Thousand Islands

Thousand Islands National Park based in Mallorytown, ON is in this region. For the Thousand Islands near Jakarta, Indonesia, see Thousand Islands National Park.

The Thousand Islands are an island group split between New York's North Country and Eastern Ontario, lying on the Canada-US border, where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River. It is a very scenic and popular summer cottage area.


Heart Island, NY

The Thousand Islands is one of the most scenic spots in Ontario and northern New York. Some 1,864 islands (defined as anything permanently above water that can support at least one tree) dot this portion of the St. Lawrence River that straddles the Ontario/New York border. During the 18th and most of the 19th century, it was a choke point on the St.Lawrence and therefore of vital military importance for both the young United States and the British colony of Canada. The colonial and military influence is still visible on the Canadian side in towns like Kingston, which was established in 1673 as Cataraqui, a small and then-distant French military outpost which controlled entry of fur trading vessels into the Great Lakes. During the 1812 war, Kingston and Oswego were British and American strongholds in the region.

Passenger rail came to Gananoque in 1856 and to Clayton in 1873. Multiple steamboats left Clayton's docks for elaborate hotels on various islands. At the turn of the 20th century, the Thousand Islands were mainly a retreat for the wealthy, some of whom bought a private island for their summer mansion. Dubbed Millionaire's Row, these lavish homes are visible by taking a boat cruises down the river. For New York City's elite in 1874–1912, the region was close enough to be readily accessible by train and steamship but distant enough to be a welcome break from city life of the era. A similar pattern took place in the Adirondacks, where rail transport from Albany and New York City brought the well-to-do in search of waterfront sites to construct "Great Camps" as a luxury of their era.

Boldt Castle

The popularisation of the now-famous "Thousand Islands" salad dressing dates to this period; while accounts differ, the dressing appears to have originated in Alexandria Bay or Clayton where New York City stage actress May Irwin requested the recipe from Sophia LaLonde (wife of local fishing guide George LaLonde Jr.) to pass it on to George Boldt of Waldolf-Astoria hotel fame (who built Boldt Castle in the region for his wife, Louise). Boldt brought the recipe back to the chefs of the grand New York City hotel, where it would gain fame and popularity.

On the Canadian side, Garden Island was once a shipbuilding centre; the history of the former Calvin Shipyard is recorded in Kingston's Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. As the current Wolfe Island ferry (unlike its predecessors) has never stopped at Garden Island, the settlement is largely a ghost town. A few cottages remain, accessible only seasonally by private watercraft.

The largest of the thousand islands, the 20-mile (32 km) long Wolfe Island, was a primarily-agricultural community once home to many tiny, local dairies; among a thousand regional recipes collected from across Canada by the authors of a Laura Secord Canadian Cook Book is a "Wolfe Island Cheese Soufflé". The cheesemakers are now long gone, as are docks and customs facilities which formerly welcomed ships at what was once Port Metcalfe at the easternmost end of the island. A canal which once took vessels from Kingston across Wolfe Island to Carleton Island (NY) and the US mainland rests abandoned. Many farms and cottages remain; a modern addition to the island are forests of electric generation windmills which stand three hundred feet (100m) above the otherwise-rural landscape. The island is popular among bicyclists because of its easy accessibility by provincial ferry from downtown Kingston.

While air travel allowed New York's jet set to travel the world, the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad (RW&O, New York Central) brought its last rail passengers to Clayton's ferry terminal (now Frink Park) in 1951; Gananoque's 1884 Thousand Islands Railway boarded its final passengers in 1962. Amtrak's closest stop is now Syracuse. While mainline Windsor-Quebec corridor passenger trains still run east-west on the old 1856 Grand Trunk (CN) lines through Gananoque Junction (and a rare few may even briefly stop), the tracks to the waterfront are gone. In some places (such as Carleton Island NY) what were once magnificent mansions built in the era of the Thousand Islands as playground for New York's wealthy now stand as deteriorating ruins. Grindstone Island once housed a small community and a pair of one-room schoolhouses. While the ferry to Clayton (New York) no longer runs and the schools are now closed, a handful of residents remain.

Now, the region is mainly cottage country, extremely popular during July and August holidays. Various state or national parks have been established in the islands by both nations; many are accessible only by cruising on small craft, with Wellesley Island State Park as the notable exception.

Get in

From the US mainland the Thousand Islands region is served by Interstate 81, which meets the St. Lawrence River at Fisher's Landing (between Clayton and Alexandria Bay). From there, the Thousand Islands Bridge crosses Wellesley Island to Canada, while NYS Route 12 follows the river. On the Canadian side, Highway 401 is often fastest; a more scenic route is to take the 1000 Islands Parkway westward from Brockville or the former Ontario Highway 2 from Kingston.

Bus, train and air travel are available to Kingston (although none are centrally located in that city) and limited services are offered in Brockville and Watertown. A shuttle bus serves the casino in Gananoque from Kingston. No scheduled intercity carriers cross the border in-region and many small towns are only reachable by automobile or by chartering a bus.

