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Biking back in time Visitors tour Wellesley Island lands once owned by George Boldt


The horses are long gone from the bridle trails developed by George Boldt on Wellesley Island in the 1890s. But on a Sunday morning a few weekends ago, the sounds of clip-clopping equines through woodlands and between old canals here were replaced by the whir of gears, the shifting of chains and the chatter of bicycle riders.

Nearly 30 cyclists met at the Thousand Islands Country Club as part of the Thousand Islands Land Trust's Treks and Talks series. They were welcomed by Elaine Tack, TILT volunteer and trustee.

“We've done this ride twice before, and people always find it interesting to go on the property and see it historically,” Ms. Tack said.

The guide for the first part of the event was JoAnn Schwalm, owner of the Thousand Islands Country Club. Most of the trails wind through the club's property.

The second part of the day's trek sampled some of the lightly traveled roads on the island that are ideal for cycling and conducive to stopping and talking to people — which would prove valuable on this day in the form of a geology lesson.

Mr. Boldt (1851-1916) is most famously known for his castle, but he also developed the sprawling Wellesley Farm, once one of the finest in the state. It was stocked with thousands of hens, chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. Livestock included cattle, horses, hogs and sheep.

After he died, much of Mr. Boldt's land was purchased by Edward J. Noble, a Gouverneur native who founded the Life Saver Candy Co. in 1913. He established the Edward J. Noble Foundation in 1940, and after his death in 1958 a large part of his estate went to the foundation.

When Mr. Boldt owned the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia, the farm supplied the hotels with eggs, butter and dairy products. Everything was brought, largely by canal barges, to a collection point on the island and shipped across the St. Lawrence River and then to trains.

Mrs. Schwalm and her husband, Thomas, who died two years ago, bought the Thousand Islands Country Club about 10 years ago.

“My husband put together 1,200 acres under one ownership,” Mrs. Schwalm said.

The Thousand Islands Country Club includes two 18-hole golf courses, efficiency villa/suite lodging, Hacker's restaurant and a 100-slip marina.

“The trails we open up are for access to my maintenance crew,” Mrs. Schwalm said. “You can disappear pretty easily here.”

One of the golf courses winds its way through a maze of historic canals. Mrs. Schwalm said Mr. Boldt was inspired to create the canal system after he and his wife, Louise, visited Venice. Remnants of the canal system can be seen on other sections of the property beyond the golf course. Mrs. Schwalm said she thinks Mr. Boldt envisioned a series of canals throughout the island.

Many of the former bridle trails, such as those located on 400 acres past the golf courses, are forever wild, Mrs. Schwalm said.

She drove a golf cart as the cyclists followed on the winding dirt and gravel trails. She made three stops and gave a brief talk.

The building that is Hart House Inn Bed and Breakfast was originally part of an 80-room “cottage” built by Sen. Elizer Hart in 1872 on Hart Island (later purchased, reshaped and renamed Heart Island by Mr. Boldt). The section of the cottage was moved to Wellesley Island in 1900 to make room for Boldt Castle.

The next stop was the old ice house, which Mrs. Schwalm explained is what's left of the Wellesley House, the summer home of George Boldt that was torn down about 60 years ago.

For the final stop, Mrs. Schwalm led a snakelike procession away from the river to the “back farm” area of the old Boldt estate, containing the farm's only remaining barn. The barn and nearby house are privately owned.

One of the riders recalled roaming the property as a farrier in the mid-1960s. Douglas S. Johnston said the Wellesley Island horses were ridden by guests of the Thousand Islands Country Club.

The island, Mr. Johnston said, “gets under your skin.” The LaFargeville resident has a long history with it. He also worked for a surveying company that plotted out some developments on the island. He's also a helicopter pilot who often flies over it. On this day, he piloted a vintage Ross 10-speed road bike.

“I see the island from the water because I row, from the air because I fly, from the roads on my bike here, and I play golf on its courses,” he said.

The age of the riders on the first leg of the trip ranged from preteen to senior citizens. The group traveled down County Route 100A and took a left onto Peel Dock Road. The riders stopped for a water break at Densmore Church, overlooking a breezy Densmore Bay. In 1994, a group of concerned citizens organized to save the church, built in 1902, from ruin. The nondenominational church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and hosts a summer concert series. The next one is at 7 p.m. Aug. 7 with Seaway Swing, which performs big band music and jazz.

Fewer than 10 riders opted for the next leg of the trip on a day when the temperature approached 90.The riders went down County Route 191 to its end; about five miles. The road parallels Interstate 81 and passes such highlights as the Lake of the Isles shoreline. Lake of the Isles is an internal body of water jutting well into the island, giving it even more shoreline. DeWolf Point State Park, one of four state parks on the island, is also off Route 191.

At the end of Route 191, former TILT executive director Andrew T. Wood said he's always fascinated by the rock formations on the island and especially the granite exposed on Route 191. On the return trip, he stopped the bike group at some exposed pink and gray granite. He said the pink granite, which on this road lies next to gray granite, was once highly prized across the U.S. But Mr. Wood cautioned he isn't a geologist and couldn't give more detailed information on the island's geology.

About two miles down the road, two young men were studying a section of a rock outcropping in the near-noontime sun. As the others rode on, A Guy on a Bike stopped to inquire.

David Lowe and Gurvir Khosa are University of Ottawa students. Mr. Lowe, from Kentville, Nova Scotia, is working on a Ph.D and Mr. Khosa, a rising junior from Ottawa, is his assistant. They were studying the sandstone and conglomerate rock section. This is the first year of Mr. Lowe's four-year doctoral study. He said his research is something that has never been done before.

“These rocks exist in three different jurisdictions,” Mr. Lowe said. “People have worked on them everywhere locally, but no one has really tied them all together.”

The section of rocks, called the “Cambrian Potsdam Sandstone” by the United States Geology Survey, ranges from the borders of the Adirondack mountains up to Ottawa and as far east as Montreal.

“This project will make a stratigraphic framework for sandstone over the whole area and people will be able to make correlations over larger areas,” Mr. Lowe said.

The rocks they were studying are from the Cambrian age, about 500 million years ago and long before the last ice age.

“It was the time animals first started getting up and going,” Mr. Lowe said.

The pair said there's fossil evidence of early life in the sandstone, which records a change from terrestrial to marine conditions.

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As members of the group packed up their bicycles back at the Thousand Islands Country Club, Ms. Tack reminded them about TILT's next trek, an exploration of the Sissy Danforth Trail beginning at 9 a.m. next Sunday. In 1993, TILT began acquiring pieces of the old Penn Central Railroad bed in Clayton, the town of Orleans, Theresa, Redwood and Philadelphia. The rails-to-trails project, now 25 miles long, is named for former director Louise “Sissy” Danforth, who was the inspired energy behind its development. She died five years ago.

People can register for the ride on TILT's website: or call TILT at 686-5345. There is no cost.

Ms. Tack will guide the trip. Riders will gather at Black Creek Road, Clayton. To get there, go past the Cerow Recreation Arena on East Line Road. Go 2 miles to Black Creek Road on the right. Follow that road for about 1 1/2 miles and turn left where you will come upon a parking area. The hosted ride will be about 6 miles, but people can ride longer if they wish.

People should bring a lunch. TILT will provide water. If there is heavy rain, the trip will be canceled with no rain date.

A Guy on a Bike is an occasional column in which the rider introduces you to people and places along roads you might easily miss. If you have a suggested ride/column idea, contact, or write to Chris Brock at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY 13601.

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