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General Electric and Summer Island Life

 

General Electric and Summer Island Life

By Tim Lake 

 

 

It looked like a cottage floating across the water. Early in September, 1927 a steam-powered barge appeared on the northwestern horizon off Snowshoe Point near Henderson Harbor in eastern Lake Ontario. Loaded with dredge materials and a jib crane with a clam bucket, the barge neared the end of its journey from the upper St. Lawrence River. Carefully navigating around Lime Barrel Shoal, the barge looked like one of the shorefront cottages but it was moving, slowly. It gently maneuvered past General Electric’s executive resort at Association Island and into the calm waters of Snowshoe Bay. From Cape Vincent, on the river, the trip took two days. The barge would stay there for weeks and have a long-lasting impact upon Henderson Harbor and the Thousand Islands.

In the wheelhouse was Captain Augustus R. “Gus” Hinckley of Cape Vincent, NY. Navigating such a large vessel into the shallows of the bay was a tricky maneuver but 72-year-old Gus Hinckley knew the harbor and bay waters very well. Over 60 years he operated a steamship coal hauling and marine excavation and salvage business from the St. Lawrence River to Oswego. Caught many times in the great storms of Lake Ontario, he beat every one of them, including grounding a ship that dunked him in the water of Gravely Bay off Henderson’s Stony Point. According to author Richard Palmer, Hinckley was a natural but risk-taking sailor. He was born on Wolfe Island, Canada, and became renowned for his ability to raise wrecks from the lake floor when other salvagers gave up. Each winter he collected river and lake navigation buoys for the U.S. Coast Guard and he dug Reed Canal in Henderson Harbor for landowner Claude Reed. In 1927, nearing the end of his adventurous and risky marine business, one of his final large excavation jobs was digging the “Cut” in Snowshoe Bay.

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This 1940’s view shows Snowshoe Point, bottom right, the gravel bar and the “Cut” between the point and Hovey’s Island, right-center, and GE’s Association Island, left-center. Along with Davis and Sixtown Islands, left, these islands form Sixtown Point and separate Henderson Bay, right, from Lake Ontario, left. Snowshoe Bay is the nearly surrounded body of water between Snowshoe Point and Hovey’s Island.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci |

Capt. Hinckley shoved the rust and mud-colored barge into the farthest corner of the bay, behind a thick gravel bar that connected Snowshoe Point with Hovey’s Island. The barge, with its tall derrick, long angular boom, steel cables of the jib crane, and small cabin with a smokestack would certainly have been noticed by shoreline cottagers squeezing in the last few weeks of summer. Snowshoe Bay was nearly surrounded by land with a handful of cottages in Stick architecture of the 1890’s on the point. Across the narrow bay were the dock, boathouse, fishermen’s cabin, barn and farmhouse of the Winnie Hovey family’s former Snowshoe Inn on Hovey’s Island. The end of the bay was formed by the gravel bar. It was a peaceful and picturesque location with the steep slopes of Snowshoe Point covered with trees that swept down to the calm water’s edge. The lake was on the other side of the bar where it was often agitated by the strong westerly winds. Local cottage residents who enjoyed and longed to keep the solitude of the small bay most likely watched Capt. Hinckley moor the barge with bewilderment and shock!

For others of this bustling fishing and boating community, populating in 1927 with new cottage owners from Watertown, Syracuse, Utica and Rochester, including the men from GE, Hinckley’s barge was a sign of progress.

While the gravel bar created a calm lagoon environment at the end of the bay, and a simple path to Hovey’s Island, it was a major obstacle for fishermen of the early 20th century. Leaving the marina docks in Henderson Harbor, early fishing guides spent a few hours rowing their double-end skiffs across Henderson Bay and into Snowshoe Bay, and then dragging their heavy wooden boats over the bar to get to the lake and the best fishing grounds among the offshore islands. However, by 1927 motors had replaced oars in most of the local boats. Large motor driven cruisers were now common in Henderson Harbor. The bar caused a long and sometimes dangerous journey for these boats around Sixtown Point and it prevented a quick run into the bay when sudden and frequent gales popped up on the lake.

Capt. Hinckley and his men immediately began cutting into the gravel bar with the large teeth of the clam bucket. Steam hissed from the boiler vents, the cables sang as the bucket danced up and down, and the ratchets click-clacked away as the levers were pulled to pivot the boom around for another bite into the gravel and mud. Chocolate and grey-colored water filled the small bay and slowly, a hole emerged- an opening into the lake. From their bay cottages, summer residents would have looked down upon the hulk of a barge with its noisy gears and cables. It would have been the most excitement around Snowshoe Bay since GE took over the small fishing resort on Association Island 15 years earlier. Capt. Hinckley’s work would forever change the bucolic nature of Snowshoe Bay and greatly alter the habits of boaters and fishermen in Henderson Harbor. It would also begin the process of the harbor’s most prominent landowner, the General Electric Company, to envision moving its luxurious executive summer resort to the Thousand Islands.

