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Reality TV’s Great Escape

Six blindfolded men and women board a boat in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and are taken to a century-old castle on Dark Island and tied up to chairs and told to escape.

The latest plot of a Hollywood blockbuster thriller? Close. Reality television has come to the Thousand Islands. And the new pilot for a show called The Great Escape is promising to shine an international spotlight on Singer Castle when it airs next spring.

Bertram Van Munster, co-creator and executive producer of “The Amazing Race,” teamed up with Academy Award-winning director and producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to create an “Amazing Race" meets “Prison Break” competition series for TNT and shot the pilot episode Sept. 14 on Dark Island. The project is also funded by Fox, Imagine TV, and Profiles Television. Van Munster, owner of Profiles Television, is best known for creating The Amazing Race and taking it around the world 17 times.

For the pilot episode of the Great Escape, three teams of two people, who had been blindfolded the entire way to Dark Island, were led to the castle's clock tower and tied up in the same room. The first step for these teams, all starting at the same time, was to get themselves untied and blindfold-free and to be the first to escape the castle for a $50,000 reward.

"They had to start to figure out the building, figure out how the passageways worked," said Singer Castle's general manager Thomas Weldon, president of Dark Island Tours. "Imagine TV and Profiles Television built obstacles. They put doors where there were no doors and walls where there were no walls."

Lighting equipment, delivered from Boston, had to brought in on a 10-tonne truck by barge. "They lit up Singer Castle and Dark Island not like a Christmas tree but like a Christmas forest," said Weldon.

Filming took place September 14 and September 15 but the preparation involved months of work. "A good 100 people were working on the island - 50 to 60 from the entertainment industry and a good 40 people that they hired locally," said Weldon, adding the production spent about $100,000 in the region." 

The production even did repairs to the 28-room castle and tourist attraction, which was originally built in 1904 by Singer Sewing Machine Company president Frederick Bourne of New York City as a hunting and fishing lodge. The New York Times dubbed his summer retreat "The Castle of Mysteries." The castle's secret passageways have long been a source of speculation but historians say Bourne was simply having some fun along with his architect by spoofing a castle near Oxford England described in the book Woodstock by Sir Walter Scott.

The program's producers chose Singer Castle for the filming of the pilot for the Great Escape because of its secret passageways. "We're ecstatic," said Weldon of the prime time publicity. "They've shot all over the world and they loved the Thousand Islands." The show is expected to air in the next three to six months said Weldon, who has been sworn to secrecy on the outcome of the Great Escape's pilot episode.

The program even resulted in some repairs on the castle located in Chippewa Bay New York. "They fixed all our passageways. They painted every passageway, they fixed doorways," said Weldon. "We did not have a real dungeon," he said. "Now we have a real dungeon." 

He credited Schermerhorn Harbor and Uncle Sam Boat Tours with making the production a success. "Those companies were constantly used to shuttle people back and forth, feed people." Some locals were even used as test contestants to map out the course before the real contestants were brought to the area.

A $1.7 million helicopter that had been used to film Super Bowl championships and the World Series was brought to the island for the 5½-hour shooting.

An estimated 22,000 people visit Singer Castle, which is open from May to October, annually. The castle was opened as a tourism attraction when it was purchased by Dark Island Tours in 2002.

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.  A special Islander Edition is on sale in local book stores in both the United States and Canada. As always, we continue to look forward to her monthly contributions. 

Editor’s note:  For more on Singer Castle written by Kim Lumnan please see:  Private Islands are Vladi's WorldThe Castle of Secrets; Queen of the Castle on Dark Island; and King of the Castle on Dark Island.  In addition both Kim and I thank Ian Coristine for sharing his remarkable photographs taken during the “Great Escape’s” shoot.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Judy & Bill Tassone
Comment by: Judy & Bill Tassone ( )
Left at: 9:04 PM Friday, October 14, 2011
We do not watch reality television shows, but as summer residents on Wellesley Island, this is one that we will not miss! Looking forward to this show!!
Katy Bachman Busby
Comment by: Katy Bachman Busby ( )
Left at: 8:46 PM Wednesday, October 19, 2011
I had no idea this was going on and will berate my sisters who live in the area! I hope that, if nothing else, tourism in the 1000 Islands will increase and unemployment will decrease. I tell everyone I see in Florida and Georgia how beautiful it is there. It's amazing how many U.S. citizens have never heard of the St. Lawrence river and the Islands (even New Yorkers).
Jeffrey Bennett
Comment by: Jeffrey Bennett ( )
Left at: 10:37 AM Saturday, October 22, 2011
Katy is so..... right!! We live near one of the most beautiful spots on earth, the 1000 island region. It is funny how few know of it.
Lesa Winter
Comment by: Lesa Winter ( )
Left at: 8:48 PM Saturday, October 22, 2011
We will never be the same again. A new era is upon us who are from this area. We have been changed forever. Fort Drum changed us. 9/11 changed us all. The bridge authority in the 1000 Islands American span spends a lot of money on promoting the islands. We have been found. Clayton was nominated second cutiest town in the U.S. thanks to Facebook.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 9:35 PM Wednesday, November 30, 2011
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Left at: 6:57 PM Friday, December 2, 2011
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Left at: 4:23 PM Monday, January 23, 2012
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Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 9:35 AM Friday, January 27, 2012
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doug seaman
Comment by: doug seaman ( )
Left at: 7:26 PM Tuesday, April 24, 2012
when is it going to be aired ?
Liz Aldridge
Comment by: Liz Aldridge ( )
Left at: 8:02 AM Friday, August 24, 2012
We DVR'd all episodes of the Great Escape and it did not tape this episode. Does anyone know how to view this at this point?
Comment by: Hector
Left at: 12:19 PM Monday, March 16, 2015
it is true. on wikipedia i didn't find this episode(pilot).
i saw the pilot(partial) on Discovery channel by directv cable, i liked it