Castle a dream and a love story.
The story of Boldt Castle and Heart Island is an integral part of the history that is the Thousand Islands. For those unfamiliar with this idyllic region, the Thousand Islands begin at the mouth of Lake Ontario near Cape Vincent, New York and extend east down the mighty St. Lawrence River almost forty (40) miles to an area bordered by Morristown, New York on the American side and Brockville, Ontario on the Canadian side. In actual fact, the Thousand Islands comprise of more than 1800 Islands ranging in size from a glorified “shoal” with two (2) or more trees to Islands that are 6-7 miles in length.
United States and Canadian citizens privately own most of these Islands. However, both countries governments have seen fit to establish many provincial, state, and federal parks on both the mainland and Islands. Visitors to the St. Lawrence River have always been taken aback by the clean, clear, deep water, which flows through and amongst the Islands.
The romance and charm of the Thousand Islands begins with a true love story that continues to this day. Located directly across the St. Lawrence from the historic village of Alexandria Bay is a five-acre Island now known as “Heart Island”. On this Island stands Boldt Castle. This six (6) story, 120-room mansion was built by multi-millionaire George C. Boldt as a monument to his wife, their marriage and to his success in America. George Boldt was born in Prussia in 1851 and came alone to America when he was only a teenager. In 1876 George Boldt was hired to work at the famous “Philadelphia Club” which was owned by Louise Kehrer’s father. Romance would soon ignite and in 1877 George married Louise Kehrer, his 15-year-old bride.
Mr. Boldt showed a strength and determination not inconsistent with him being an immigrant and the son of poor parents. It would be the hotel business that would earn George Boldt his fortune. With daring and imagination he would become the most successful hotel magnate in America and would go on to manage the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and own the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. George would continue to manage both hotels until his death in 1916. During this time Louise Boldt was a constant companion to her husband and was involved in many aspects of the hotel’s operation. George and Louise were a perfect match, with hotel interests and Louise’s background at her fathers famous Philadelphia club they emerged as great partners and instrumental in the hotel’s growth and success.
the summer of 1893 the Boldt family spent a weekend in Alexandria Bay,
New York. They fell in love with the area and returned again the following
year. Then in July of 1895 Heart Island (formerly called ‘Hart’ Island,
and previously Hemlock Island) became the property of the Boldt family,
more specifically it was deeded to Louise Boldt. On the five acre island,
just off shore from Alexandria Bay, was an impressive wooden “cottage”.
It was a towered structure of eighty rooms, constructed of granite and
wood. George, Louise and their children, Louise Clover age 11 and George
Jr. age 16 (at the time the island was first purchased) spent several summers
in the original “cottage”. A great deal of remodeling was done to the structure
as well as to the island itself, which Mr. Boldt had altered to make it
more into the shape of a heart. Numerous other structures were built on
the island including the Hennery and Dove-Cote, dog kennels, Alster Tower,
a stone arch called the Arch of Honor which was the centerpiece of the
Peristyle, a covered dock, a gazebo, and extensive flower gardens. The
Boldts entertained many influential guests at their beautiful island estate
in the Thousand Islands including the Banker’s Association, the Attorney
General and the Postmaster General.
The servants of George and Louise Boldt also had comfortable living quarters. Attached to the covered dock area, for both power and rowboats, was a smaller castle-like building that housed apartments and a clubhouse for their recreational use. The building was over 100 feet long and faced Wellesley Island. This dock is where supplies for the castle were unloaded. Originally there was an entrance to the underground tunnel at the servant’s dock. Supplies were taken from barges and were transported by way of the tunnel to storage rooms in the Castle’s foundation level. This made it unnecessary for servants to carry supplies through the main floor rooms. (The Servant’s Dock and Apartments no longer exists. They were originally where the public docks, the concession building and U.S. Customs building are now.)
