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One-Tank Trip / A glimpse of excess at Singer Castle

CHIPPEWA BAY - It's not as big or as well-known as Boldt Castle, just a few miles upriver, but Singer Castle, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, is the only complete castle in the Thousand Islands and the only one that actually served as a home.

A visit carries you to an era of opulence and excess. The castle comes complete with hidden passageways (convenient for keeping servants invisible), suits of armor (just to show off) and a half-dozen or more sewing machines.

Sewing machines? Well, yes. That's where the name Singer comes from. The 28-room castle was built as a surprise for his wife by Frederick Gilbert Bourne, president of the Singer Manufacturing Co. He built the company into one of the first major international manufacturers in the world.

Bourne owned a large apartment in the Dakota in Manhattan (that's where the movie "Rosemary's Baby" was filmed and where John Lennon lived and was murdered), and a 1,000-acre estate on Long Island. That wasn't enough, so he bought Dark Island in the St. Lawrence, and, as the 19th century turned to the 20th, had a castle built as a getaway. He called it The Towers.

The family - Bourne, his wife, Emma, and, eventually, nine children - usually visited the castle in summer and threw lavish parties. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Vincent Astor, among the richest men in the world, were guests. The parties were expensive and often very loud. On a nearby island, Western artist Frederick Remington had a summer studio and he once boated to Dark Island to ask them to tone down the music.

Today, you can take a 45-minute guided tour of the castle and grounds, but the full visit takes more than two hours because you have to take a boat to get there. A friend and I took the shuttle boat from Schermerhorn Harbor in Hammond (a $29 ticket pays for both the boat ride and the castle tour); there are also boat rides available in Alexandria Bay, and privately owned boats can dock at the island.

Our boat ride took about 20 minutes each way. The best view of the entire castle is from the boat. When you're on the island, you can see only parts of the castle from any one angle.

Walking around on your own isn't permitted, and unfortunately the young man who led the tour we went on, while pleasant and polite, seemed not fully informed and at times not even all that interested in his subject.

But, still, as soon as you enter the first room, you appreciate the trip. You see three suits of armor imported from Europe. The entrance room, more than any other one in the building, is designed to make the place look like a castle. Opulence was not enough for this relic of the end of the Gilded Age; whatever illusion money could buy also seemed necessary.

The furniture, the carpeting, the curtains (some now visibly worn beyond respectability), everything in the place looks expensive.

But there are clear reminders of class consciousness that, while unmentioned by our guide, can be disturbing to the modern visitor, such as the "secret" stairways, which are now very visible (but you're not permitted to climb them). Our guide seemed unaware that the real purpose of such stairways was to keep the rich folk from having to pass mere servants between floors.

You do get to visit the top (fourth) floor where a large bedroom was reserved for up to nine maids (today there are only seven beds there, aligned military style). Other servants, males, lived in a boathouse. At times there were more than two dozen servants.

The castle, a boat docking area and some large pine trees crowd the island, but there is a large lawn on the north side. When the Bournes lived there, it was a tennis court. There's also, just west of the boat house, an indoor racket court.

If you want to experience the opulence for more than an hour, you can stay in the castle. It's not cheap. This year's price was $725 for two people and $60 apiece for up to six more.

There's no place to eat on the island, but at Schermerhorn Harbor there's a sizable convenience store with picnic tables outside, so you can buy, say, a soda and a bag of chips to consume while you wait for the next boat.

After you return from the tour, you might want to drive about 15 minutes west to the town of Clayton. You have to pass through the touristy Alexandria Bay to get there, but that's fine. Clayton is a quiet little town with a surprisingly busy main street and side streets. At least four places sell ice cream cones, there are two coffee shops, and Corbin's River Heritage offers hundreds of books about the history and culture of the Thousand Islands.

And at least a half dozen restaurants look inviting. We chose Bella's Bistro, with its riverside seating and affordable menu (most items were under $10).

If you go

From Buffalo, take the Thruway east to Syracuse, I-81 north to exit 50N, then Route 12N north 13 miles. Schermerhorn Harbor is on the left. Purchase tickets in the convenience store. Uncle Sam Boat Tours are available from Alexandria Bay; it's located on James Street. Check for times and links to boat tour companies.

If you add Clayton to your trip, take Route 12 south 20 miles (from Schermerhorn Harbor); when you reach Clayton, follow the signs to the business district (about a quarter-mile north of Route 12).

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