“Where are you from?” This is usually one of the first questions asked when we meet people while we are traveling. Invariably, Thousand Islands, NY comes up.
“Thousand Islands? Like the dressing? Never heard of it.” is often the response. I expect this from people from the South, Midwest or West Coast of the United States. People from Ontario almost always know about the Thousand Islands. That seems logical. But I’m continually stunned when I meet people from New York State who have never heard of the Thousand Islands. Really?
Since so many people from the United States, including New York State are unaware of the Thousand Islands, I’m equally blown away when I meet people from other parts of the world, who not only know where Thousand Islands, NY is located, but have visited.
This first happened when we met a lovely couple from Melbourne, while circumnavigating Australia. They’d heard of Dunedin, New Zealand, of course, but not Dunedin, FL. We were surprised that they had not only heard of Thousand Islands, NY but had visited the islands a few years back.
A similar conversation was repeated when we met a couple from England on our Galapagos trip a few years later.
The Thousand Islands first came to public attention in 1872 when President Grant visited George Pullman on Castle Rest. Within years the Thousand Islands was the playground of the rich and famous as well as those who of more modest incomes looking to escape the summer heat of the big cities. Railroad service to Clayton, NY started in 1873. During the summer months, trains transported vacationers from New York, Boston and Philadelphia to Clayton, NY. At one point, as many as 12 trains a day pulled up to the dock to disgorge passengers, trunks and luggage for transfer to steamers. These were vacationers who were not here for the day, but for at least a week, maybe a month, perhaps the entire season.
The last passenger train departed Clayton in 1951. Freight service continued for a while, but the tracks were removed in 1972. The golden age of train travel had passed, replaced by the automobile.
I grew up in the station wagon generation. Every summer, my father loaded the six of us into our tiny Plymouth Valiant station wagon. With a top carrier secure on top and towing a pop-up camper, we criss-crossed the U.S. from Washington State to Florida, from Maine to Southern California and a whole lot of interesting stops in between. My father was a saint.
We headed this way in 1967, stopping first at Niagara Falls then headed north to Montreal for Expo 67. From Montreal, we continued on to Quebec, crossed back into the United States into Maine, wound our way through New Hampshire, Vermont and back into New York to visit the Catskills. An epic trip, but we somehow bypassed the Thousand Islands. I guess we weren’t the only ones. Tourism in the Thousand Islands dwindled when cars replaced trains.
I guess bus tours have been around for a while, but they’ve been totally off my radar, but then again if it doesn’t go up and down the channel, I probably won’t see it. I guess I’ve seen a bus or two when I went to Clayton on a grocery run, but didn’t think anything about it.
Looking online, I see there are a plethora of bus tours that make a stop in the Thousand Islands. One ad states it has tours available in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Hebrew. I’m guessing that most of my International friends encountered the Thousand Islands while on a bus trip to or from Niagara Falls leaving from New York, Boston or Toronto.
There are bus tours from other parts of the U.S. that make a stop at the Thousand Islands. My Aunt Wilmajean was on such a tour in 2005 and happened to be at Boldt Castle on the day that the piano we donated was installed in the grand foyer. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance and a TV camera as well. The piano, they announced had been donated by a family from Illinois and as they had a whole busload of people from Illinois present, they asked if anyone knew the people who had donated it: Gary and Lynn McElfresh from Decatur, IL. My aunt gasped, “That’s my niece and her husband.” Immediately, a reporter put a microphone in her face and asked her about the history of the piano.
Poor Aunt Wilmajean had no idea. She didn’t even know we summered on an island named Grenell in the Thousand Islands. Don’t worry, Aunt Wilmajean has since spent some time on Grenell and had a personal tour of our Thousand Islands.
I’ve never been a trendy person. A quick peek into my closet will confirm that. My heart belongs to Thousand Islands, whether or not it is a hot destination for the rich or famous or not. But I am happy on the island.
In some ways, our place on the islands is a refuge from that world. In my way of thinking, the quieter the better. Still, it warms my heart to know that there are those from other continents that have seen the beauty of our island world and are spreading the news that “Thousand Islands” is more than a salad dressing.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. This marks number 95!. You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!)
Editor’s note: Around the first week of the month comes around, this editor always watches her email for Lynn McElfresh to send her monthly article. I have to admit they are always the nicest emails of the month. I grab a coffee and sit back to see what Lynn has decided to share. Yes, Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and often finds books, places and people to review… How she can decide what to write and then to do so is amazing to me!