Written by Paul Malo
posted on September 15, 2006 11:00
Instead of our patchwork of public parklands on the river, we might have had—and perhaps almost had—a larger Thousand Islands International Park.
This was one of history’s missed opportunities. The prospect might have created a public preserve, recreational resource, and attraction on a par with other major parks of the continent. We do have parks (plural), of course, but the St. Lawrence Islands National Park is Canada’s smallest, comprised of twenty-one parcels, while New York State offers fourteen separate park facilities in the region.
Why did the Thousand Islands International Park not happen? Perhaps failure to realize the possibility was due to xenophobia, patriotic nationalism or, more likely, bureaucratic protectionism and/or ineptitude. Some of this may remain, as we seem to have selective memory, preferring to recall “our side” of the story, depending on whether we are on the north or south shore of the river.
The park idea goes back farther than the Mallory family’s gift to the Canadian federal government in 1904 of a small parcel, to be used for park purposes. That may begin the official history of the St. Lawrence Islands National Park, but the larger story begins six year earlier when, instead of a Canadian national park, an international park was being planned.
The Anglers’ Association of the St. Lawrence River had been organized in 1882, twenty-one years earlier than the Mallory gift. The initial impetus had been conservation; commercial netting was threatening the stock of game fish. Within five years the Anglers’ Association became “an institution that has almost a national reputation.” The association grew along with the resort. Its eighty members in 1884 grew to 163 the following year, to 280 by 1890, and to more than 400 by 1893 (then considered “one of the most active organizations of it’s kind in the world), finally growing to a membership of some 600 at the time of the park proposal. The U.S. contingent dominated, since the resort was more developed on this side. In retrospect, this imbalance may have affected the dynamics of the park project. But initially the park notion was genuinely an interest of the international community on the river.
The Anglers’ Association was never exclusively a U.S. organization. Because more members resided south of the border, most meetings were held there, but not all: the association met on occasion, for instance, at the Gananoque Inn. If the many of the more prominent and influential members were Americans like Boldt, Emery, and Pullman, other prominent Canadians participated, such as the Hon. Clifford Sifton, C. E. Britton, George Taylor, M.P. of Brockville, and the Folgers of Kingston. Some Canadians were actively involved in the Anglers’ Association international park project. The task committee was comprised of three U.S. representatives and three Canadian: Ottawa Mayor Culbertson, George Taylor, and E. W. Britton (family names still familiar on the river).
In 1895 the press reported that “ideas first developed by the Ottawa government and the Anglers Association” were being presented to U.S. government officials, and “it is believed that … the park scheme … will mature into reality.” Anglers’ Association members were lobbying, taking two senators, members of the Senate Commission on Fisheries and Forests, on an island tour aboard association president Browning’s yacht, Indienne.
In 1896, the Hon. William Smith of Ottawa, speaking to the Association’s annual meeting, said the he understood the Canadian government was willing to assign the same amount of land to park purposed as the U.S. government and that the Canadian government already had earmarked eleven islands for this purpose, allocating $25,000 for improvements. He presented a map showing the island locations. These properties had not been acquired for park use, but were retained by the government from Native American land considered to be government property. Other such parcels were being sold off to private owners. Note that the government’s intention to devote these islands to public use preceded the Mallory gift by eight years. The situation south of the border was different, as all of the land had been sold to private owners and needed to be acquired for park purpose.
In 1897 the New York State Legislature appropriated $30,000 for acquisition of park land in the Thousand Islands region. What happened to U.S. government involvement? It never materialized. Instead, the State of New York became the developer of a regional park system. In 1897 the Anglers’ Association recommended sites that New York State acquired for parks that we have today.
In 1900 nine pavilions were completed at the New York State parks. By 1904 the Angers’ Associate was gratified that because of its efforts, New York State had allocated $50,000 to develop nine campgrounds in the region, although additional funds would be needed to improve the parks. The move was still interpreted, however, as a step towards creation of the envisioned “International Park.”
The Anglers’ Association of the St. Lawrence River declined along with resort activity after 1912. The First World War decisively culminated an era. Thereafter the notion of the “International Park” apparently was forgotten.
By Paul Malo