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Calumet Island's Lost Castle


It's one of the most familiar landmarks off the shores of Clayton, visible from the quaint village's waterfront patios along Riverside Drive and the town docks. The century-old 82-foot water tower on Calumet Island stands as a symbol of the Golden Age in the Thousand Islands as the remains of a once celebrated castle now gone.

Before Boldt Castle on Heart Island and Singer Castle on Dark Island, there was Calumet. And before George C. Boldt and Frederick Bourne would build their lasting legacies that stand as world-famous tourist attractions today, tobacco tycoon Charles G. Emery, of New York city, would build the very first castle in the Thousand Islands.

Emery was one of the early developers and promoters of the region in the late 1800s when he first set his sights on island properties. The multi-millionaire was a friend of Boldt and his wife Louise, attending the couple's wedding in New York. The men were also members of the New York City yacht club as was Bourne.

"Everything Emery did, Boldt did," said Rex Ennis, author of new book on Emery and the businessman's Hotel Frontenac on Round Island called Toujours Jeune - Always Young, Thousand Islands, Emery and the New Frontenac Hotel. "It was like a contest." (Always Young was the motto of the New Frontenac Hotel, which epitomized the region's Gilded Era.)

Emery, worked his way from a clerk to owner of Goodwin Tobacco Company, founded by his uncle in Brooklyn, bought a small group of islands off Clayton. The largest of these was named Powder Horn Island. He renamed it Calumet, a Native term meaning Indian Pipe of Peace, because the island's shape resembled a peace pipe.

He bought the island in 1882. Construction on the castle started in 1893 and was completed in 1894.

The 'castle' on Calumet was not as large or ornate as Boldt Castle or Singer Castle, but it was the first grand estate of its kind to inspire other luxurious retreats built by wealthy industrialists spending summers in the Thousand Islands as it became known as a popular cottage colony.

Not that it was modest. The castle had 30 rooms with a ballroom later added to accommodate guests for lavish galas punctuated by spectacular fireworks. One such event in 1902 attracted 200 guests and featured 10,000 Japanese lanterns hanging over the lawn illuminating the River. Emery constructed a water tower, a lagoon for his boats, a guest house, skiff house, boat house and ice house and sailed the River in his steam yachts.

Back then, Clayton was a booming summer resort with as many as 13 trains arriving daily from New York, Syracuse, Albany and other cities. Other wealthy New Yorkers soon followed suit building glamorous getaways in the Thousand Islands. In 1900, Boldt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, famously built his 120-room castle on Heart Island for his wife Louise, only to halt construction when she died of apparent heart failure at 42. He never stepped foot on the island again. Now owned by the Thousand Island Bridge Authority, the castle is being refurbished as the area's largest tourist site attracting visitors from around the globe.

Bourne, president and director of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, built his castle on Dark Island which he initially described to his family as a hunting lodge. Now owned by Dark Island tours, the region's only lived-in castle is a popular tourism destination featuring a Royal Suite for overnight stays.

Like Boldt, Emery was a luxury hotelier. He owned the New Hotel Frontenac on Round Island, one of the grandest hotel in the Thousand Islands with over 300 rooms. Its rich and famous guests included actress May Irwin, The 8th Duke of Newcastle, Thomas A. Edison, and the Maharaja of Baroda, the world's wealthiest man at the time.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the glamorous hotel on Aug. 23 1911.

The fire was caused by a musician smoking in his room, a tragic irony for the owner, who made his fortune on cigarettes. Nothing was left of the hotel with the exception of its huge flag, remarkably saved by an unknown man who saved it from the blaze. A fundraising effort to restore the flag to its original glory will see its return to Clayton this August for a celebration to mark the historic fire, which all but marked the end of a Gilded Era in the region.

Emery's life was touched by tragedy. His first wife, Francena, died in 1899 of breast cancer . The couple had five children and two of them died young. He and his second-wife, Irene, had no children. But again personal tragedy would strike, and like Boldt, take him away from his castle.

He closed the castle for good when his second wife died there on his birthday on July 20 1907. She was granted her dying wish after being struck by illness to spend her last days at the castle.

"He closed the castle when she died," said Ennis.

Emery died in 1915 at 79, leaving behind a $4 million estate. The castle was left in trust for his grandson Charles G. Emery II. His son, Frank had life use.

In a move blamed on high taxes, his heirs would later leave the castle a vacant curiosity for years before it burned down in 1956. Ennis, whose family owned a cottage on nearby Grindstone Island, recalls visiting the abandoned castle as a child. Like Boldt Castle, it stood vacant for years.

"When you're 10 years old and being taken to Calumet castle, it's something. It was really an exciting thing."

Emery went on to become owner and president of Goodwin Tobacco Co. in Brooklyn. His corporation was known for its chewing tobacco and 'Old Judge Cigarettes' that came with baseball cards in the packaging.

Ennis has a door, a sink a cupboard from the castle which was emptied of its contents which were put up for auction before the fire.

"There's pieces of Calumet castle all over the place," said Ennis, a retired telecommunications engineer who spends winters in Tennessee and summers on Grindstone Island.

The son of a dentist in Maine, Emery was among an elite group of business barons at the turn of the last century who built grand summer homes in the Thousand Islands, many of which still stand today. Some have not held up as well as others. Others have been reduced to rubble.

Today one of the few things left of Calumet's castle is a massive staircase that leads up a grassy hill to the sky and an entrance long-vanished. Charred bricks from a wall from the castle lie in ruins on the ground nearby. The rest is left to the imagination.

Since the fire, Calumet Island has had several reincarnations including stints as a restaurant, bar and a marina.

But for the last three decades, it has been the summer retreat of John "Skip" Rawson and his family from Princeton New Jersey.

