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Grenell Aglow

If you cruise by Grenell Island after dark this month, you might notice something special. Grenell Island is glowing with celebration.

It’s the 100th Anniversary of Grenell Island Improvement Association and we’ve strung the island with lights to celebrate. It’s not a new idea. Between 1890 to 1911, it was fashionable to illuminate each cottage, dock, boathouse and restaurant along the river with lights one night a week.


From what I can tell it was the Folger Line—a steamship line sometimes referred to as the Great White Squadron—that came up with the idea. In 1890, the steamer St. Lawrence started what they called the “Search Light Excursion” once a week. The 1896 edition of The Rambler, a tourist booklet for the Thousand Islands describes the Search Light Excursion like this: 

The Search Light sends a flood of radiance that illumines ever spot it touches as with the glare of noonday sun; camp and cottage, leafy covert and rocky glen, all stand reveled. Here a flood of light reveals happy groups on porch and balcony of hotel and cottage, and there are a leafy covert becomes a bower of brilliancy, white eerie shadows dark as Erebus flee away into inky depths. It is a succession of transformation scenes never equaled elsewhere. All the way up the river we have been greeted with rockets and red fire and even now they have not ceased. Passing “Calumet Island,” on our left, we approach a jolly camp on Grindstone Island, where cheers and fireworks seem to spring forth spontaneously.


It seems that Search Light Excursion nights were as popular with the islanders as they were for the passengers on the tourboat. Islanders decorated their cottages and camps with oil lanterns and lamps. No mention is made as to why the tradition stopped abruptly in 1911. I can only guess it was due to the number of fires. At midnight, August 23, 1911 the Frontenac Hotel burned. Eleven months later, the Columbia Hotel at Thousand Island Park burned taking 150 cottages with it in a firey inferno. On Grenell, seven cottages burned in the same time period. Understandably, islanders were probably skittish about hanging lanterns in trees. 

In 1923, the Thousand Island Yacht Club revived the tradition. Brigadier General J. Leslie Kinkaid was appointed chairman of the event and told the papers, “Colored oil lanterns offer a very satisfactory substitute for electric lights. This of course, was the method, which was almost universally employed at the River 12 to 15 years ago.”

By the 1920s there was electrical power on the mainland, but the out islands were still waiting for electricity. Some small islands, like Basswood had their own generator, but Grenell Island would not have electricity until 1929. For the islands without power, Kinkaid had a suggestion. “No more beautiful effects can be secured than by the liberal use of Japanese lanterns. They are particularly effective when they can be hung among the trees and places free from buildings.

For those on the mainland: “On the mainland and on islands where electricity is available, there are two means of electrical illumination to choose from: one is the use of streamers of different-colored lights strung on wires which can be used to outline buildings, etc. The other method, flood lighting, which is a more recent development can be used with great success by directing the rays of the flood lights against the towers, buildings and other prominent features of the landscape.”

I was surprised to see that my husband’s grandmother, Mabelle Ogden, had written in the margin of the Rambler next to the description of the Search Light Tour… “Wonderful trip! Took the boat nearly every week.” Every week! I would think it more of something you might do once a season. I could imagine She was 4-years-old that season in 1896, getting off the St. Lawrence at the Grenell Island dock with her parents. They would have said hello to Mr. Kilbourn, who waited up for the Search Light Excursion to return each week so he could keep the kerosene dock lights lit. I can image her walking down the boardwalk, this was before the sidewalk had been installed and picking her way in the dark in her long skirt on the path that goes across the rocks. Perhaps they carried a lantern to light the way.

In the 1980s, Save the River revived the tradition with a twist. They asked that between 10 and 10:30 pm. Save the River Candles be burned on the docks to show their support for keeping our river clean.

At the 2010 brainstorming meeting for planning a Party of the Century, the idea came up again to use lighting as part of the celebration.

Gary and I weren’t the only ones who went out to buy lights on sale after Christmas. This spring, after the shutters came off, the water systems were up and running and the leaves were raked, out came the ladders to string lights for the upcoming celebration. Lights were tested here or there in June.

On July 7, we had our Grenell Aglow Night with people turning on their lights for the first time. Instead of the Steamer St. Lawrence we had our own boats to cruise around Grenell while revelers on shore threw up cheers.

So if you were wondering about that glow in the sky between Murray and the American Channel, it’s Grenell Island letting 100 years of devotion to our island shine into the night.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. Currently she is helping to compile the history of Grenell for its 100th Birthday this summer. Click here to see all of Lynn’s contributions!


  • Grenell Aglow 2012 - cottages will be lit throughout the summer.

    Grenell Aglow 2012 - cottages will be lit throughout the summer.

  • A popular summer happening in the 1800s

    A popular summer happening in the 1800s

  • 2012, photo by L. McElfresh

    2012, photo by L. McElfresh

  • A picture perfect evening

    A picture perfect evening

  • Another view of Grenell.  Photo by L. McElfresh

    Another view of Grenell. Photo by L. McElfresh

  • Getting ready takes lots of work.

    Getting ready takes lots of work.


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Linda F
Comment by: Linda F ( )
Left at: 9:39 AM Thursday, July 26, 2012
I was visiting family on Grenell Island in July and can attest to the beautiful illumination of many of the cottages around the island. What a wonderful island community activity!! Have a great time at the Party of the Century!!