On the banks of the St. Lawrence River, Wellesley Island State Park is the largest camping park in New York. And it offers a little bit of everything that makes the North Country such a popular spot for travelers. There is fishing, boating, trails, a nature center, and even a golf course. And the 1,200 acres of land, were helped to be preserved thanks in part to whiskey. In this edition of Your Hometown, Brian Dwyer and RD White brings us to the largest of U.S. based Thousand Islands, Wellesley Island.
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ORLEANS, N.Y. -- It sits at the U.S.-Canadian border. Drive up 81, cross the Thousand Island Bridge and take a few rights. Wellesley Island State Park was recently named one of the top 100 campgrounds in the nation.
"In this region, it is the most complete park we have. It's the largest park we have and just a beautiful setting," said Kevin Keiff, State Office of Parks Regional Director.
Sitting on the St. Lawrence River, Wellesley Island State Park was once a summer home to a family that made it's fortune in the whiskey business. In 1912, Edson Bradley, who helped create and market Old Crow Whiskey, built a 40 room, 300 foot-long mansion called Arcadia on the island, which was the largest ever built at the time.
Keiff said, "It was that kind of an age when those vast estates were here in the Thousand Islands that led to this property being under developed to the points where when the state picked it up, it could become one of the prime parks in the state system."
The Bradley's farmed most of the land, as a way to support themselves and staff during the summer stays.
"The family would have raised their own vegetables, their own beef, gotten their own milk, cheese, butter, and dairy products, right here on the property," said Keiff.
Only ten years later, in 1922, the entire mansion went up in flames. The Bradley's escaped, but lost everything. They left the area in 1951, sold it to the state, and it became a state park.
"While only a small part of the foundation of the original mansion is still here today, parts of that farm are actually still going strong, and the state puts it to very good use," noted Keiff. "Our recreation barn is in the old dairy barn. Our maintenance shop is in the old sheep barn."
It is the history that just adds to the draw of the park.
"There are over 425 campsites here at Wellesley Island. They range all the way from full service recreational vehicle campsites, to campsites where you have to park your car, and walk a short distance to the edge of the water," noted Keiff.
The water allows for all sorts of recreation, including a massive marina for boaters.
"The largest reason people come to the THousand Islands to camp, is for water recreation like fishing. Many of our patrons bring their own boat," Keiff said.
Of course on vacation, a lot of people bring their golf clubs. At Wellesley Island State Park, you can leave the island for a little, and come to the state golf course and play a round.
"What we're trying to do in here in the state of the economy that we're facing is still allow the average person to come out and play a decent golf course for a reasonable price, and enjoy themselves," said Dough Horton, Wellesley Island State Park Golf Course owner.
The nine hole course is not owned by the state. Three years ago, New York leased out its courses, however, they still work closely, and together, give golfers some of the best views in the park.
"Just a wonderful place to relax up there. You almost don't want to hit the shot. It's breathtaking. You can see the river from there, you can see almost all of the golf course. There's usually an abundance of wildlife," said Horton.
Many of those animals are showcased here at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. It is the park's 600 acre preserve with nine miles of hiking trails.
"One of the most popular trails is going along Eel Bay to see our glacier potholes. Then it's up into the narrows which one of the highest points on the island. We also have beaver wetlands," explained Kimbrie Cullen, environmental educator.
The center is named after the first educator on the island, who also created the first trail.
"She was an advocate all through her life, and it was great that her daughter felt it was a g need to have a facility established now today. I'm sure Minna would be absolutely proud of what we are and what we are capable of," said Cullen.
A center and a state park that's been showing off those capabilities to thousands every year, and they keep coming back.
I Love My Park Day is a new statewide effort to celebrate and enhance the state’s parks and historic sites. It’s sponsored in part by YNN and Time Warner Cable Sports Channel and will take place on Saturday, May 4th.
Volunteers from across the state will be participating in cleanup and improvement events at parks throughout the region. If you would like to take part or donate to the cause, visit www.ptny.org.