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/