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This 1940’s view from over Henderson Bay shows a fully developed Association Island, owned by GE from 1912-1959. The 64-acre island was prone to flooding and was too small for expansion of the island golf course, right. At the top left are Hovey’s Island and Snowshoe Bay. At the top right are Stony and Galloo Islands in Lake Ontario.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci. |

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 20, 1927 several cottage residents of Henderson Harbor met on the docks at Oliver J. McConnell’s boathouse to plan the “Cut” through the gravel bar. It had only recently become possible when in 1926 GE purchased Hovey’s Island and the narrow gravel bar. GE’s acquisition not only changed ownership of the island but use of the island from the Hovey family farm and their small fishing camp to the rapidly popular sport of golf. It also provided an opportunity for harbor residents to raise half the cost of digging the “Cut,” as it came to be known, from GE’s deep pockets.

The meeting site at McConnell’s boathouse was probably not random. McConnell’s family had spent their summers in Henderson Harbor since the 1880’s when they built a small cottage at the end of Snowshoe Point, overlooking the lake. Family members had property and access to both the lake and the bay, but no quick and easily navigable waterway between them. The prominently situated two-story, double-slip McConnell boathouse in Henderson Harbor afforded the men gathered that day ample space to mingle, smoke their cigars, discuss the summer’s fishing trips, and admire the wooden launches in the McConnell fleet. The boathouse would later become the renowned Henchen Marina.

Among the prominent cottage and boat owners meeting that afternoon were John C. Marsellus, owner of the Marsellus Casket Company of Syracuse; Wesley Waite of Watertown and part of the family which helped organize the Highland Park community in Henderson Harbor; McConnell, a wealthy mining and timber businessman; and W. B. Rogers of the General Electric Company of Harrison, NJ, owner of the Association Island corporate retreat, 2 ½ miles offshore.

The Henderson Harbor men wanted a quick route to the lake and a safe retreat from storms. Rogers wanted a sturdy road from Snowshoe Point to GE’s newly acquired Hovey’s Island so it could build a bigger golf course. Golf had only recently become popular among corporate executives in America with Walter Hagan and Bobby Jones dominating and publicizing the game in the 1920’s. Photographs and films from 1925-1937 depict the GE executives golfing on Association and Hovey’s Islands. Dozens of vintage 1930’s golf clubs and bags were stashed away in an Association Island cabin and were still there in the early 1970’s. Golf was obviously important to the GE campers but even a second island did not provide enough space for a professional course.

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GE executives, who founded or operated Association Island, are pictured in this c. 1925 photograph on the island near Henderson Harbor. Seated from left to right are: Jesse R. Lovejoy, Anson W. Burchard, G.E. Emmons, Owen D. Young, Gerard Swope, Edwin W. Rice, Jr. and unidentified. Standing, 3^rd _]^[_through 6^th^[_ from left, Burton G. Tremaine, Francis C. Pratt, Franklin S. Terry, and E.W. Allen. Tremaine and Terry were the founders of Association Island. The others could not be positively identified. Young and Swope made the decision in 1929-30 to purchase Carleton Island and planned to move the resort by 1931._]

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci. |

GE was also plagued by frequent flooding on Association Island and combined with its quest for a larger golf course these two issues prompted the company to search for another island retreat. Additionally, GE had paid $22,500 for Hovey’s Island and some apple orchards on Snowshoe Point and it wanted the added value from a better road and boat channel for a potential sale of all of its Henderson Harbor holdings, contemplated for the near future. It was at this time, from 1926-1929 that GE executives began seriously considering relocating to Carleton Island.

By 1927, GE had developed Association Island into a full-scale company retreat and conference center. Holding several “camps” each summer for its manufacturing, engineering, sales, and executive divisions, thousands of employees from Cleveland to Boston and Washington to Schenectady and beyond to Toronto, Canada, visited the island. Business meetings were held each morning, and after lunch the GE troops enjoyed team sports, horse riding, fishing, shooting, golfing, sailing, and lavish meals and drinking, even during Prohibition, in the island dining tents or with enormous picnics on the island lawn. Visitors slept in the unique Association Island “tent” cabins and were ferried about the lake and to the St. Lawrence River with a large fleet of GE boats. Island managers and some staff members were recruited from prestigious hotels in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. For most employees it was a cherished invitation to the island and a chance to connect with top GE executives at the company’s expense. For GE it was a chance to mold the company’s new policies and ideals into the ever expanding legion of managers. In the 1920’s, elite employee’s families were also invited to enjoy the cool summer breezes, swim in the lake, and play games with their children. It was a company-made utopia when profits were flowing and it was growing each season.

