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Kingston, the Thousand Islands, and The Rideau Canal

The Thousand Islands
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Kingston and the Thousand Islands: at the head of the the Lawrence River and the foot of the Great Lakes

Ever want to step back to the Gilded Age, a glamorous time of majestic steamboats, luxurious hotels, grand railways and opulent mansions? In Ontario, just over the border we share with Canada, you can discover the richness and natural beauty that drew explorers and tycoons.

Kingston

Chris Whyman, Kingston's town crier
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Chris Whyman, Kingston’s town crier

A great place to begin is in the port city of Kingston, which is known as Limestone City for the stately 19th century architecture built from its own quarries. At the head of the St. Lawrence River and at the foot of Great Lakes, this gateway to the Atlantic and route to riches was a treasure sought by expanding empires. Known to the Iroquois as “Manatoana”, “Garden of the Great Spirit”, it became the site of a French fort, a fur trading post, a United Empire Loyalist settlement, and British garrison town.

Midway between Toronto and Montreal, it was the capital of the United Province of Canada from 1841-44. Today Kingston is a hub of higher education, military and penal institutions, and tourism, befitting its motto “Where History and Innovation Thrive”.

Murney Tower, a Martello tower, Kingston, Ontario
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Murney Tower, a Martello tower, Kingston, Ontario

In the 1830s, the British replaced a fort from the War of 1812 with Fort Henry (1832-37), now a top attraction. Four distinctive Martello Towers were also built to defend Upper Canada from an American invasion during the Oregon “54°40’ or fight” Crisis (1846-1848), and these historic structures, along with the Rideau Canal, make Kingston a UNESCO World Heritage destination. Murney Tower, shown, was built during the Oregon crisis as a defense against American invasion.

Kingston Trolley Tours, Kingston, Ontario
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Kingston Trolley Tours, Kingston, Ontario

The easiest way to get an overview of “Limestone City” is with Kingston Trolley Tours,formerly known as the Confederation Tour Trolley.

 train outside the Visitor Information Center in the converted railway station, Kingston, Ontario
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train outside the Visitor Information Center in the converted railway station, Kingston, Ontario

Tickets are available at the Visitor Information Center in the converted railway station across from City Hall.

Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
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Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario

The tour includes a ride through downtown Kingston, Queen’s University, which was established by Royal Charter of Queen Victoria in 1841, 26 years before the Canadian Confederation. Also included is the Royal Military College of Canada, which is at the former site of the Royal Navy Dockyards. It also passes Fort Henry National Historical Site and Bellevue House, home of Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, stopping for those who want to explore these sights and reboard later.

Waterboarding equipment, used as part of early prison discipline, is displayed at the Kingston
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Waterboarding equipment, used as part of early prison discipline, is displayed at the Kingston Penitentiary Museum

The largest concentration of federal correctional facilities in Canada is found in Kingston. Learn about the early days of Canada’s prisons at the Kingston Penitentiary Museum.

Chris Whyman is in his 25th year as Kingston’s Town Crier. Try the beer named for him at the Kingston Brew Pub on Clarence Street.

Where to stay? We tried two B&Bs we can recommend. The Hochelaga Inn is in a French Victorian mansion built for a relative of Sir John MacDonald. The Rosemount Inn is in a 1850’s Tuscany villa located in the heart of the Old Stones district in Kingston’s downtown.

The Thousand Islands

The islands -— over 1800 of them within a 50 mile area of one of the world’s largest rivers -— are the glacier-flattened tops of a chain of mountains that link Ontario’s Canadian Shield to New York State’s Adirondacks. They are divided between Canada and the United States.

The Thousand Islands Skydeck has a high-speed elevator to an unparalleled panoramic view 400’ above the St. Lawrence.

With the Golden Era of steamboats, private rail cars, and grand hotels, tens of thousands of visitors a year were drawn to the natural beauty of this summer resort. Employment opportunities abounded servicing the homes, hotels and tourist activities.

 Boldt Castle, Alexandria Bay, NY
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Boldt Castle, Alexandria Bay, NY

The area was a playground of the rich and famous—people like the Astors, Helena Rubenstein, Irving Berlin, Mary Pickford, and railroad sleeper car designer George M. Pullman, who entertained U.S. President Grant and General Sherman. Many of the turn-of-the-century elite bought their own islands and built extravagant summer homes to flaunt their social status, creating an area along the river known as Millionaires’ Row. A Rhine-style castle complex with 24 spires and 120 rooms was built by romantic hotel magnate George C. Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria, on an island he reshaped and named Heart for his wife, Louise, who died before its completion.

St. Lawrence Cruise Line’s Canadian Empress
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St. Lawrence Cruise Line’s Canadian Empress

Overnight cruise ships were eventually replaced by rail and automobile. In 1981, Bob Clark launched a ship designed to recapture the gracious ambience of steamboating. The family-run St. Lawrence Cruise Line’s Canadian Empress is a composite of 1908 vessel design with modern amenities and offers a leisurely way to experience the area’s historical and natural attractions.

