The early 1960s were a very interesting time in America; the country was excited about having elected a charismatic, young President named "JFK" and yet the economy and political situation were in major turmoil. Amid this climate of extreme uncertainty, the Uncle Sam Boat Tour company found itself under fire from all directions. Not only were the Pilgrim and Paul boat lines still competing against them in The Bay, the boys up-river in Clayton at the American Boat Line were upping their game as well. In 1960 they launched the beautiful new aluminum double-decker tour boat named the "American Venus" which had the immediate effect of making the fleet of wooden Uncle Sam boats look rather "tired". In 1964, The American Boat Line followed up with the launch of another new double decker, the "American Neptune."
On the hotel side of the business, the Thomson family decided that it was time to do something with the aging Crossmon House hotel. Rather than lose the quickly deteriorating structure to a major fire, a fate that befell several other grand old resorts in the area, "Cap" and Graham decided to tear down the Crossmon and build a brand new resort in its place. The initial 34 room wing of the new hotel was completed early in 1964, and it was named Capt. Thomson's Motor Lodge. A second wing, with an additional 34 rooms was constructed the following year.
In 1965, a new player arrived on the scene. Patrick "Pat" Chavoustie, who had grown up around the river and had captained tour boats in both Alexandria Bay and Clayton as a young man, moved his family back to the north country to get away from the political unrest that was occurring in Florida, as a result of the Cuban crisis. With the assistance of an uncle who still lived in the area, Pat was able to broker a deal to purchase the Uncle Sam stock holdings from the Haas and Adkins families. Over the years, these two families had acquired enough stock to hold a combined fifty-one percent stake in the company. With his purchase of this block of stock, Pat found himself in control of the business. This situation didn't sit too well with "Cap" Thomson and the relationship between him and Pat could be described as tenuous, at best. Shortly after Pat purchased the controlling interest in the boat line, "Cap" tendered his resignation as president and Pat assumed that role.
Pat was well aware that the Uncle Sam fleet of boats needed to be updated, not only for competitive reasons but for economic and safety considerations as well. The newer, larger metal vessels could not only carry more passengers than the smaller wooden boats, but they also didn't require nearly as much costly upkeep and repairs to maintain their annual Coast Guard certifications. With the increasing volume of traffic on the River, the smaller tour boats were also at a greater risk of being involved in a potentially devastating collision with the high-speed motor boats that darted all over the place, especially around the popular tourist destinations that the tour boats visited. Pat learned of a one-year-old double deck, steel tour boat that was for sale in Virginia and went ahead and purchased it.
The "Carrie B" was a sixty-two- foot-long replica paddle wheeler that Pat felt would help to give the Uncle Sam fleet a unique identity on the river. In the first year of ownership Pat was not able to realize his vision of seeing the paddle wheeler cruising through the Thousand Islands as he was unable to negotiate a reasonable lease for docking space for the boat, with either "Cap" Thomson or Harry Wagoner who between them, controlled most of the available prime dock space in the Bay. After failing to secure the docking space lease for the upcoming 1966 season, an agreement was negotiated for Mr. Chavoustie to sell all of his shares of Uncle Sam stock to the Thomson family, who had by this time also purchased Harry Wagoner’s holdings. This meant that the Thomsons finally held one hundred percent of the boat line stock and could now run the business as they saw fit. Undaunted, Pat moved the boat to Seneca Lake for the season and renamed her "Seneca Belle". The following year he made arrangements with A.R. Johnson to run the paddle wheeler, which was again renamed, this time, "Alexandria Belle", from the Cavallario’s Bayside Pizza docks, in Alex Bay for the season. It was not an ideal situation as the docking spot was difficult to get in and out of and provided a major challenge for the captain, but at least she was on the St. Lawrence as Pat originally intended!
After the sale of his stock, Pat went on to pursue a number of other commercial opportunities in the area.
In 1967, a new challenge presented itself from the Canadian side of the River as the Gananoque Boat Line launched two new doubledecker’s, the "Miss Gananoque" and the "Miss Gananoque II", to capitalize on the surge of tourism generated by Expo 67, which was being held in Montreal. This year also marked the end of an era, as Captain Clarence S. Thomson passed away at the age of ninety-one. "Cap" had been around the River his entire life and introduced countless thousands of people to the beauty and charm of the 1000 Islands region and he certainly left his mark on the community of Alexandria Bay.