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In 1930 when GE was purchasing Carleton Island, visitors to Association Island would sometimes arrive on the Miss St. Lawrence II,based in Clayton. In the background at Association Island is the large 8-slip boathouse that was built prior to 1910 and razed by GE in the early 1950’s. On the left is one of GE’s many Association Island-based boats, the Islander.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci. |

With a local subscription of $7,000, half paid by GE, construction of the Cut began soon after the meeting at McConnell’s boathouse, in September of 1927. Capt. Hinckley and his crew installed concrete bridge abutments to support a one-lane bridge. A boat channel was cut through the gravel bar and dredged to a depth of 10 feet. Boaters were now spared the long and potentially dangerous journey around Association Island. Most importantly, they could quickly shoot into Snowshoe Bay when they got caught in a summer gale. And GE could now easily move trucks and other heavy equipment onto Hovey’s Island without concern that the road might be flooded.

However, while the new road and bridge remained high and dry, extensive flooding caused by high water levels in Lake Ontario in the winter of 1929-30 filled the new boat channel with gravel and stone. A photograph from this event shows the debris nearly halfway up the concrete abutments. The flooding also caused extensive damage to the Association Island boathouse, docks, and a small golf course/driving range on the northeastern side of the island. Film from this event shows severe damage to both islands. Along with growing pains on the islands and bigger plans for its company retreat of the future, the flooding event caused GE to accelerate its plan to relocate to Carleton Island.

Visitors to Association Island typically arrived in northern New York on Pullman (sleeper) cars on the railroad. Travelling overnight, they would arrive at small stations in Pierrepont Manor, Adams, or Adams Center, NY and then take a bus to Henderson Harbor where they would catch a ferry boat to the island. Guests also arrived at Sackets Harbor and even in Clayton, NY where they would catch a boat directly to the island. In August 1916, for example, a fleet of Pullman’s carried inventor Thomas A. Edison and about 100 employees related to his electrical engineering companies to northern New York where they spent several days at Association Island with GE executives and engineers, including Charles P. Steinmetz, GE’s consultant wizard of alternating current. A photograph of Edison and Steinmetz sitting on the steps of the island administration building is just one of many historical photographs in the author’s 2013 book, Association Island. These gatherings were known as Camp Edison, and later, Camp Incas. In July, 1930 world explorer and aviator, Admiral Richard E. Byrd arrived by train at Clayton where he boarded the cruiser Miss St. Lawrence II and motored up the river and across the lake to Association Island where he regaled the campers with stories of his recent South Pole expedition. High profile and celebrity guests at Association Island were proving successful to motivate engineering innovation, production, and sales among the hundreds of GE employees who visited the island each summer.

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In July of 1930, GE hosted world explorer and aviator, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, at Association Island. Arriving by train at Clayton, NY, Adm. Byrd was first taken to Carleton Island to advise GE on where to locate a landing strip on the island. Pictured at Association Island from left to right are, GE executive Edwin W. Rice, Jr. and President Gerard Swope, Adm. Byrd, and GE Chairman Owen D. Young. Some of the Association Island “tents” can be seen on the right.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/MiSci. |

Nearly the same time as the visit by Adm. Byrd, GE executives Owen D. Young and Gerard Swope took a boat ride to Carleton Island, their second trip after their initial visit in the summer of 1929, according to newspaper reports in the summer of 1930. Earlier that year, they had formed the General Electric Realty Corporation as a holding company “for property other than factories,” and appointed Edwin Irving as president and G. W. Lewis, Swope’s assistant, as secretary-treasurer.

“We were aware of it,” said Margaret Ann Cross Bean in 2013 of GE’s interest in Carleton Island. Bean was a young girl in 1930 and she spent summers on Carleton Island with her family. “They kept sending people over. They were interested in the villa. I remember that a golf course would be built.”

Irving, Lewis, Association Island manager Frank H. Wiggins, GE’s island director Rogers, and several other members of the GE Carleton Island committee from Cleveland, Newark, Rochester, Detroit, Toronto, and Schenectady also visited Carleton Island during the summer of 1930. They were making big plans.