In addition to Hart Island, Boldt bought and improved a great deal of the land on Wellesley Island. He built several cottages, which include the Swiss Chalet, the Tennis House, the Birches, and the Lodge. The Swiss Chalet, which is situated on a high point at the southern end of Wellesley, commands a breathtaking view of the St. Lawrence in every direction. The Chalet was lighted by electricity and steam-heated throughout. The Tennis House derives its name from its grass tennis court. The Birches, located in a setting of silvery birches, adds another touch of beauty with its sweeping lawns. These cottages were leased to Mr. Boldts’s intimate friends.
The Wellesley Island Farm was comprised of several tracts of land, which were purchased by Boldt for the express purpose of creating a model farm. It would grow to become one of the finest farms in the east. This farm was massive and production was such that it supplied Boldt’s New York and Philadelphia hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Bellevue-Stratford, as well as the Boldt family and their many guests and servants. Mr. Boldt built a farmhouse on Wellesley Island, which was, at one time, his residence. The farm was divided into two sections, the front and the back farm. A mammoth barn located on the front farm was used for housing dairy cattle, insuring a good supply of milk, cream, and butter. The back farm, less than a mile away, consisted of several buildings that housed poultry and other small stock, a farmhouse and large storage tank equal in size to that of Alexandria Bay. Several acres of plowed land were used to raise many varieties of farm produce. At one point Boldt shipped over 900 dozen eggs to his Hotels, among with sheep, pigs, vegetables and cut flowers. The upper portion of the farm consisted of an 18-hole golf course, which covered a seventy-acre tract of land, and a golf club house. The course would go on to be one of the most exclusive in America.
Boldt erected a number of yacht houses on Wellesley Island, including the Yacht House to Boldt Castle. The Yacht House was built to accommodate Boldt’s enormous steam yachts. Being in the midst of “The Venice of America” it was fitting that nothing should be lacking the way of boats. Mr. Boldt had an incredible fleet, which was reported to be almost 60 vessels. They ranged from a small St. Lawrence skiff, to an enormous steam yacht almost 123 feet in length. They included the 102-foot Yacht Louise, the Crescent a 50-footer, Clover, an 81-foot Steam Yacht and a steam tug, the Queen, 50 feet. The houseboats Nahama and LaDuchesse, 104 feet with a 21-foot beam, the sailing yacht Cocoa, 24 motor boats including 6 P.D.Q. racing boats, 19 St. Lawrence skiffs, 7 punts and one canoe.
Boldt continued to be a firm believer in the value of land in the Thousand Islands as a good investment. He purchased Hopewell Hall from Adelaide Browning. This 400-acre estate consisted of highly developed and landscaped water frontage.
Mr. Boldt occupied the Wellesley Island House for many years. It is comprised of 56 rooms with ample provisions for guests and servants. Built on an elaborate system of canals, this property resembles that of a fairyland.
Other island properties acquired by Boldt include Deshler Island, Oak Island, Florence Island, Belle Island, and Fern Island. This property, in addition to many other pieces of real estate, formed the Boldt Estate. All told, Boldt owned approximately 3,000 acres of land in the Thousand Islands.
In September of 1899 it became know that George Boldt planned to build a castle on Heart Island. It was to be a gift of love for his cherished Louise and he planned to present it to her on Valentine’s Day, her birthday. All work was to be done by the finest of artists and master craftsmen, landscape gardeners, electricians and masons, all using the very best materials. Money would be no object. The wooden “cottage”, originally know as Hart House, was removed from the island in sections. Part of it was slid across the frozen ice of the river to Wellesley Island. Work began in 1900 and the Power House with its clock and chimes tower was built. This structure would provide electricity for the island and the castle. The Boldts spent their summer in Alster Tower while work was progressing on the castle. In January of 1904, after four years of building, work on the castle was nearing completion and the interior woodwork was finished. From Europe sculptures, carvings, mosaics, and tapestries had been purchased to adorn the walls for this extraordinary gift of love. Physically the island would be reshaped to reflect a heart and masons were ordered to install heart shaped stones throughout the outside façade of the castle.
