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The Castle of Secrets

It was famously dubbed the Castle of Mysteries by the New York Times more than a century ago and today it still holds more than its share of secrets.

Singer Castle majestically rises from Dark Island in Chippewa Bay N.Y. and its scarlet-tipped turrets can be seen from shores on both sides of the border. This castle was built as a hunting lodge for Singer Sewing Machine company president Frederick Bourne.

One can only imagine the looks on his family's faces in 1904 when the millionaire took them to see his new summer retreat overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway

Construction on the 28-room medieval castle then called "The Towers" was completed a year later. The entrance known as the Great Hall has knights of armour, a majestic marble fireplace and a wine cellar. The castle is decorated with ornate furniture and chandeliers, mounted moose and elk heads. A grand terrace offers breathtaking views of the Thousand Islands.

Renowned New York City architect Ernest Flagg was inspired by Sir Walter Scott's 1832 novel about Woodstock Castle in England when he set out to design the estate for Bourne.

Today Dark Island Tours offers accommodation fit for a King and Queen in the Royal Suites. Part of the overnight stay for $725 US includes a tour of the castle's secret passageways.

Dark Island attracts about 30,000 visitors annually and its fairy tale setting makes it a popular wedding destination.

Castle historian Judy Keeler often takes overnight visitors on tours of the castle and its narrow labyrinth of tunnels accessible through several hidden entrances including one in the walnut-panelled library which has a secret button in the bookshelves lined with original books.

The guided day tours here showcase Singer Castle and its manicured grounds including an enchanting heritage rose garden. But the guided secret passageway tours give visitors a unique behind-the-walls glimpse of the castle.

These walls literally have eyes. Servants are said to have spied on guests in the tunnels through a grate and painting and used the tunnels for efficiency to oversee dinners and events, using them to travel between formal dining rooms and the kitchen. The painting is on the wall of the drawing room in the tunnel overlooking the grand room.


Such passageways were considered "functional and common" in large estates at the time, Keeler said, noting Flagg "was very innovative and ahead of his time." Water and heat pipes along with electrical and telephone wires went from the north boathouse through the tunnel and all of the passageways to service the rooms of the castle.

Singer Castle has long been a source of intrigue. Bourne bought Dark Island, for $5,000 in 1902 enlisting Flagg to build his less-than humble hunting and fishing lodge. But his castle was a cottage in comparison to his 110-room mansion in Long Island N.Y.

Bourne died in 1919, leaving behind a $43-million estate. Daughters May and Marjorie bought the castle from their siblings. Marjorie Bourne sold the island to LaSalle Military Academy of Long Island in 1961 for $100.

The estate was sold to Dr. Harold and Eloise Martin of Montreal Que. in 1965 for use by the Harold Martin Evangelistic Society. They called the castle Jorstadt and invited visitors to attend worship services every Sunday.

Farhad Vladi of Vladi Private Islands bought the property for $1.8-million with two European partners in 2002. Dark Island Tours invested millions in renovations to open the castle to tourists in 2003 with overnight accommodations in the Royal Suite allowing overnight visitors two years later.

One overnight "guest" stays in the tunnels. 'Little Freddy,' named after Bourne hangs around in a less than palatial part of the castle with cobwebs and plastic spiders for company. The miniature skeleton was the idea of castle caretaker Scott Garris, who lives on Dark Island year-round and conducts secret passageway tours.


In addition to Little Freddy, it is a little known secret that Singer Castle is, in fact, home to a U.S. President. While President Ulysses Grant first visited the Thousand Islands in 1872, he left the region after his famous campaign visit to Pullman Island also known as Castle Rest Island near Alexandria Bay.


Now President George Bush Sr. who appears to be enjoying an extended and comfortable stay at Singer Castle - haunting guests from an upstairs bedroom closet.

It's all a hoax stemming from some politically divided Royal Suite visitors who stayed overnight in the castle.

"People from Alexandria Bay were staying and one was a Republican and one was not." said Keeler. "It was a joke and he has been there ever since. People love him." On this summer day, it turns out President Bush Sr. has been decked out in a woman's sun hat and pink silk scarf by some visiting children.

While Keeler says the only ghost that haunts Singer Castle is "the Holy ghost" President George Bush Sr. remains a welcome guest.

"A past president wanders the hallways," said Weldon with a laugh. "It started as a joke with some Royal Suite guests. It became such a fun thing we kept it around."


The secret passageways also has a black-gated dungeon, which it turns out, was just for show. Although there has long been speculation about Bourne's tunnels and dungeons, Keeler said her research indicates he was just enjoying the novelty of designing his summer chateau with Flagg.

"He retired and he had fun," said Keeler. The father of 12, married to Emma, was a former Commodore of the New York yacht club. "I think he worked hard to get where he was and was moral and decent."

But his life was not without tragedy. Four of the couple's children died young.

Bourne kept an office in a second-floor turret above the castle's nearby entranceway. Business must have been far from his mind because this home office is far from regal. The cramped quarters hold his personal vault, and an Underwood typewriter sits on his desk. In fact antique Singer sewing machines are displayed throughout the castle.

Dark Island staff members continue to find occasional surprises in the castle including a trap door in the maid's dormitory floor panel. "We made a discovery last fall," said Keeler. "I think it was a treasure room," she said, noting the Bournes had such a room with locked closets for jewellery and other valuables at their Long Island home.

"We learned that the door slid back under the floor when the latch was released by a coat hook in Bourne's closet," she said. "There were no stairs or other connections to the closet, just a space in which items could be hidden. With all of the locked closets and drawers, it makes sense that things could be safely kept in the maid's dormitory, especially during the off-season."

Just another one of Dark Island's secrets. This is, the Castle of Mysteries, after all.

By Kim Lunman

Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine ( based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim's Island Life magazine, was distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York. As always, we continue to look forward to her monthly contributions.

Singer Castle has always been a fascination to her.  Her first two articles were published in October 2008 - Queen of the Castle on Dark Island and King of the Castle on Dark Island.   To see all of Kim’s past articles see the TI Life search: Kim Lunman.

Posted in: History, Places
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Leona Dittfield
Comment by: Leona Dittfield ( )
Left at: 11:54 PM Thursday, July 14, 2011
My family enjoyed the ride on the beautiful St. Lawrence River one summer to the Castle but were not allowed to get off the ship. After a short while we were told power was lost in the castle but they decided to let us tour it. We loved the dining room with windows on three walls, the gym with their "modern day" exercisers, the use of antlers in decorations and lights,etc. We were not allowed to enter the secret passages because they were too dark. We then found out that the NE coast was entirely without power !!!!!
Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers ( )
Left at: 4:01 PM Friday, July 15, 2011
Thank You for the story , short , sweet and very enjoyable.
Peter Charron
Comment by: Peter Charron ( )
Left at: 3:07 AM Saturday, July 16, 2011
When I was a small child about 55 years ago on an outing in a family friend's triple cockpit Garwood we had engine trouble and towed to Dark Island. Margaret [Bourne] Thayer came down to the dock and took us children up to the house and treated us to sandwiches and lemonade in the library. Sitting there in a big velvet wing chair at a large library table in that huge room with what looked like 25' high leaded windows I knew, even at 5, this was all very special and something I would and should never forget.

I visited Dark Island a few times in the 80's when the Martins owned the castle, now I need to go back to see what the 3rd owners have done. But to me it will always be Dark Island, not Jorstadt Castle and definitely not Singer Castle.