Envisioning a more lavish retreat than they already had on Association Island, and wary of the constant flooding of their island, company chairman Young and president Swope instructed Irving to purchase options on more than 1,200 acres of land on Carleton Island (nearly the entire island) and 2.48 acres of land from farmer James A. Peo surrounding Peo’s Bay, across the St. Lawrence River near Cape Vincent. GE’s plan was to move all of its meeting and recreation facilities from Association Island to Carleton Island and build three nine-hole golf courses, polo grounds, tennis courts, shooting range, cottages, mess hall and electrical, water and sewer facilities by the summer of 1931! Peo’s Bay would be used as a ferry landing. It was a grand and ambitious plan but in 1929-30, the members of GE’s Carleton Island committee could not have imagined the obstacles that would stand in their way.

 

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GE used its Association Island resort as a mechanism to indoctrinate managers and promote its brand of industrialism and cooperation throughout the company. Several “camps” were held for managers in the different company divisions each summer except for during the Great Depression and World War II. In this photograph from Camp Engineering in 1937, one of GE’s ferry boats, the Wahine, is arriving with a load of passengers. The large statues represented a theme of Pirates vs. Indians for competitive games on the island.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci. |

Rumors swirled through Henderson Harbor and GE’s Schenectady headquarters as early as 1919 that the rapidly growing electrical company would abandon Association Island for a larger and more elaborate company resort. Always, the rumors involved properties in the Thousand Islands. Picton Island, between Grindstone and Wellesley Islands was first reported as GE’s choice, then Wolfe Island in Canada. The rumors were always squashed by the GE public relations team. But, there was no doubt that the company leaders were interested in moving. The almost daily strong westerly winds that blew into Association Island sometimes made outdoor activities difficult if not impossible during the short stints of each GE division camp. The flooding was persistent and even after purchasing Hovey’s Island for expansion of the golf course GE discovered that it still did not have enough land for golf! Players were constantly hitting their balls into the lake.

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One of the reasons GE wanted to move from Association Island was to build a larger golf course. A few small golf fairways and a driving range were located on Association Island and in 1926 the nearby Hovey’s Island was purchased to expand the golf course. This photograph shows a GE camper golfing on Hovey’s Island in 1930. Snowshoe Bay and Henderson Harbor are in the background.

Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum/miSci. |

Association Island was established in 1906 by owners of the National Electric Lamp Company, a consortium of small companies that manufactured lamps (light bulbs) on the Edison and GE patents.  The NELC was organized by Franklin S. Terry and Burton G. Tremaine, who banded the lamp companies together to compete with their chief rival, General Electric. They chose Association Island, named when they changed their company name to National Electric Lamp Association (NELA), simply because they enjoyed the fishing at Henderson Harbor and they wished to escape the uncertainties of the public campground they had previously used in the Harbor known as Colewood or Kohlwood. By the time GE took over the NELA in 1912, simple fishing trips to Association Island had evolved into horseback riding, golfing, yachting, target shooting, and tennis.  And, just like at GE, growth was the goal at Association Island.

Arriving by boat at Carleton Island from their Association Island resort, the GE executives must have felt the enormity of the river island. Young and Swope envisioned travelling by air to their new summer resort in the future. Although small mail planes had been landing on Association Island since the early 1920s, the island was not big enough for larger planes. Seaplanes were eventually used at Association Island but their schedules were unreliable because of frequent rough water conditions on the lake. A landing strip was so important to Young and Swope that Adm. Byrd was detoured to Carleton Island during his visit to Association Island in 1930 so the famous aviator could inspect the island and advise GE on future runway location.

Real property records from the Jefferson County Clerk indicate that the first Carleton Island purchase options obtained by GE were made as early as May 1, 1930 when Irving and his wife, Agnes, personally optioned a third of an acre of land near the Carleton Island Lighthouse property. Why the Irving’s purchased this first property in their name is subject to speculation. Perhaps it was an effort to keep the GE plans a secret or simply an excuse for Irving to make regular and explainable visits to the island during the summer of 1930. Regardless, the small Irving plot was later converted to the larger GE tract.

