The citizens of Round Island are gathering at the dockside post office under a sapphire blue sky on a Sunday afternoon in July. Nobody is here for the mail even though the stamp-sized historic landmark has regular summer postal service .
Neighbours residing in many of the island's century-old cottages are here to enjoy cocktails and appetizers at the Frontenac. The post office is the last standing symbol of the grand New Frontenac Hotel, which burned to the ground 101 years ago this August.
"This is the social centre of the island," said postal clerk Josephine Van Order. "We sell stamps in the meantime."
Van Order, a Round Island resident and retired teacher from Freeville Tompkins County N.Y., works at the post office six days a week with her dogs, Fat Dog and Zeekee during the summer. "It keeps me in touch with everybody," she said. "It's very homey. You know everybody."
There are about 40 people on Round Island at the height of summer. Islanders pull up in boats to the dock and to pick up their mail from Van Order. Mailman Brian Parker makes routine deliveries to Round Island by boat on his scenic river route including several other area islands: Murray, Grenell and Grindstone.
Round Island is home to charming boathouses and summer estates with breezy names like Rivercroft, Pinecroft and Carpe Diem. Its shores are lined with 19th-century cottages with wraparound porches in the shade of towering poplars. The island has meandering walking trails though residents also get around by golf carts.
Many of the islanders are life-long summer residents. When I asked Fowlett Hodgkins Jr., of Syracuse and Naples Florida how long he had been summering on Round Island during one of my visits, he didn't skip a beat. "All my life. I joke it's been 82 years and nine months."
His parents owned a cottage on Wellesley Island but later bought property here. His father was among the area islanders to respond to the fire that destroyed the New Frontenac Hotel's famous fire. Hodgkins Jr.'s summer residence is next to a cottage once owned by renowned artist Frank H. Taylor at the south foot of the island known as Shady Ledge.
"He was a very, very fine man," said Hodgkins Jr. of Taylor. The Philadelphia artist, a native of Rochester, captured the elegant tranquility of life on the River in his work in the late 1800s and early 1900s including sketches of Round Island's cottages in periodicals such as Harper's Weekly.
Round Island is a reminder of Thousand Islands' Golden Age depicted in vintage postcards showing steamers at this very dock. Steamship tickets used to be sold for the hotel's guests at a window at the post office.
Glamorous guests, turned out in finery, wide-brimmed hats and diamonds, strolled up this very moss-covered pathway to the centre of the island that led to the manicured grounds and the grand steps of the New Frontenac. Today all that's left of the hotel is rubble and crumbling stone foundations obscured under untamed grass and leafy trees.
But one remaining symbol of the New Frontenac Hotel remarkably remains today: Its flag. An unknown man scrambled to the top of the hotel to save it from the blaze that lit up the night's sky for miles on August 23 1911. About 160 guests, most of them from New York City, survived and news of the fire at one of the nation's finest resorts was reported in the New York Times. Tragically, a local fishing guide was killed when he entered the hotel on a rescue mission.
The hotel fire made headlines a century later as local residents prepare commemorated the 100th anniversary last summer.
Its 46-star American flag is being restored to correct years of damage - not from the fire but from dust and dirt - for the celebration. The New Frontenac flag was only in existence for four years before New Mexico and Arizona were next to declare statehood in 1912. It disappeared from the public eye for a few decades, surfacing at the Thousand Island Museum in the 1960s. It is to be housed in the Thousand Island Museum in Clayton and displayed at events throughout the Thousand Islands.
The fire that burned down the New Frontenac was caused by an improperly discarded cigarette in the Men’s Dormitory in room 117 by a jazz musician.
That irony is not lost on Rex Ennis, author of a recently published book on Emery and his New Frontenac Hotel. New Frontenac's owner Charles G. Emery just happened to be "one of the founders of the American Tobacco Company and the inventor of a cigarette making machine," said Ennis, a resident of nearby Grindstone Island.
Ennis has spent years researching Emery and Round Island for his book Toujours Jeune - Always Young, Thousand Islands. He stopped by the Frontenac post office for a book signing at the Sunday social I attended. (Toujours Jeune was the motto for the New Frontenac Hotel).
Emery, New York City tobacco tycoon, built one of the Thousand Islands first 'castles' on nearby Calumet Island in 1898 which burned down in 1956.
A long-time volunteer of the museum, Ennis started The Flag Preservation Committee that raised over $5,350 to restore this important symbol of Round Island's heritage. It will be on display at the Clayton Opera House Aug. 24.
The hotel's history stems back to 1878. The original hotel on the island was Round Island House. A group of Baptists from Watertown and Syracuse conceived of a park similar to the Methodist’s Thousand Island Park on Wellesley Island. Round Island was purchased in 1878 for $9,000. A park was laid out with 400 lots to be leased for summer residents and The Round Island House Hotel was constructed. It changed hands in 1888 when it was purchased by Jacob Hayes and other owners. Emery became the major shareholder of Round Island in 1898.
When Emery assumed ownership 10 years later, he renovated the hotel, calling it the New Frontenac. His goal was to make the hotel into one of the most luxurious summer resorts in the world. He succeeded in attracting guests from around the globe to this island in the St. Lawrence, including luminaries such as Thomas Edison, William K. Vanderbilt, the Duke of Newcastle, Teddy Roosevelt and the Maharaja and Maharani of Baroda.
Today Round Island includes a tight-knit group of summering residents and one year-round resident, Dr. Dick Withington of the historic Rivercroft residence. "Doc" Withington (see Kim Lunman's article The Doctor Is In in www.thousandislandslife.com 's February edition) writes of his winter experiences on Round Island (at the adjacent cottage Wintercroft). The retired Watertown doctor has responded to many emergency calls in the islands over the years and it's easy to see why he and his family have such a special affinity for the place.
Other Round Island residents who truly embrace Thousand Islands history include Alan "Hutch" Hutchinson, business manager for Clayton's Thousand Islands Arts Centre and his wife Marilyn, who runs Corbins River Heritage bookstore in Clayton with Hutch's mother, Verda Hutchinson.
Round Island will always be remembered for the New Frontenac Hotel. But its current residents cherish this unique community for its past and present, a place to check in every summer to catch up with life-long friends on a sleepy veranda overlooking the River and maybe even just pick up the mail.
"It's part of my heritage," Hodgkins Jr. told me, seated with his neighbours at a picnic table outside the historic post office overlooking the River. "It's difficult to think about summer without the island. It's really a terrific, terrific place."
By Kim Lunman, email@example.com
Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim's 2012 magazine will be distributed on May 17th in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York. A special Islander Edition will be on sale in local book stores in both the United States and Canada in the summer. Last summer Kim visited many islands and met their owners and we can all look forward to reading their stories in the coming months.
Round Island history is a favorite with TI Life readers. Previous articles include: The New Frontenac Hotel Flag, written by Lynn E. McElfresh, February 2010; Nancy L. Gustke’s “The Special Artist”, written by Susan W. Smith , January 2010; The Man from Shady Ledge written by Robert L. Matthews posted January 2010 and several articles about wintering on the island by Dr. Richard L. Withington. There is also a number of photographs presented under THE PLACE, Communities, Round Island.