The entrepreneur and pilot bought it when the prior owner declared bankruptcy. The sheriff's locks were still on the doors when he went to view the property. "It was a mess," Rawson recalled during a tour of the historic auxiliary buildings including a century-old boathouse and ice house. "It was infested with mice and snakes."

His family rented houses on Round Island and Clayton before the property came up for sale.

But once inside the yellow main lodging, Emery's caretaker's residence, Rawson was struck by the sun spilling inside the windows. "That light just sold me," he said.  Reminders of Emery's lost castle remain. A recently discovered wooden sign on the property marked 'Charles G. Emery' that now has a spot on the home's fireplace mantle.

And other parts of the original estate which features a sheltered 60-slip marina, remain. There's a stone power house, boathouse, and skiff house that doubled as a barber shop and games room for Emery.

"He'd get his hair cut and shoot pool with his buddies," said Rawson with a chuckle.

We climbed to the top of the inside of the water tower - first built in 1905 - for a spectacular view of the River from one of the most familiar sights from the mainland. Then it was time to set off in a classic wooden boat and head back towards Clayton.

Along the way, Rawson pointed out two nearby smaller islands he also purchased with Calumet Island, which he has renamed.

The former U.S. Air Force combat pilot renamed one Bernie Fisher Island, in honour of the Vietnam veteran and jet fighter pilot who received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And he has also awarded recognition to singer Willie Nelson by renaming one of the Thousand Islands after the legendary pigtailed musician: complete with a sign: Willie Nelson Island.

"Why not?" said Rawson. "He's given us over 720 songs."

Rawson doesn't need a castle to enjoy his historic piece of paradise. Neither do his children or grandchildren. "They're all River rats," he said. Every summer, they come back to Calumet Island, a royal retreat to call their own.

By Kim Lunman, kimlunman@thousandislandslife.com

Kim Lunman is the publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim is an award-winning journalist and former national correspondent for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Ottawa and Victoria B.C.  Kim is a regular contributor and team member on thousandislandslife.com.  Throughout Summer 2010 Kim travelled around the islands gathering material for her 2011 issue of Island Life magazine, which will be distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York .  Her visit to Calumet Island is shared in this article. Watch for more.

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Comments

Mike Fesko
Comment by: Mike Fesko
Left at: 6:56 AM Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Very nice article! I spent a decade of summers on Calumet in the 1960's and always love to see photo's and read about that great place. Back then, there were a ton of bricks and rusty pipes from the castle ruins at the top of the hill, and the front staircase and overlook were well covered by bushes and trees.

Thanks,
Mike
Herb Swingle
Comment by: Herb Swingle ( )
Left at: 1:22 PM Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Very informative story! If only we could go back in time to experience the "Calumet" that once was.
Tara
Comment by: Tara ( )
Left at: 1:25 PM Thursday, March 03, 2011
This is really interesting to read because I am currently reading Fools Paradise by Paul Malo and there is a great deal of information and reflection on the history Calumet. Highly recommend Malo's books!!!
Jim Bowen
Comment by: Jim Bowen ( )
Left at: 1:15 AM Tuesday, September 06, 2011
For many years I have had the annual boat ride about the Island and the tower. Over the years I have heard versions of the story... and now I've read the details... Thank you...

This year I completed a painting of the tower and house and it can be found on the website www. JimsArt. net
Tammy Farmer
Comment by: Tammy Farmer ( )
Left at: 11:52 AM Sunday, June 24, 2012
I grew up close to the thousand Islands and spent ever summer there. This was very interesting to me. My Grandparents and parents own property directly across from Bolt Castle. The Castles in the area are so neat. I wish I could have seen this one too.
Mike Woodard
Comment by: Mike Woodard ( )
Left at: 10:05 PM Friday, October 19, 2012
I, like Mike Fesco (above comment) remember every square foot of this island, even the gas dock that always had water snakes basking in the sun on the docks cribing. Like Mike Fescos dad, my dad had a boat and we'd stay there the whole summer. My brothers name is Steve and so was mike Fescos brother. We walked and rummaged around the ol castle ruins many times, know evey inch of that place too. It was approx. only 10 yrs. since it burned and if you looked hard enough, you could even find chunks of chared wood. I still go to Clayton and visit friends on Grindstone like Erma Slate. This whole region is like my back yard. My mom was from Lowville ny and my dads name was Clayton. My sons name is Clayton!
Mike
Comment by: Mike
Left at: 9:57 AM Saturday, November 03, 2012
Hi Mike Woodard,

Thanks for the comment about Calumet and some of the similarities in experience there in the 60s! What was the name of your family's boat? I'd love to see if I remember it. Where did you dock it, there were so many finger docks that sprung up over the years?

Mike
Nick Telesky
Comment by: Nick Telesky ( )
Left at: 1:55 PM Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Hello Skip,
We used to stay in one of the guest houses on Calumet during the summer and I was wondering what would be required to rent one for a couple of weeks and possibly assist with grounds work. Any information is appreciated. Thanks...Nick
ntelesky@nrgnorth.com
Tom Hulse
Comment by: Tom Hulse ( )
Left at: 2:10 PM Sunday, June 08, 2014
My family owned Calumet prior to the island being put up for auction. I spent a couple summers there helping my grandparents run the place. It was awesome place to spend the summer. My job was maintaining the property, bringing supplies from town for the restarant. I also had the job running the boat back and fourth to pick up the guest from mainland. As a young teenager I had the best job. Many new friends were found in the short summer months and I probably instilled some memories to the guest with some of my antics. I have taken my kids up the islands to share this beautiful paridise and learn the history. I always wondered what the island looks like now, especially the lighthouse where I resided.Maybe some day it will be open to the public.

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