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Soldiers’ Story

Written by on November 11, 2018 in Island Life Magazine

 

At one time, over a century ago, this tranquil island called Leek Island near Gananoque, was a refuge for war-torn soldiers. It was about as far away as one could get from the battlefields across an ocean in World War I. Today, it is known as Thwartway Island, a Thousand Islands National Park of Canada known for its pristine beauty and sandy shorelines that make it popular with boaters. 

Thwartway Island. Photo by Kim Lunman.

It is hard to imagine its twists in history from a Gilded Era summer retreat to convalescent hospital for soldiers to a summer public playground today. In fact, remarkably little is published about Leek Island’s earlier chapters. But they start to unfold in black and white photographs from the Town of Gananoque’s archives as grainy reminders of what history these islands hold. The granite shorelines and windswept pines remain, while some cottages come and go, along with images of past generations, seemingly lost in the wake of time. Every island tells a story. This island tells many. 

The history of all the islands here date back 10,000 years when retreating glaciers scraped sediment from its ancient landscape, leaving behind more than a 1000 islands decorating the St. Lawrence River.  They’re the traditional territory on the Haudenosaunee and Mississauga Anishinaabe First Nations. Known to early French explorers as ‘Les Milles-Iles,’ the 1000 Islands were surrendered by the aboriginals under treaty and the Canadian islands were held in trust by the Government of Canada. By the end of the 19th century, the islands were being sold as sites for summer homes. By 1904, the government started establishing a national parks system in the 1000 Islands starting with nine islands, most near Gananoque, reserved for parks purposes.

 

Gananoque in a Gilded Age

Leek Island was owned by Ira and Katharine Kip/Photo courtesy of the Town of Gananoque/Arthur Child Heritage Museum.

It was during this same time that a wealthy American couple from New Jersey bought Leek Island in 1904. Ira and Katharine Kip became a golden couple in a Golden Age. The New York Times covered their wedding and they socialized with President Theodore Roosevelt. Ira Kip had the family flair for business and owned property in New York and New Jersey as well as a successful leather business in Newark. He was an avid horseman and served on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. Katharine Flower was a Manhattan debutante who grew up on Park Avenue. Her uncle, Roswell Flower, served as governor of New York and later in Congress. The Kips summered here at their lavish summer cottage with their four children. Leek Island, in the Admiralty Group of Islands, hugs the Middle Channel and is located close to the international boundary line across from Grindstone Island.

The Kip estate. Photo courtesy of the Town of Gananoque/Arthur Child Heritage Museum.

 

Gananoque was the Kip’s Canadian home away from home. Gananoque,’The Gateway to the 1000 Islands,’ embraces its rich island history. It is home to the Thousand Islands Boat Museum, Gananoque Boat Line, The Arthur Child Heritage Museum of the 1000 Islands and The Thousands Islands Playhouse, ‘Canada’s Dockside Theatre.’ The region’s premier waterfront theatre company was established in 1982, at the former site of the Gananoque Canoe Club. Today, Gananoque is a popular destination for tour boats, cottagers boaters and kayakers. https://www.gananoque.ca/Private islands with historic cottages and grand summer estates dot this scenic stretch of the St. Lawrence. Sailboats moor of the shores of many of the area’s many national park islands. Boaters have attended church services at Half Moon Bay at Bostwick Islands off Gananoque’s shores  for over a century.

Island Hospital

Everything was seemingly golden here for the Kips until World War I broke out. When Canada entered the war, Katharine volunteered the family’s cottage to the Canadian government as “a hospital for returned wounded soldiers of the Dominion,” according to newspaper reports at the time. Katharine was credited with staffing the hospital, beginning in 1916, recruiting doctors and nurses. Daughter Kathleen was married in 1917 on Leek Island.  The New York Times reported on the ceremony as “hastened by the war and with the bride in the garb of the American Red Cross and the bridegroom in white naval uniform.” Son John served in France as an ambulance driver.

Photo courtesy of the Town of Gananoque/Arthur Child Heritage Museum

A nurse models a gas mask. Photo courtesy of the Town of Gananoque/Arthur Child Heritage Museum.

 

But shortly after the war ended in 1918, Ira and Katharine divorced. Each remarried soon thereafter. Katharine married Dr. Mefford Runyon, of South Orange New Jersey. Dr. Runyon was the chief medical officer at the Leek Island hospital. A year later, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence sent Katharine Runyon a letter thanking Katharine Runyon for “your great kindness and generosity in providing accommodation under the most beautiful surroundings of the Thousand Islands for the Canadian sick and wounded.” The soldiers showed their appreciation by presenting the Runyons with military medals from the caps and uniforms. 

Katharine Runyon became more involved in the community of Gananoque, spending much of her time on Leek Island. In 1928, she established an antique shop and tea room known as The Golden Apple Tea Room. She wintered in New Jersey with Dr. Runyon and was involved in numerous charities. Katharine died on Leek Island in 1951. Her daughter, Kathleen, and her husband, David E. Brenneman, took over the restaurant in the 1950s. The Golden Apple remained a Gananoque landmark until a fire destroyed it in 2008. It has since been restored and reopened as Riva Restaurant, owned by Joe and Lucie Pal, also owners of the Ivy Restaurant and Ivy Lea Club in nearby Ivy Lea. Historical photographs of the Golden Apple’s early days grace the walls of the Riva restaurant today.

Soldiers sailing off Leek Island. Photo courtesy of the Town of Gananouqe and Arthur Child Heritage Museum

 

Thwartway Island: 1000 Islands National Park

Leek Island remained in Katherine Runyon’s family for nearly seven decades. In 1972, the Canadian government expropriated the island from its owners in an effort to expand its chain of parks in the 1000 Islands. It became known as Thwartway Island. The family was reportedly compensated an estimated $100,000 settlement. There is little trace of Leek Island’s past as a summer retreat or military hospital. There are limited parks facilities on the island and no camping is permitted. https://visit1000islands.com/thousand-islands-national-park-of-canada/But  boaters come here today moor off its sandy beaches and watch the sun set over the River, as generations have done before them. It’s one-time American owners and Canadian soldiers, brought together here by a war, are long gone but not forgotten in these peaceful waters.

 

Today Leek Island is called Thwartway Island and is a Thousand Island National Park of Canada. Photo by Kim Lunman

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