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Don’t go to the Castle, ever…


I was thirteen years old when I first came to the Thousand Islands. It was the summer of 1942, and the United States had recently entered WWII. I considered myself privileged, as my sister Irene and I were invited to spend our vacation on Maple Island, opposite Alexandria Bay, with our relatives, Julius Breitenbach and his wife Delilah.

By the mid 1940s, Uncle Julius was well known in the region. (Editor’s Note: Breitenbach obtained his degree in Pharmacy from Columbia University, where he was one of the founders of Tau Epsilon Phi, commonly pronounced TEP, in 1910. See TI Life’s article Santa Claus of the Thousand Islands, written by Rex Ennis, December 2010.)

I remember Uncle Jay, as I called him, taught us how to enjoy and respect the St. Lawrence River. He taught me boating safety and best of all, how to manage a canoe, my favorite mode of transportation, all summer. The first year there were no gas restrictions, so we happily joined him as we explored the islands, always retiring to the wonderful houseboat, LACHMA, named after the first two letters of his sons names, Lawrence, Charles and Maxwell, which was kept at Maple Island.

By 1944, even small towns, so many miles from the war zones, felt the restrictions as a result of the war. There was little gas for engines, and what was available was rationed. Maple Island was a 10-acre island, located a little downriver from Boldt Castle, and one island west of Manhattan Island. Part of the island was kept as grazing land, as there were cows, pigs, and chickens, allowing the family to continue eating meat, when others could not.

During that summer of 1944, an American mystery-thriller film, “Gas Light”, was coming to Alexandria Bay’s movie theatre. It was a story about a woman, whose husband convinces her that she is going mad. The movie starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. It was a movie we couldn’t wait to see.

We asked Uncle Jay if we had enough gas, for the boatman to take us to the Bay for the movies, but his answer was not encouraging. “With so little gasoline available, I think it best not to plan that outing.”

“But, I will not ask to go any other place, please, please.” I pleaded and added for good measure, “I will not use the gas we would use to go to church next Sunday, but rather row from Maple Island, across the shipping channel, and you can save all that gas for that movie night.”

My Uncle agreed and true to my promise, I rowed over to Alex Bay and back, with no complaints.

When the big movie night arrived, Uncle Jay arranged for my sister and me to cross over, with the boatman at the helm, in the family’s big motor launch, The Handy Andy.

We were excited and proud of the sacrifice we had made, to make the excursion. After docking, we hurriedly ran three short blocks to the theater, only to see a sign posted in front, “Due to transportation difficulties, Gas Light will not be shown tonight. Instead, we will show ‘Jam Session’ with Ann Miller.”, someone my sister and I were not at all interested in hearing, or seeing.

I have often thought of that day’s disappointment, and the week or two after, as we continued to sulk, but learning how to row a St. Lawrence Skiff and/or paddle a canoe that summer, was important. Suddenly, we were allowed to explore the River on our own, but always with the same restrictions, from Uncle Jay & Aunt Lyle, “Now listen here, don’t go to the Castle, ever.”

Well, two young girls, teenagers in fact, in the 1940s, who knew how to handle a canoe with ease, were not about to let a little warning spoil the fun.

We simply took off in the canoe, giving ample notice that we would return for our dinner, “And don’t worry about us, we will be careful.” Off we would go to the Castle, which stood on Heart Island, abandoned except for the many scribbles of graffiti displayed on every available flat surface.

On our fifth or sixth visit, we decided to venture inside. We found a window opening and climbed in. There were no lights inside and even whispers would reverberate around the room; I can’t remember who suggested we look for the basement, Irene or I, but we soon found the correct door and down we went. It was exciting, as there were a number of small rooms, probably built for future servants who would be living in the Castle and looking after Louise and George Boldt, for the Castle’s planned completion. However, as a result of Louise’s early death during construction, Boldt ordered the workman to stop working on the monument to his wife, and to leave.

Therefore, 40 years later, Irene and I were stepping over and around the abandoned building materials, imported treasures of sculptures and tapestries abandoned because of Boldt’s orders to halt construction.