GE was likely attracted to Carleton Island, in part, because of the failure of a large planned development on the island named Carleton Island Park.  Organized in 1889, Carleton Island Park was the vision of island landowners Sylvanus B. and John L. Hance, and Matthew Henry Folger. A division of 700 lots of 50 by 100 feet each, the development failed by 1915 despite the fact that some of the lots were sold to prominent individuals such as congressman and future New York state governor, Roswell P. Flower. At about this same time, a larger lot on the head of the island was sold by Clarence E. and Ella Williams, of Rome, NY in January of 1891 to their friends, William O. and Frances Wyckoff of Ithaca, NY. Mr. Wyckoff made his fortune selling Remington typewriters. The Wyckoff family story, including the construction of their Carleton Villa _]and boathouses, their untimely deaths and the eventual abandonment of the villa has been the subject of articles in [_Thousand Islands Life and various magazines and books for many years. Alongside the villa, the Wyckoff’s architect, the renowned William Miller, designed and constructed an imposing 111 foot-tall square tower used to hold a water tank for the villa and a beacon for navigation on the river. The tower, pictured on the cover of the late author Paul Malo’s book about the Thousand Islands, Fools’ Paradise, would later prove to be bothersome for GE’s public relations.

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This c.1920 view of Carleton Island shows the small community of cottages, boathouses and barns that had been developed on the head of the island. Carleton Villa, with its tall water tower and navigation beacon, is on the right side of the island’s head. Fort Haldimand is on the left and above the bluffs around North Bay, left. South Bay and the island boathouses are on the right. After GE purchased the island in 1930, preservationists and historical societies implored the company not to destroy the fort and villa to make room for golf courses.

Photo source unknown. Public Domain |

 

By September of 1930, the real estate deal had been made.  GE formally purchased all but a few parcels on Carleton Island, including Carleton Villa, farms owned by the Hall and Higgins families near the villa, the Horne Brothers and Sheley family farms on the north side of the island, and the Benjamin Jackson farm on the south side of the island. GE’s Irving had been very busy during the summer of 1930, wrapping up real estate deals for the large farm properties, small lots from the Carleton Island Park subdivision and in the case of the dilapidated Hall farm, negotiating in Jefferson County Court to purchase the land from two minor children, Estelle and Clarence F. Hall, Jr., and the abandoned Carleton Island schoolhouse property. Newspaper reports from 1930 indicate that GE spent more than $70,000 on approximately 1,233 acres of land from more than 30 parcels on the island and around Peo’s Bay. Controversially, the sale also included historic Fort Haldimand, another island site that would prove troublesome for GE’s public relations.

In 1930 the Cape Vincent Eagle and the Lowville Journal and Republican newspapers reported that there were only a few holdout property owners to the GE acquisitions including Bethlehem Steel Corporation vice president and comptroller Frederick A. Shick, whose wife was the former Isabel Mary Williams. The Williams family had owned a cottage on the island since 1881, purchasing their property on the head of the island from the Hance brothers. In 1891 they sold land to the Wyckoffs, for construction of [_Carleton Villa _]and boathouses in South Bay. The Shicks later purchased additional lands from the Wyckoff holdings along North Bay and the former Carleton Island Club, and along South Bay; a large boathouse for Shick’s sleek mahogany Hutchinson cruiser. 

The Shicks were regular summer residents on Carleton Island and would frequently entertain their Bethlehem, PA neighbors, Eugene and Marion Grace, at their cottage. Eugene Gifford Grace was the president and later, chairman, of Bethlehem Steel during its incredibly profitable years as one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world. The steel tycoon, who battled attempts to unionize his steel mills with armed guards and who converted the fourth floor of his Bethlehem mansion into an indoor golf course where he bounced balls off the beams, would have relished GE’s proposed golf courses on Carleton. He was an avid golfer who commissioned development of Shick’s former dairy farm in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley into the prestigious Saucon Valley Country Club. 

Unknown to village residents of Cape Vincent between World Wars I and II, the highest-paid corporate executive in America, who entertained at home with butlers using gold and silver furnishings (even during the Depression), and who, according to his biography penned by his granddaughter, Penny Porter, broadcast his 1938 Christmas party at his enormous brick mansion to eight million listeners on CBS radio, golfed with Bing Crosby, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Dwight Eisenhower, and whose steel production singularly outpaced the German war machine of World War II, often slipped quietly across the river in Shick’s Hutchinson to relax on Carleton Island.

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Frederick A. Shick, arms folded, center, vice president of Bethlehem Steel Corp., was one of the Carleton Island holdouts who declined to sell to GE. Flanked on the left by his boss, friend and neighbor in Bethlehem, PA, is Eugene G. Grace, president and chairman of the giant steel company. Grace and his family often visited the Shicks at their Carleton Island cottage. Grace was an avid golfer who most likely would have approved of GE’s plans for a large golf course on Carleton.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection. |

The other holdouts were the Charles Millar family of Utica, NY, close friends with the Williams’ and cottage owners since 1915, having purchased land around South Bay from both the Williams’ and Wyckoffs, and the Gorham Lamont and Margaret W. Cross family, relatives of the Williams’ and former Utica residents who had moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Gorham L. Cross’ parents, Theodore Lamont and Fannie L. Cross purchased lands along North Bay in 1904 from the financially failing Carleton Island Club, also known as the Utica Club.