After "Cap" died, his son, and sole heir, Graham took the reins of the various Thomson companies. Although he was a good businessman he didn't get much of a chance to show it, while "Cap" was alive, as his rather domineering father was reluctant to give him many opportunities to manage things completely by himself. Now that Graham had full control he wasted no time in making some changes. He purchased the Pilgrim Boat Line and renamed their flagship boat, the "Pilgrim V", "Uncle Sam VIII". He also purchased the "Alexandria Belle" and officially made her part of the Uncle Sam fleet. Fate dealt Graham an extremely cruel blow in 1969, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent surgery at Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital in September, but succumbed to his health challenges in December, at the age of fifty. Graham left behind his widow, Thérèse, and two young sons, Ronald and Richard.
Graham's tragic death, and the fate of the Thomson family holdings quickly became fodder for gossip at the village's coffee shops and watering holes. The consensus among the town folk was that Mrs. Thomson would have no choice but to sell off some, or all, of the businesses. Speculation was rampant as to which one would be the first to go on the block. Thérèse, being of strong French Canadian stock and an astute business woman in her own right, was not about to give the cynics the satisfaction of being right. With the help of a couple of trusted managers, John Russell on the hotel side and Jack Snow at the boat line, Thérèse not only kept the businesses alive, she grew them.
The Thomson Mall was built, a new motel was opened up, and additions were made to both Capt. Thomson's Motor Lodge and Pine Tree Point. In 1971 Thérèse placed an order with Blount Marine Inc. in Rhode Island, for a second paddle-wheel style boat, to join the "Alexandria Belle" in the fleet. The newest tour boat was named "Island Wanderer". The owner of Blount Marine would often say that Mrs. Thomson was the first female customer his business had! Five years later another paddle wheeler was ordered from the same builder and joined the fleet as "Uncle Sam 7".
As the new steel boats were introduced the older wooden ones were either sold off or retired. Several of the Uncle Sam boats met their end in fires - the "Uncle Sam II" in the Peacock Boathouse blaze and the "Uncle Sam", "Uncle Sam VI", “Shamrock”, “Pilgrim Jr.” and "Riot II" in the Hutchinson's Boat Works boat house fire. The original "Riot" speedboat was destroyed when a group of robbers set the Wilder boathouse on fire as a diversion so that they could pull off a heist at a local bank which was located in the Thomson Mall. Others, like the old "Pilgrim V", were simply pulled up on shore and left to rot away or to be broken apart by the business end of a backhoe. Truly an indignant end for these magnificent old ladies of the river!
In the mid-80s, the Uncle Sam boat line once again found themselves being challenged in the tour boat market by another newcomer. Paul Quackenbush, the founder of Empire Airlines, was looking for a fresh business opportunity after selling his airline to Piedmont in 1985.
He purchased two brand new ninety-one-foot triple decker’s from Freeport Shipbuilders in Florida and named them "Island Empress" and "Island Princess". These two boats, along with the three classic wooden tour boats from the Paul Boat Line, were operated out of Alexandria Bay under the company name Empire Boat Tours. Mr. Quackenbush subsequently ordered two additional boats, slightly longer and wider than the first two and took delivery of them in time for the 1988 season. The latest additions to the Empire fleet were named "Island Countess" and "Island Duchess". Paul affectionately referred to his fleet as the "Island Girls" and spent a lot of money on lavish ads to promote the business. The Empire boat line was definitely giving Uncle Sam a run for its money!
To counter the competitive threat that was presented by the shiny new fleet of Empire triple decker’s, Uncle Sam ordered a triple-deck paddle wheeler from their regular supplier, Blount Marine. The latest addition to the fleet, eighty-two feet in length, was delivered in time for the 1988 season as well and was also named "Alexandria Belle". The original, smaller boat of that same name was sold to a tour boat operation in St. Augustine, Florida. In 1991, Mr. Quackenbush was tragically killed in a car accident and Empire Boat Tours ceased operation shortly after that. The "Island Girls" were sold off and Uncle Sam purchased the "Island Duchess" for their fleet in 1993.
