Flags abound in the islands. At Grenell Island’s July 2009 regatta, participants were asked to count the flags as they paddled around the island. There were 43 U.S., 2 Canadian, 1 Irish, 1 McDonald’s and 1 smiley face flag.
Our island is not unique in this respect. Take a trip up or down the river on any day and you will see flagpoles of varying heights sporting flags of various sizes all flapping in the wind.
The largest flag in our section of the river is on Calumet Island, which is across the channel from Clayton, NY. On a clear day, I can see that flag from miles away. The Calumet Island flag provides the backdrop for Clayton’s 4th of July celebrations each year. Ironically, that flag is a distant relative to the flag of my story.
One of the things I like best about writing for Thousand Island Life is that it connects me with other people interested in the collecting and preserving the history of our beloved Thousand Islands. This month I was fortunate to cross paths with Rex Ennis, who has started a committee to preserve the New Frontenac Hotel Flag.
While I have only just begun collecting history of Grenell and surrounding islands, Rex has been at it for years. Rex summers on Grindstone and has become known as a local historian on many things, including Charles Goodwin Emery, who once owned Calumet. He is currently working on a book about Emery.
From Rex’s research, I learned that around 1898, Emery became the major shareholder of Round Island. The original hotel on the island had been Round Island House, which changed hands in 1888 and was renamed the Frontenac Hotel. When Emery assumed ownership ten years later, he renovated the hotel, calling it the New Frontenac Hotel. His goal was to make the hotel on Round Island into one of the most luxurious summer resorts in the world.
Emery succeeded. In an era of grand hotels in the Thousand Islands, the New Frontenac Hotel stood out. It had an international reputation as a world-class hotel. Perhaps it was the amenities they offered. The 1909 brochure boasts that the hotel offered boating, fishing, tennis, bowling, billiards, ping-pong and darkroom facilities for the amateur photographer. Or perhaps it was the clientele. The New Frontenac Hotel was a playground for the rich and famous. Its guest list over the years included among other turn of the century luminaries: Thomas Edison, Howard Gould, the Duke of Newcastle, Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft and the Maharaja and Maharani of Baroda, who stayed at the New Frontenac twice, both times as part of a world tour.
Life at the New Frontenac was lavish. At a ball held at the hotel in 1909, it was estimated that over a million dollars in diamonds were worn.
On a tall pole, perched atop the gleaming seven-story building flew a huge, 16 x 24 ft. United States flag. In many ways, that flag was like a grand feather in a grand cap. Even though it’s been 99 years since it flew, I can imagine what the flag on the New Frontenac Hotel on Round Island must have looked like. A flag that size, flying well above the tree line, might even have been visible from Grenell Island, which is across the channel from Round Island, about a mile away.
Only guests were permitted access to the island, but that didn’t keep gawkers away. Excursion steamers on rambles of the St. Lawrence criss-crossed the waters in front of the New Frontenac, packed with passengers craning their necks hoping to catch a glimpse of society’s upper crust. The first thing they probably saw as they approached Round Island was that 16 x 24 ft flag waving majestically in the breeze high above the tree line.
Care to venture a guess how many stars were on the U.S. flag back in 1911? In 1908, Oklahoma declared statehood. Another star was added to the flag, raising the number to 46.
So it was a 46-star flag that flew over the New Frontenac Hotel. The 46-star flag was only in existence for four years. (Only the 49-star flag had a shorter history.) New Mexico and Arizona were next to declare statehood and in 1912, and two more stars were added to the flag. But the New Frontenac hotel didn’t make it to 1912.
On the night of August 23, 1911, the 300-room hotel burned to the ground. An “improperly discarded cigarette” in Room 117 is blamed for the blaze, which at one point is said to have burned so brightly that residents of Grindstone Island, over a mile away could read from a book as if it were daylight. As Rex is fond of pointing out, “This was
ironic as Charles G. Emery was one of the founders of the American Tobacco Company and the inventor of a cigarette making machine.”
The flag was saved twice that night. First by some daring, unnamed man, who climbed to the top of the burning seven-story building to take the flag down and spirit it to the safety of the Annex. As the fire spread through the hotel many other precious artifacts were transported to the Annex. When the fire threatened to spread to the Annex, a Clayton firefighter took an ax and chopped down the two-story walkway that connected the hotel to the Annex. His heroic efforts saved the flag for the second time that night.
The flag disappeared from the public eye for a few decades, surfacing at the Thousand Island Museum, sometime in the 1960s. The first time I saw the flag was when the museum was housed in the Opera House. I also remember seeing it displayed at the Antique Boat Museum when they had an exhibit on Round Island several years ago.
The flag is threatened again. Not by fire this time, but by dirt and dust. No one knows when the flag was last cleaned, perhaps never. The accumulation of a hundred years worth of dirt threatens to speed deterioration. In an effort to save the flag for a third time, Rex, a long time volunteer of the museum, started The Flag Preservation Committee. The New Frontenac Flag is currently in Albany at the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. There it is set to undergo restoration to help stabilize this important piece of Thousand Island history. The complete description of the work to be done by the Bureau may be found at www.charlesgemery.com/flag.
You have a chance to help rescue the flag this time. It won’t be as daring as climbing to the roof of a burning building, as strenuous as hacking down a walkway with an ax or as tedious as replacing stitching. The price tag for restoring the flag is $9,900. Sounds very expensive until you compare it to the $18 million price tag for restoring the Star Spangled Banner. Nearly half the $9.900 amount has already been pledged and The Flag Preservation Committee is turning to the public for the other half. The Flag Preservation Committee is offering individuals, families or groups a chance to sponsor a star for $250 or a stripe for $1000, but any amount is welcome.
The flag restoration is targeted to be complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the New Frontenac Hotel, August 23, 2011. Besides being a fine specimen of a large and rare 46-star flag, the New Frontenac Flag is an endearing symbol of a bygone era. It will be housed in the Thousand Island Museum in Clayton and displayed at events throughout the Thousand Islands.
by Lynn McElfresh
Summer resident of Grenell Island, Lynn McElfresh has been a self-proclaimed “flag nut” since the age of nine. In 1999, Lynn wrote Star-Spangled Seamstress, an article about 13-year-old Carolyn Pickersgill who helped her mother and grandmother stitch the Star Spangled Banner, which became the inspiration for Francis Scott Key. The article was published in Highlights Magazine and has been frequently reprinted in grade school textbooks. Lynn is currently working on a historic novel on the same subject.