We found another window and climbed through it, finding what would have been the swimming pool. It was filled with what I remember as dark, dirty water. We were suddenly concerned that our dachshund, Rhett Butler, (named as he had big ears like the actor Clark Gable…) might go too close to the treacherous edge. We were pleased that we had persuaded Rhett to come with us that day, as he disliked going on boats and always made a fuss when we picked him up and placed him on the floor boards.

We were so proud of ourselves and began exploring, when all of a sudden Rhett began to growl. We looked at Rhett’s fixed gaze, towards the staircase, and saw a blue-green light coming down the stairs. We knew there was a problem, and were in trouble instantly, as there was nobody (literally) holding the light! It took the two of us, and Rhett about two seconds to turn around and run. We followed Rhett, as he tore down a tunnel that we had never seen before, which took us out on the other side of Heart Island, to a landing dock. It was the tunnel that had been planned to take food and supplies to the Castle kitchen, from supplier’s boats, concealed from the view of the guests.

The three of us ran around, back across the island, to our waiting canoe and the first to jump in was Rhett. We followed quickly and began paddling towards home. It was the first, and possibly last time, that I remember looking back, to realize that the canoe’s speed had created a pronounced wake.

When I tell this story, my friends always say, “So I guess you learned your lesson, right, and never went back?”

My answer, “Learned a lesson - but of course not, we went back as often as we could.” But rather than the basement, we went up. The castle’s grand staircase had been left incomplete, having no railings or treads, so we gingerly and carefully stepped up several stories by walking on just the rails. We soon learned how to get to the top of the Castle roof, where we could see the surrounding island,s and where we could plan a new trip for a picnic.”

We spent several more summers on Maple Island with Aunt Lyle and Uncle Jay until it was time to leave the Thousand Islands. My sister Irene, who was my best friend, died when she was just thirty one, and I went on to marry and begin a family. We lived in Illinois, a long way from my favorite part of the world.

Uncle Jay sold Maple Island, in 1959. Aunt Lyle died in a car accident on Highway 12, when her car skidded on an icy road in the area, in December, 1964. Uncle Jay remained living in Clayton on the River’s edge, until his death.

One day in 1985, when my husband was away on a business trip, I made the decision to drive to Alexandria Bay, with one of my daughters. “I wonder if we can find a cottage, where we can all discover and explore the River like I did?” I suggested. After a few days of house hunting, on the American side, I discovered a cottage on the Canadian Tar Island, just a few hops from Maple Island, and my bundled memories of earlier days on the River. Our cottage was going to be the perfect place to combine the past, present and future.

Often, over the years, when we went exploring, or crossed the River in our SeaRay on a stormy day, I could still hear my Uncle Jay, “Now listen here, don’t go to the Castle, ever…”

By Andrée Robitaille Wood

Andrée Robitaille Wood’s bio deserves to be printed in its entirety… “Comfortable early life; two year exposure to the grand aristocratic life of relatives; descent into the edge of poverty and a brief bout of homelessness; fantastic summer vacations on a private island in the St. Lawrence River; wonderful education at St. Casimir Academy; the honor of achieving the lowest sales record at the Gift Court at Marshall Fields on State Street; college postponed; entrance into the wonderful (and martini-fueled) creative world of advertising; holy and happy matrimony; five children; five acres; numerous animals in an idyllic country house; started college at 39; Masters Degree in Anthropology/Archeology at 51; seven seasons at a 10,000 year old archaeological site, in southeastern Turkey; sixteen fantastic grandchildren.”  For more photographs see: https://andreerobitaillewood.com/about/

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Comments

Michelle Caron
Comment by: Michelle Caron
Left at: 1:23 PM Monday, November 14, 2016
What a beautiful story! You brought back a time at Boldt castle that usually gets lost amongst famous gilded age stories...and what a good time it was! A part of our castle's journey. Thank you for sharing.
Michelle Caron
Comment by: Michelle Caron
Left at: 2:16 PM Monday, November 14, 2016
What a beautiful story! You brought back a time at Boldt castle that usually gets lost amongst famous gilded age stories...and what a good time it was! A part of our castle's journey. Thank you for sharing.
Michael Joyce
Comment by: Michael Joyce
Left at: 3:14 PM Monday, November 14, 2016
Great story!!

