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Royal Island

Written by on November 6, 2017 in The Thousand Islands

 

It was the year Ford Motor Company sold its first car, the year the Wright brothers had their first successful airplane flight, the year Pepsi Cola was patented. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the Prime Minister of Canada and Edward the Seventh was the King of England.

A bird’s eye view of Royal Island near Brockville. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

It was 1903, the year an Ottawa family bought an island in the St. Lawrence River called Royal. To this day, over a century later, the family gathers here every summer at a century-old cottage overlooking the Brockville Narrows.A young woman named Margaret Bearman boarded a train from Ottawa to close the sale of two islands in the Brock Isles for her fiance, Alexander Bryson West, a year before they married. Margaret came to Brockville to purchase Royal and nearby Prince Alfred Islands on behalf of her husband-to-be, a shoe salesman. West bought the two Brock Isles with an Ottawa bookstore owner named John Hope and his wife Annie for the princely sum of $325.

Royal Island is a private island in the Brock Isles. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine

“We always say we’re the Royal Stewarts,” said Margaret Stewart. Margaret married Margaret West’s grandson, John Stewart, a retired accountant from Ottawa who spent every summer on Royal Island since he was an infant. During an interview here last year, Stewart recalled his earliest memories of over eight decades of island life. I remember being carried over here in a boat in a grocery basket,” he said. The veteran ship watcher kept a log of all the freighters coming up and down the channel passing the island. He continued to come to the island even when his health was failing, relying on a walker to get around. He even had a rearview mirror mounted on a pole outside the living room window so he could watch the passing ships going upriver and downriver from his chair. 

The late John Stewart spent 83 summers on Royal Island and was an avid ship watcher. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

Sadly, the island patriarch passed away in March at the age of 83. “He was already scanning his ship book and was very hopeful about spending his 84th summer on Royal Island,” his daughter Janice Stewart. But his legacy remains on the island, a gathering place for the Stewarts for six generations. The Stewarts have a framed copy of the land deed for the islands at signed by King Edward the Seventh, great-grandfather of Queen Elizabeth. The island was purchased for $325 with nearby Prince Alfred in included in the parcel, covering one acre and one quarter of an acre. The deed, signed by the Crown and deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, stated the money for the sale would go to the Mississauga band of Alnwick Indians.

The Stewart’s cottage on Royal Island perched over the shipping channel has a freighter-shaped weather vane. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

The Hope family would built a white cottage – which today has a distinctive red roof – while the Wests have a century-old green and white cottage on the island’s southern shores with a freighter-shaped weather vein on its roof. Prince Alfred and Royal Islands are among only a few privately owned Brock Isles. The city of Brockville bought 29 of the islands from the federal government in 1933 for parks purposes.

Margaret West spent 75 summers at Royal Island. She was 100 years old when she made her final visit to the island in 1979. Her great-grandson, Keith Stewart (John’s son) married his wife, Frances, here. Today they own the cottage along with Keith’s sister Janice and her husband, Doug Geldart, and share it with Margaret Stewart, their children, grandchildren and one great-grandchild, two-year-old Ava. 

Getting the ship’s pilot to toot the horn has been a tradition for generations in the Stewart family. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

 

The Hopes and Wests shared Royal and Prince Alfred Islands for many years. The Hopes built the islands white cottage – now with a distinctive red roof – in 1903 after buying the property. It was sold to Dr. Egbert Connell, a dentist from Kingston in 1947. He has since passed away. His family still owns the cottage and share the island with the Stewarts.

Together they’ve enjoyed canoe races, island golf tournaments and family reunions here. Prince Alfred Island has changed owners several times over the past century. Today the island, with its distinctive cottage designed in the shape of a ship, is owned by a Montreal businessman.

A diving board is perched from a granite rock at Royal Island over the St. Lawrence River. Photo by Kim Lunman.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959, passes through Brock Isles and the Brockville Narrows. The shipping channel is so close to Royal Island that passing freighters throw crashing waves on the rocks as they pass its shores. Several ships even ran aground near here in the 1970s including one that even struck Royal Island in April 1977. The Canadian Olympic hit a shoal north of the main shipping channel. The freighter was carrying 27,000 tons of iron ore. The Stewarts have photo albums full of newspaper clippings documenting such shipping mishaps. Janice recalls being allowed to leave school in Ottawa to go with the family to the island to check out the stuck Canadian Olympic. “My teacher received a note from my parents and said it was the best excuse he’d ever heard to be let out of school,” she recalled with a laugh.

A sign at Royal Island says it all. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

Ship watching is a major past-time on Royal Island. Getting the ship’s captain to toot the ship’s horn as they pass by Royal Island never gets old. The Stewarts even have a two-sided sign for ship watchers to hold up for this purpose. On one side, the sign shaped like a ship says ‘Toot Please.’ On the other side of the sign there’s a message for the ship, captain and crew if they comply: “Thank You.”

John Stewart’s rear-view mirror allowed him to watch the ships coming up and down river in his last summers at Royal Island. Photo by Kim Lunman/Island Life Magazine.

 

The Stewart family cherishes its island history here. The young bride-to-be named Margaret stepped off a train in Brockville more than a century ago and made this island summer retreat for generations of ‘The Royals’ to enjoy.

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