St. Lawrence cruise ship interior
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St. Lawrence cruise ship interior

They offer a four-day, three-night calm water cruise through the world renowned bays, channels, and passages of the Thousand Island area, roundtrip between Kingston and Brockville, Ontario. The staff is friendly and helpful, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and meals are the kind that Grandma used to make. All meals and evening entertainment — games, music, or dancing to Big Band music — are enjoyed amidst the warm wood tones, shiny brass railings, and the patterned tin ceiling of the Grand Saloon.

The shallow draft of the ship allows it to get close to the points of interest and natural beauty of this archipelago. There are shaded outdoor observation decks fore and aft and a sundeck for relaxing, stargazing, kite flying, or a lively game of shuffleboard or checkers. A Park Warden makes an onboard presentation about St. Lawrence Islands National Park of Canada and the wildlife that can be sighted.

cruising the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River
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cruising the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River

Among the shore excursions included in the St. Lawrence Cruise Line tour are:

The Heritage Center of the 1000 Islands was built in Gananoque, Gateway to the Thousand Islands, in grand Victorian cottage style. It is a good place to start for an appreciation of how the islands were formed and of life here through the ages. A film of the love story that inspired Boldt Castle is shown.

Fort Wellington, with ramparts of earth to withstand the impact of cannon balls, was originally built during the War of 1812 to defend the St. Lawrence River shipping route between Montreal and Kingston against attack by the United States. It was rebuilt and expanded in the 1830s during border tensions of the Upper Canada Rebellion.

Fulford Place is an eclectic and opulent 35 room Edwardian mansion with original furnishings. It was built by Senator George Taylor Fulford, who made millions promoting patent medicines throughout the British Empire, most notably Pink Pills for Pale People. Guests included prime ministers and princes. The Italian gardens were designed by the Olmstead Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts. Fulford died soon after the home’s completion following a traffic accident in West Newton, Massachusetts.

One of Canada’s oldest Loyalist cities, Brockville is named for the popular Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, killed by an American sharpshooter months after successfully defeating American invaders in the Battle of Detroit in August, 1812. With clear water and old shipwrecks, Brockville offers some of the world’s best freshwater diving. The Canadian Empress docks here overnight, in time for a starlit evening stroll along the riverfront walkway.

Singer Castle on Dark Island, one of the Thousand Islands
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Singer Castle on Dark Island, one of the Thousand Islands

Singer Castle on Dark Island is the only inhabited castle in the Thousand Islands. It was built by Singer Sewing Machine’s Commodore Frederick G. Bourne as a “shooting and fishing shack”.

St. Lawrence sailboats, Thousand Islands
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St. Lawrence sailboats, Thousand Islands

The Thousand Islands–much more than the birthplace of a salad dressing, eh?

The Rideau Canal

The UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Rideau Canal was built 1826-32 by Irish immigrant laborers, Scottish stonemasons, and French Canadian woodcutters supervised by England’s Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Paddle, picnic, or hike–This slack-water canal dug by connecting the lakes and rivers between Kingston and Ottawa is now a recreational waterway.

With forty-seven locks and twenty-four lock stations, it is one of the few in the world built for military strategic reasons. This supply route for inland garrisons in the event of American invasion was one of the first canals to be designed for steam-powered boats, and is North America’s oldest continuously operating waterway. Most of the lock stations and hand-cranked locks remain much as they were when built. By driving you can visit the quaint and historic villages, farm stands, antique shops and artists’ studios along the canal:

Mrs. McGarrigle’s, along the Rideau Canal
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Mrs. McGarrigle’s, along the Rideau Canal

Merrickville is known for its boutiques, glass blowing studios, and galleries. Not-to-be-missed are Rowland Leather Works and Mrs. McGarrigle’s award-winning maple mustard.

Midway along the canal, a five-story stone 19th century mill building in Smith’s Falls houses the artifacts and exhibits of the Rideau Canal Museum.

Stone Arch Dam in Jones Falls, along the Rideau Canal
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Stone Arch Dam in Jones Falls, along the Rideau Canal

The Stone Arch Dam in Jones Falls was the tallest in the world when it was built in 1832.

Parks Canada walkways have interpretive plaques and lead to a blacksmith shop, guard house, and views of boats passing through four locks. It’s especially lovely during foliage season. Stop for lunch at the historic Hotel Kenney, a favorite fishing lodge of President Taft.

Why not take a trip through history from the Canadian side? Discover the pathways of those who shaped North America, find renewal in some of the best of the past, and be refreshed as you simply sit back and enjoy the view.

VIA Rail travels from Ottawa to Kingston in less than 2 ½ hours. A direct driving route between the two cities is about 120 miles and also takes about 2 ½ hours.

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