In 1996, the Thomson family holdings were restructured with ownership of the boat line business passing to Ronald and the hotel business to Richard. Ron had toiled in the tour boat operation from an early age, learning the ropes as a deckhand, a parking lot attendant and a ticket seller, and he eventually worked his way up to General Manager, after graduating from college. Ron obtained his Captain's License at age 18 and got to know each of the boats inside and out and from stem to stern. Under Ron's tenure, three more boats were added to the fleet. The "Uncle Sam II" was acquired to operate as a shuttle to and from Boldt Castle, "Freedom I" added an extra 130 person capacity vessel for smaller groups, and "Liberty" was purchased primarily for private charters. Two of Ron's sons, Ethan and Riley, are currently involved in the business and seem to have a love for the river in their blood like their predecessors did. Thérèse Thomson passed away in January 2005 at the age of 85.
In addition to the Alexandria Bay-based operations, Uncle Sam also operated out of Clayton for ten years, from 1985 to 1995. Two boats, the "Uncle Sam VIII" and the former American Boat Line's "American Neptune", were used for these tours. This business operated under the name of 1000 Islands Seaway Cruises, for the first year but was changed to Uncle Sam the following season. The two boats were also renamed; The "American Neptune" became "Miss Clayton III" and the "Uncle Sam VIII" became "Miss Clayton IV". The company also ran two boats, the "Island Wanderer" and the "Uncle Sam 7", out of the Mount Airy Resort, in Ivy Lea, Ontario, for a short time until changes to the border regulations made the logistics of Customs clearance too difficult to manage.
Today, Uncle Sam Boat Tours is the only boat line operating out of Alexandria Bay and they are as busy as ever. Each year thousands of visitors board one of the Uncle Sam boats for a tour through the magnificent 1000 Islands.
Ron has never lost sight of the fact that the St. Lawrence River is the prime attraction that the tourists flock to see and it is his company's job to make the experience of their visit as memorable and enjoyable as possible. The company offers several different excursions to provide as many options to the visitors as possible. The variety of trips range from a shorter one-hour tour, for those who are pressed for time, to the most popular, Two Nations Tour, which covers a route that is twenty-two miles long and includes a stop at Boldt Castle. Luncheon, dinner and other specialty cruises, as well as private charters, are also available throughout the summer season. Although the company still uses a live announcer on each boat, something Ron is proud of, and a practice long abandoned by pretty well all other tour operators in the area, Uncle Sam also makes a recorded commentary available in five different languages, for foreign passengers. The boat line has embraced modern technology for the recorded versions by having the narrative for each of the highlights, triggered wirelessly on the passenger's audio device, at precisely the right moment, via a GPS locater. It is this attention to detail and high level of personal service, along with the willingness to integrate contemporary, progressive tools into the operation, wherever possible, that has helped Uncle Sam Boat Tours become the successful business that they are.
It is certainly impressive to realize that in a time span of a little over one hundred years, five generations of a single family, from a relatively small community on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River, have fulfilled their dream of providing people from all over the world, with a memorable experience from their visit to this little piece of heaven on earth that we know as the 1000 Islands. As a young "Cap" Thomson rowed his first customers through the islands, in his skiff, I don’t think he could ever have imagined what his fledgling enterprise would eventually develop into!
I would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for the assistance that they offered during the preparation of this article:
- Ron Thomson of Uncle Sam Boat Tours, who provided a great deal of valuable historical information regarding the Thomson family and the Uncle Sam Boat Lines. (http://usboattours.com/ )
- Patrick J. Chavoustie for sharing his personal recollections, of his time with Uncle Sam Boat Tours and his early experiences in the tour boat industry.
- Chelsea Lasell of Uncle Sam Boat Tours, for her assistance in obtaining several of the photographs used in the article. (http://usboattours.com/ )
- George Fischer of George Fischer Photography, for generously allowing the use of several of his images. (http://www.georgefischerphotography.com/Intro/)
- Rick Roberts of Global Genealogy, for assisting in gathering genealogical information for the article. (http://globalgenealogy.com/)
By Tom King
Tom King and his wife Marion have lived in Milton, Ontario for the past 30 years, where they both worked and raised their family of three children; Kris, Mike and Becca. Tom still has a strong attachment to the Thousand Islands, having grown up in Gananoque and being a “river rat” from a very early age. The family tries to return to the islands every summer and for the past several years have been renting a cottage on Sampson (a.k.a. Heritage) Island, just out from Gananoque.
Editor’s note: The King family is well known in the region as the “J.W. King Water Filtration Plant”, which stands on the shore of the St. Lawrence River, in the Gananoque Marina Basin, was named after Tom’s father, in recognition of the contributions that he made to the upgrading of the Town’s water system, while acting as Chairman of the P.U.C. Click here to see all of Tom’s articles.