Ironically, Isabel M. Williams Shick’s brother, Clarence Stuart Alexander Williams, purchased Thomas A. Edison’s Bates Manufacturing Company, developer of the handheld Bates Numbering Machine, with financial backing from Shick and Millar, according to Charles Millar’s grandson, Charles, today’s co-owner of Carleton Villa with his brother, William G. Millar.   

GE moved quickly developing plans for its new “playground,” as most newspapers called it, and to relocate from Association Island to Carleton Island. If there was any general opposition to the GE’s development plans by the public in northern New York, it was not widely reported. Several years earlier, Carleton Island had been considered as a site for a federal prison but local residents apparently defeated the plan.    

Newspapers reported that GE planned to spend a million dollars ($13 million today) converting Carleton Island into “one of the finest recreation camps in the world.” Plans called for the golf courses and sports fields, an 80-foot-wide canal and boathouses, 30 cabins, mess hall, meeting facilities, horse stables, riding trails and polo fields, shooting range, tennis courts, picnic grounds, landing strip, and island clubhouse encompassing and including Carleton Villa. However, GE only managed to construct a water tower near the center of the island designed to irrigate the proposed golf courses, and nothing else. 

In 1930 Carleton Villa was not considered an historic structure and there was no immediate concern that it might be razed by GE. However, Fort Haldimand, atop the bluffs directly north and behind the villa was certainly historic and on the radar of the Jefferson County Historical Society in Watertown. In 1927, the Society had celebrated the sesquicentennial of the landing of British Colonel Barry St. Leger upon Carleton Island. Col. St. Leger organized a force of British troops and Indians on Buck Island, as it was then named, in June and July of 1777. They sailed from the island to Oswego and then east toward Albany where they intended to capture farmland in the Mohawk Valley, which was producing most of the food for the colonial army, and join with General John Burgoyne near Albany. However, St. Leger and his troops were pushed back during their siege on Fort Stanwix and they failed to reach Burgoyne. It was considered a turning point in the American Revolution. Fort Haldimand, initially named Fort Carleton after General Guy Carleton, was formally established at St. Leger’s encampment and named for General Frederick Haldimand. It’s considered the only location in the North Country that contributed to the Revolutionary War.

The president of the Jefferson County Historical Society in 1930, Isaac L. Hunt, a prominent banker and farmer from Adams, NY, upon learning of the island’s sale, immediately sent a telegram to GE president Swope, representing several historical groups in New York State. They requested clarification on a rumor that Fort Haldimand would be destroyed to make way for the golf courses. Hunt and other historians had plenty about which to be concerned. Island residents observed GE beginning to remove chimneys at the old fort to make way for the second hole and third tee. Margaret Cross Bean and her cousin, Marjorie Williams Crothers, both recalled in 2013 that GE actually began construction on a golf course at or near the fort. There was evidence of sand traps and bunkers. They confirm that GE planned to house employees in the Villa during construction activities. Both women, in their 90’s, fondly recalled their summers on Carleton Island during the Depression.

The Schenectady Gazette reported on October 4, 1930 that Swope sent a reply telegram to Hunt assuring him that the fort would be spared and that a bronze tablet would be installed to tell the story of the fort’s history. Since there was no mention of it in the newspapers of 1930, there apparently was little concern at the time for an Indian burial ground believed to be on the western side of the island near a cave, and for any shipwrecks in the waters of North and South Bays.

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In the late 1920’s, Carleton Island was available for sale because of the earlier failure of a 700-lot cottage subdivision named Carleton Island Park. This 1889 rendering by S.W. Strowger of Cape Vincent shows the magnitude of the development plans. In 1930 GE purchased large farms on the island and several of the small lots drawn here. Fort Haldimand is outlined on the left, and below the fort is the head of the island, future site of Carleton Villa.

Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Clerk and Charles Millar. |

GE immediately ran into far greater problems than historical society concerns with its ambitious and grand plans for Carleton Island. Company efforts to purchase the island had begun in the summer of 1929, prior to the Great Depression. By 1931, however, the nation was in the grip of the financial crisis. GE halted all construction activities on Carleton Island and closed Association Island for the duration of the Depression, to save money. In 1932, because of the plans to move to Carleton Island and to reduce its local tax burden, GE demolished its landmark Harbor Inn hotel in Henderson Harbor with little notice and even less reaction. The renowned and architecturally significant four-story waterfront Victorian inn built by Goodwin M. Snow only 37 years earlier and used by GE as a ferry landing, was gone in a matter of weeks.

Within a few years of the Harbor Inn demolition, rumors began that GE would also raze the Wyckoff villa on Carleton Island in another effort to reduce its real estate tax burden in Jefferson County. Local residents suggested it was to make more room for golf. However, GE actually maintained the villa property for several years for its own use, according to Crothers, who recalled attending parties in the villa and climbing the tower as a young girl. Bean recalled mischievously throwing villa china from the top of the tower when she was a young girl. Porter, at the age of 85 in 2013, remembered daydreaming that she was a princess while roaming the vacant rooms of the “castle” in 1938, a guest of the Shicks and arranged by her grandfather, Gene Grace. Only the tower, 16 feet square and with a capacity of 200 barrels of water supplied by pumps in the basement, visible for miles up and down the river (Crothers could see Kingston, Ontario from the top), and surrounded by an observatory connected to the villa by two bridges, was demolished sometime after the start of WWII. Whatever the reason for the tower wrecking (GE reported that it was a safety hazard), preservationists have condemned the move ever since.

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The Harbor Inn in Henderson Harbor, NY was a 4-story Victorian hotel with wrap-around porches, bar, restaurant, boathouses and several outbuildings in the heart of Henderson Harbor. Purchased by GE in a foreclosure sale in 1917, the company used the docks to ferry passengers to Association Island. After leasing the building to innkeepers for several years, GE demolished the grand structure in 1932, reportedly to reduce its local tax burden. GE used the docks until 1956 when it pulled out of Henderson Harbor.

Photo courtesy of the Timothy W. Lake collection. |

When the Depression waned, GE reopened Association Island in 1937. It was a banner year on the island with many local residents hired for summer jobs, new boats, renovated cabins and sports facilities and several camps over the course of the summer for about 3, 000 attendees. Island employee, Lillian Tiller Lattimer, at the age of 94 in 2012, recalled riding in GE’s ferry boat, the Wahine, _]while the island band performed the 1937 hit song [_Harbor Lights _]for midnight cruises around Henderson Harbor. She said life on the island was exciting and adventurous with VIP’s and company executives arriving and departing at all hours on the [_Wahine _]and other ferry boats named [_Snowshoe, Islander, Claverack, _]and [_Miss Thousand Islands.

Reinvestment in Association Island, however, meant that the future for a company resort on Carleton Island remained bleak.  By 1940, GE executives turned their full attention to manufacturing for World War II.  By 1942, with the United States involved in the war and GE President Charles E. Wilson on leave from the company to be vice chairman of the War Production Board,  retired executives Young and Swope returned to manage GE for the duration of the war. Association Island had been closed again during the war and it was Young and Swope, the men who decided to purchase Carleton Island, who also made the decision to sell it. It was also about this time that Carleton Villa was essentially looted! “All the good stuff, windows, doors, stair railings and woodwork was sold to a wrecker,” lamented Crothers. GE had been leasing the island farmland to local farmer Harry E. Higgins and In November 1943 listed the island and the Peo’s Bay property for sale with the Dundon Realty Company of Troy, NY.  

Almost immediately, Carleton Island found a buyer. On December 10, 1943, GE announced that Merle L. Youngs, president of the Youngs Rubber Corporation of New York City and Trenton, NJ would purchase its property on Carleton Island for pasture land. Youngs, famously known as the developer of the Trojan-brand condom, also owned Zenda Farms near Clayton. Owning the pastureland on Carleton Island and water frontage on Peo’s Bay allowed Youngs to transport cattle across the river for grazing on the island without concern for fencing. Zenda Farms used the island for many years to raise beef cattle until it was sold to the Patten Corporation, of Stamford, VT for cottage lot development. The Patten Corporation donated conservation easements on the island to the Thousand Islands Land Trust along with an agreement for TILT to take ownership of Fort Haldimand. The fate of [_Carleton Villa _]remained undecided.