I remember Terry Bresnahan on Island 97 telling me about being on the roof of Boldt's Castle as a young girl and tried to imagine it. Her father was the caretaker for Frank Lyons down on Oak Island. Now here are photos of Andree and her sister Irene on the roof. Must have been the hangout place for young teenage girls during WW II.

The story about jumping through hoops to get a boat ride to the movie only to find a cancellation notice on the door was a gem.

The River holds a million stories and this was one of the best.
Tad Clark
Comment by: Tad Clark
Left at: 6:52 PM Monday, November 14, 2016
Interesting story and a family I never got to know. Thanks for sharing.
Melissa Wood
Comment by: Melissa Wood
Left at: 12:20 PM Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Susan,

This is so remarkable! I'm thrilled to have had the pleasure of being the go-between with you and my mom, Andrée Wood. The article looks fabulous, the photos perfectly evoking the era of the Thousand Islands in the 1940s.

Growing up with such an abundance of adventure stories centered in and around Alexandria Bay was a treat for my siblings and I, as well as our children who were able to spend such happy summertimes on the St. Lawrence River.

Well done. And thank you!
Cliff Yates
Comment by: Cliff Yates
Left at: 1:23 PM Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Hi Andr'ee, Such a wonderful story. It really had me back at the Islands and walking the grounds at Boldt Castle. It brought back memories I had of walking around Boldt Castle in the 70's. To see how far the restoration has come since the 70's is amazing, and you had me picturing how it must have been in the 40's and 50's. It brought back images of my Grandmother who during the 40's owned Ina Island within view of the Castle. Now that I get to spend over three months a year at the Islands, on our Elm Tree Island in Chippewa Bay, I miss it more during the winter months now, than I did when I could only spend two or three weeks a summer. As I sit here in our California home on a beautiful warm sunny day, your article took me back in time, and more importantly back to the Islands we all love.
Deane Parkhurst
Comment by: Deane Parkhurst
Left at: 8:32 PM Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Oh the memories. A few years later than this story details, "touring" Boldt Castle was a favorite thing to do in the 1950's. Easy then, just beach your boat on the other side of Heart Island from the shipping channel and explore. What I remember was more than a mess. Graffiti, trash, broken beer bottles, and other items that best remain unmentioned. Still an experience. Returning in 2014 for the first time in many years I was astounded at what had been done with the renovation. Standing the the grand entrance hallway and remembering what it looked like back then.... hard to describe. So pleased that this monument to times past has not been allowed to simple turn to rubble.
Jeff Turcotte
Comment by: Jeff Turcotte
Left at: 9:49 AM Friday, November 25, 2016
What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!
Nancy Keziah
Comment by: Nancy Keziah
Left at: 2:50 PM Saturday, November 26, 2016
Thanks for sharing. I bet the light you saw was coming from Mr. Beebe who was the caretaker for Boldt Castle for many years. I also remember your Uncle Jay from growing up in Clayton. Thanks for sharing your memories. Even though I know longer live there, I hold onto this quote:
"Where there is a river in your growing up, you will always hear it!" So true!!
Nancy Bond
Comment by: Nancy Bond
Left at: 10:49 AM Wednesday, December 14, 2016
I;m late getting to see stories in
TI life this month, but what a great story! Our generation as so blessed to have these memories. Thank you for sharing.
Lynn Grochau Hanzakos
Comment by: Lynn Grochau Hanzakos
Left at: 6:58 PM Thursday, August 3, 2017
My sister just came across this story and I am thrilled beyond words! And for reasons you may find hard to believe so if you aren't sitting down I suggest you do so. Here goes....
My parents are the folks who BOUGHT MAPLE ISLAND from your uncle! Yes, it's absolutely true and as proof I'd like to provide information that wouldn't be known by anyone else unless they lived there; as you faced the houseboat the kitchen was all the way to the left, living room at the other end way to the right, a big open area was on the second floor, there was a long workshop attached to the boathouse, a wine cellar, air raid shelter, freezer room. A couple of solid wood/concrete benches facing the channel, I would imaging that by now you realize I am "for real"!
I would so very much like to talk to you and I'm sure we both would have a wonderful time reminiscing about that wonderful Maple Island! There is no other place like it and of course The St.Lawrence River too!

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