The following cities are local and serve as points of access to the region:

Individual attractions in these cities are not listed on this page, with the exception of base infrastructure (such as boats or car ferries) needed to get to the islands.

These towns are on the mainland in areas in the heart of the Thousand Islands; many are departure points for tour boats or provide marinas and facilities needed to access the region:

Privately-owned ferries had served the region since the 1800s; just one of these remains in service today from Horne's Point (officially Point Alexandra) on Wolfe Island to the US mainland at Cape Vincent. A mix of local, county and provincial ferries serve a few key Canadian islands today.

A magnificent international bridge across Hill Island (Canada) and Wellesley Island (USA) was officially opened by president Franklin D Roosevelt and Prime Minister MacKenzie King on August 18, 1938; CBC radio and Pathé newsreel archives recall Roosevelt's 1938 message of international solidarity, proclaimed at the Canadian side of the then-new bridge on what would be the eve of World War II (1939-1945): "This garden spot of nature, this bridge stands as an open door. There will be no challenge at the border. There will be no guard to ask a countersign. Where the boundary is crossed the only words must be 'Pass, friend'."

Ferry services

Lost Channel, 1000 Islands in 1901

Wolfe Island is served year-round by a free ferry from downtown Kingston. Wellesley Island is bisected by an Interstate highway. Heart Island (New York), as home of Boldt Castle, is reachable by tour boat from various small towns on both sides.

Many individual national park islands, ghost towns and private cottages are only accessible by private watercraft.

Boat rentals are available in Alexandria Bay, Clayton, Gananoque, Rockport and Brockville. Bicycles may be rented in Gananoque.

Only a small number of the islands are reachable by bridge or ferry:

The following islands were formerly served by ferries but are now sparsely-populated or are ghost towns:

The only access to the remaining islands is by boat and therefore seasonal in nature.

International crossings

1000 Islands Bridge at Ivy Lea

There are two main US-Canada crossing points in the Thousand Islands region.

An additional bridge crossing at Prescott-Ogdensburg is marginally out-of-region and primarily serves Ottawa-Hull.

Get around

A number of different ferries and tour boats depart from Gananoque, Alexandria Bay, Rockport and Clayton.

For many islands (some of them Canadian or New York State parkland), cruising on small craft is the only access. Pleasure boats may be rented.

Dive charters are available from multiple vendors in Kingston.

Some vendors also rent bicycles:

Fuel stations are available on Wellesley Island (near the southernmost of the two I-81 exits on the island) and Wolfe Island (in Marysville village) but prices tend to be higher than on the respective mainlands. In general, Canadian fuel prices are exorbitant by US standards (Ontario's double-digit HST is a tax on a price which already includes 25 cents/litre of fuel-specific taxes) so international travellers are advised to leave Clayton or Alexandria Bay on a full tank. Portable tanks for outboard motor boats can be filled more economically at highway fuel stations than at dockside; many marinas sell petrol but prices are less competitive.

When converting fuel prices, note that there are 4.5 litres in an Imperial gallon or 3.78 litres in a US gallon. Fuel is dispensed in litres in Canada and in US gallons in New York State.


Singer Castle

There are at least two unincorporated villages on the islands; Marysville is on the north shore of Wolfe Island (facing Kingston) and Fineview is on Wellesley Island (near I-81 and Thousand Islands Park). Each has a post office; the town hall for the Township of Frontenac Islands is in Marysville village. Landmarks in these villages (none of which exceeds a thousand people) are listed here.



Various parks are located on islands and only accessible by boat:






"Just Room Enough", an island with a house and one tree

Hotels and resorts

Bed and breakfast



Stay safe

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a busy shipping channel; there are dangerous shoals and strong currents in some narrow portions of the river. Mariners must carry up-to-date charts and safety equipment at all times. A license is required to fish in Ontario or New York State; Canada also requires operators of motorised recreational vessels to carry proof of competency. Some (but not all) boat rental operators offer short, introductory training lessons which may be advisable for inexperienced sailors before taking the helm of unfamiliar watercraft. In the most extreme weather, it may be best to leave the boat in the harbour or harbor and remain on dry land for safety's sake.

The international boundary has come under closer scrutiny in the post September 11, 2001 era and the concept of being "waved through" Customs in either direction no longer applies. It is no longer possible to travel without a passport. In 2009, the United States began deployment of Predator drones on its northern borders. In 2011, Canadian officials attempted to seize a boat from a US recreational fisherman in Canadian waters despite the boat having neither landed nor anchored in Canada. Travellers have been turned back at the border even for minor police incidents in which they were neither charged nor convicted. Canadian firearms laws are restrictive by US standards, so it may be best to check requirements in advance or leave any hunting rifles at home.

This is a freshwater region and (except in areas where channels are kept open by icebreakers or ferries) the waters do freeze in winter, leading some to attempt to drive snowmobiles or other vehicles across the ice to the islands. Depending on ice conditions, this can be extremely dangerous - particularly in early spring when the ice begins to thaw. Stay off the ice if at all possible.

Go next

Routes through Thousand Islands

Ends at  N  S  Watertown Syracuse
Kingston Gananoque  W  E  Brockville Montreal

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, March 29, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.