As boaters navigate through the American channel or between Peo’s Bay and Carleton Island they can’t miss the dilapidated hulk of [_Carleton Villa. _]Its history and the continuing efforts to save it are chronicled in a website, www.carletonvilla.com. GE’s former holdings at Peo’s Bay are developed into Precision Marine, a boat marina, storage and repair facility. Lots on Carleton Island have been sold in recent years for cottages but [_Carleton Villa _]remains as it was when GE abandoned it; too large, too costly, too run down and decrepit to save without spending a small fortune. What if GE had renovated the villa? What if GE had torn it down? What if? That question remains to this day. It leaves no doubt that GE’s decision and then indecision about Carleton Island have left a life-long impact upon the Thousand Islands.

[_Carleton Villa _]has been listed for sale at $495,000. Several individuals and organizations have ventured to guess at the cost of its restoration, subject to historical guidelines, and the numbers range in the millions! Several other island properties, including the Indian burial grounds are also listed for sale, subject to conservation easements, by Thousand Islands Life co-founder and Sotheby’s Select realtor, Mike Franklin, representing owner James J. Monk. Recently, as it was during GE’s ownership days, sales and development have been stymied by the poor economy.

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“I think the burial grounds and the fort are beneficial to development of the island,” Franklin said. I envision some kind of historical walking trail (in the future). I’d also like to get more funding for a (complete) archaeological survey so these properties can be preserved.”  

GE eventually pulled out of Association Island too. Reopened after the war in the summer of 1946, that year is remembered for the spectacular fire that destroyed the island administration building, the very site where Edison’s photograph was taken in 1916. In the early 1950’s, GE demolished its large eight slip, two-story boathouse on Association Island which had been one of the original buildings and was constructed prior to 1910, but the reason why is unknown. Eventually, changes in corporate strategy, and transportation and maintenance costs caused GE to close Association Island in 1956 and develop a corporate training facility in Crotonville, NY. Two years later, GE donated Association Island and all boats and furnishings to the New York State YMCA. One boat, believed to be a Lyman named The Carleton Island, and probably used there by GE, also ended up at Association Island in the early 1960’s.

The Y operated the island as a summer camp until 1966 when financial hardship caused the organization to list the island for sale. Initially proposed for cottage and boathouse development, it was eventually purchased by a non-profit organization. About 1968 a causeway from Hovey’s Island was constructed and Association Island was operated as a summer camp on a minimal budget for several years and then formally closed and abandoned in 1977.  In 2002, private investors reopened the island as the Association Island RV Resort and Marina. The island employee’s dormitory, the hospital and the dining hall have been restored and the island owners have plans to restore the historic Town Hall, the original bathhouse from 1910, and the Ontario Lodge.

Several times in the past 40 years, arguments have broken out over the public’s access to the Cut, specifically the bridge and the gravel bar leading to it. Despite the fact that it’s located on private property, advocates have successfully demonstrated that its construction and maintenance, including dredging of the channel as recently as 2012, have been funded by the public and that it’s been used by the public since its origin. It remains in public use today as a legacy to the early promoters of Henderson Harbor, GE, and the company’s once grand plans to move to Carleton Island.

 

Tim Lake is a veteran newspaper, radio and TV journalist. He was born and raised near Henderson Harbor and is the author of two books by Arcadia Publishing, Henderson and Henderson Harbor (2012) and Association Island (2013). He is also the author of Hang on and Fly , an emotional and true story of the devastating impact of the many crashes of passenger airplanes in 1951-52. Hang on and Fly is available at Barnes and Noble, Apple i-Books, and Kobo. Tim and his wife Jaime and their children, Grayson, Emery and Jessie enjoy their boats on Lake Ontario and often spend their summers at their Henderson Harbor cottage, and in the Thousand Islands.

 

 


General Electric and Summer Island Life

Nearly every summer for fifty years, executives of industrial behemoth, General Electric, shipped off on trains for the cool waters of Lake Ontario and summer island life. It was a chance for fishing, swimming in the cool waters, playing cards and socializing, but it grew into a method to inspire innovation, sales and marketing, and leadership from within the ranks of America's largest electrical supply company. Along with Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, and Adm. Richard Byrd, thousands of GE employees enjoyed their northern encampments for fifty years. After several years of building out their summer camp at Association Island, top GE executives were determined to expand their posh resort to a larger island in the St. Lawrence River, simply because they wanted to build a larger golf course. As a result, this ill-fated and poorly timed attempt to move from Association Island in Lake Ontario to Carleton Island in the Thousand Islands is still being felt today with the hulking remains of Carleton Villa, a now derelict castle-like structure that looms over the river. It could not have been built without GE's decision and then indecision about moving.

  • Author: Tim Lake
  • Published: 2015-09-09 17:05:11
  • Words: 6832
General Electric and Summer Island Life General Electric and Summer Island Life