wellesley Island, where I vacationed with my family every year as a kid. Returning there this summer, I was reminded that the cottage, built in 1891 by Harrison M. Brown of Caledonia, NY, is a distinctive home in a special setting where island and river come together and work their magic.
Take a right off the bridge and follow Route 100 past the Thousand Island Country Club and the Boldt Yacht House, and you'll discover a hidden gem of a neighborhood. Like Thousand Island Park, the more famous neighborhood on the other end of Wellesley Island, Westminster Park was founded as a late nineteenth century religious community.
Unlike TI Park, most of the original buildings on this side of the island are gone. Some of the current Westminster cottages are cozy post-WW II bungalows that would look right at home beside just about any North American lake. Others are more contemporary two or three story weekend homes fitted out with all the modern conveniences.
H. M. Brown built his cottage for neither comfort nor convenience, but rather as a temporary refuge when rain or snow prevented he and his friends from going fishing. Indeed, the boathouse, once a magnificent fifty foot long structure that could sleep eighteen, was the focal point of activity on H. M. Brown's island property, a gateway to the aquatic Eden from which God forgot to ban humankind.
The cottage remains very much like it was in 1891. The only heat source is an old iron stove. The floors and walls are unfinished pine. There's an old carpet here and there, but most of the floors remain bare, a condition which provided unending mirth for me and my siblings as we fired our squirt guns through the upstairs knotholes at the heads of those below us.
Situated high up on the Westminster Palisades, the Brown cottage sometimes makes the river seem distant. Through the trees you can see Huguenot and Fairyland Islands with Deer Island in the background. Beyond that is the shipping channel, brought to awareness only by the occasional blast of a ship's horn. A week spent hiking and biking in this far northeastern section of Wellesley Island feels as much like a vacation in the woods as it does a vacation on the river.
The boathouse is quite a different story. Half the size of what it once was in its heyday, the boathouse nevertheless still provides a quiet setting where rock, tree, water and air meet. Cattails and reeds grow tall here. Lily pads dot the river's edge. The shallows are home to a variety of fish, frogs and snakes. A blue heron often hunts nearby.
Scanning the horizon from the boathouse dock reminds you that you are not as isolated from river civilization as you might first think. The towers of Boldt Castle are visible to the southwest. To the northeast are Zavikon and Little Zavikon Islands and the bridge between them. Beyond that you can see open water and the hazy outline of the Summerland Group. Tour boats from both shores crisscross over the international border on this busy river thoroughfare.
And this is where my stories come from. Looking in either direction from the Brown cottage dock, there is the promise of adventure just around the corner, the lure of unknown mystery just beyond reach. As a kid I would sit there for hours, binoculars in hand, looking first to my right, then to my left. I would gaze at the empty hulk of Boldt Castle and ponder the tragic love story whispered in its stone walls. I would scan the huge expanse of river to the northeast, wondering what else was there on the other side of Zavikon or just beyond the range of my binoculars' vision. It was the mood created by this waterscape that fed my imagination and helped me devise stories about what other mysteries might lie beneath the river's surface. It was this particular place, a place of water and rock and tree, that gave me a unique perspective on the same river that enchants so many of us in so many different ways.
It may not be a grand hotel or a famous family's island abode. It may be off the tourist-beaten path. But in its own humble way, tucked in its cozy corner of the river, the Brown Cottage in Westminster Park has provided me and many others who have enjoyed its charms over the past 122 years the best the Thousand Islands has to offer.
By Tom Pullyblank
Tom Pullyblank lives outside Cooperstown, NY and has been vacationing in the Thousand Islands for over forty years. He is the author of Napoleon's Gold: A Legend of the Saint Lawrence River and of the forthcoming short story collection, The Ghost of Billy Masterson and other Thousand Island Tales. Click here for TI Life’s three excerpts of Napoleon’s Gold.