The spectacular, yet depressing, fire that destroyed the main business block of Thousand Island Park early Thursday dented the visage of one of the north country’s most unique communities.
Sitting at the head of Wellesley Island, TI Park was created in 1874 by the Methodist Church as an international Methodist camp meeting ground. From that point 130 years ago, the park has attracted thousands of summer visitors and an ever-growing number of year-round residents seeking the tranquility of the St. Lawrence River.
TI Park is distinguished because it is a community that appears to have stopped time.
Yes, the horse-drawn carriages and the ferry boat from Clayton no longer transport park residents to and fro. And the bridge to the mainland and the more recent addition of golf carts has changed the pattern of life.
Gone is the old ice house where residents would pick up ice harvested from the St. Lawrence River the previous winter. The old golf course now belongs to New York state and is operated by the Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.
However, the green in the center of the park remains the hub of youthful activities, organized and impromptu. The main dock and the swimming cove entice hundreds to cool off in the crisp waters of the river.
And until Thursday morning, the Guzzle attracted young and old for an ice cream cone. Summer could not pass for many without a visit to this iconic ice cream/penny candy store with a luncheonette. The Guzzle had been the central attraction on the corner of the main business block in the park since 1913.
No more. The Guzzle is gone as is the store and the Wellesley Island fire hall, burned to essentially nothing by an intense fire that began just before midnight.
The Wellesley Island Fire Department was caught in a precarious position. All of its equipment was trapped in the raging inferno, leaving it with limited capacity to get a head start fighting the flames. Volunteer fire departments from Alexandria Bay, Cape Vincent, Clayton, Depauville, Fisher’s Landing and LaFargeville responded to the alarm and began pumping massive quantities of water from the river 1,000 feet away to combine with the park’s own water system to attempt to contain the fire.
The capacity of all these departments to fight island fires was the outgrowth of a massive fire in 1911 that destroyed the Hotel Frontenac on Round Island. That blaze led to the creation of a fire scow for the Alexandria Bay department.
Much of the following information about TI Park’s history came from the book “Thousand Island Park: One Hundred Years, and Then Some,” published in 1975.
An attempt to build a fire protection system on TI Park began but was slowed by bickering. However, despite the squabbles during the winter, the TI Park Corp. decided to build a pump facility on South Bay.
But it was not completed by the next summer when a vicious fire season began in May 1912:
■ Five cottages burned on Grenell Island.
■ The Gardner Boat Shop in TI Park burned and consumed nine other boathouses.
■ A fire at the Arthur Cottage jumped to the Arlington Cottage and the Pansy cottage. All were on the same block.
■ Then came a fire that burned the Columbian Hotel and destroyed 99 cottages, seven business buildings, three schools and the chapel. The day of the fire, there was an inadequate water supply because the water tower had been drained for repairs. The new pumping system was not operable, and the firetruck was trapped in the laundry building — which was burning.
Not much had changed 102 years later.
The Wellesley Island Fire Department was immobile; the alarm went late to the surrounding volunteer fire squads, who discovered on arrival at the scene that the park’s hydrant system was incompatible with their pumper trucks. Firefighters had to run 1,000 feet of hose to the river and use the high-capacity pumps on the Clayton fireboat to push water up the hill to firefighters trying to stop the blaze.
What had changed was the quality of equipment available to firefighters, their training, esprit de corps and advances in fire protection, all inspired by the great fire 102 years ago.
TI Park survived in 1912, and it will flourish again. The fire is out; the remnants of the business block will disappear; and the park leadership will replace the central business core.
What will never be extinguished are the memories of ice cream cones and penny candy at the Guzzle, a visit to the post office, the meat counter that once graced the store, the fire engines housed in the block and the incessant fire whistle calling the park to action. TI Park will prosper, and it will remain as a haven of peace, tranquility and introspection just as it has since the Methodists first opened their summer meetings grounds there in 1874.