Then a telegram arrived ordering all work stopped. Just one month before she would have been 42, Louise Augusta Kehrer, Boldt’s beloved wife was dead of a heart attack. The planning, the hammering and the building stopped as “three hundred workmen dropped their tools and left the island, never to return”. The castle was left unfinished with fountains, sculptures, Italian mantelpieces, imported tapestries and fine furniture, some of which was already on the island stored in crates, never reaching their destination in the mansion. It is said that George Boldt never set foot on the island again leaving it instead as an unfinished monument of a love story cut short.
Edward J. Noble, owner of the Beechnut Fruit Company and inventor of the Lifesaver candy, bought the castle in the early 1920’s after Boldt’s death. The E.J. Nobel foundation ran it as an unimproved tourist attraction for more than 50 years, allowing visitors to run free on the island. Vandalism and graffiti abounded as the Island fell into a further state of disrepair. Left to the mercy of the wind, rain, ice, snow and vandals the Castle languished until 1977 when it was taken over by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. A decision was then made to use all revenues generated from the Castle’s operation to preserve and restore the castle and the Island for future generations. Since then over 4.5 million people have toured Boldt Castle and over $15 million dollars have been applied to rehabilitating and restoring the various structures on the island. Work continues to this day and one can witness the renovations first hand. Today visitors can enjoy wandering the grounds, which now include a museum depicting the lives of George and Louise Boldt and a nautical showcase in the Boldt Yacht House showing some of the many boats owned and used by the Boldt family. The grounds include the Castle itself, the DoveCote, the Italian Garden, the Arch, Alster Tower, the PowerHouse, the underground passage, the Yacht House and the gazebo.
The DoveCote is a sixty-foot
tower built of native stone and was the first structure on the Island built
by the Boldts in 1896. The structure was also called the “Hennery”
and housed exotic fowl and was topped with a pigeon house.
The Italian Garden a rocky crest of the Island, was extended into a level plateau. Marble delivered from Italy (found 50 years later still crated) was to be used to finish off this picturesque area overlooking the Power House.
Arch of Honor was modeled after Roman monuments and was to be a formal
grand entry for boats, delivering guest from larger yachts or from other
islands or the mainlands. The arch was to be a welcoming point for guests.
A drawbridge, promenade and swan pond were planned but never completed
when work was ceased at the time of Louise Boldt’s death.
Alster Tower was the Boldt’s playhouse and was intended to be a building for the entertainment of guests and the Boldts children. The structure housed a full sized bowling alley, a billiard room, a library, several bedrooms, a café, kitchen and grill. The structure was completed unlike the Castle and housed the Boldt family during the four years while the Castle was being completed.
The Power House and clock tower is located at the entrance tip of the Island and was to house coal-fired steam generators, which would provide electricity to the Island. An arched stone bridge connects the Power House to the island and the highest tower provides river traffic with an illuminated clock face and chimes. The underground passage was to lead from the servant's dock. Goods were to be transported from boats by way of this tunnel to storage rooms within the Castle’s foundation thereby avoiding the main floor. The passage also houses the electrical wiring and water pipes from the Power House.
Built in 1904 the Yacht House located on Wellesley Island (directly across from Heart Island) was built to house the Boldt’s three yachts and houseboat at a cost of $50,000.00. The main space rises 64 feet to accommodate tall masts and rigging of their yachts. In shops that are 128 feet long, the doors were so heavy that an engine was required to open and close them. The yacht house also included a shop to build racing launches, as well as living quarters for the crew and maintenance staff.
Located at the Water’s edge
The Gazebo sits nearby Alster tower. The structure has been recently rebuilt
and is only one of many favorite spots for weddings and the renewal of
vows. This summer over 70 weddings were held on Heart Island as couples,
perhaps drawn by this love story and a willingness to continue the romance
created by George and Louise Boldt.
The 1000 Islands are a once in a lifetime experience to which no trip is complete without a stopover at historic Boldt Castle located in Heart Island.
Editor’s Note: Peter B. Mellon
and Helene Mellon are summer residents of Wellesley Island and were
married at Boldt Castle on June 28, 2002.
Special Thanks: To Mr. Shane Sanford, Promotional Director for the 1000 Islands Bridge Authority and
General Manager of Boldt Castle