Wau Winet Island – Then And Now
One of the earliest information on the many variations of spelling for Wau Winet Island in local newspapers came in 1892 when Charles E. Hill of Chicago moved and raised the existing cottage and built an addition to it. Later that year, he would relocate his family to Brooklyn and later purchase the steam yacht “Bonnie Castle” from Dr. Josiah Holland and upon refitting, gave her a new name of “Wauwinet,” a name reportedly taken from an Indian village on the Island of Narragansett.
In 1902, Commodore Thomas Wheeler, a director in the Standard Oil Company, purchased Wau Winet Island from Charles and Eliza Hill for $20,000. A veteran of the Civil War and native of Elmira, NY in his youth, Wheeler entered the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry at the age of 17 and was wounded in the battle of Bull Run and served as a Union prisoner. In later years, Wheeler acquired the title Commodore as head of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club and once owned the 110-foot yacht “Empress.”
In 1902, well known New York publisher Frank A. Munsey was a guest of Wheeler at Wau Winet Island. Munsey had connections to Watertown via his chain of grocery stores he acquired, The Mohican. One of Munsey’s close associates, William Thomson Dewart, rented The Ledges in 1916 and had Munsey as a guest there in 1916.
In 1920, Dewart purchased Keewaydin on the mainland in close proximity to Wau Winet Island and eventually took over a number of Munsey’s businesses after his death in 1925 including the grocery and publishing aspects. Munsey would leave behind an estate worth in excess of $20,000,000, most of which went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The connections don’t stop there, either. William Dewart’s wife was Mary Louise Wheeler Dewart, daughter of Thomas and Celia Roberts Wheeler. This undoubtedly resulted in the families having summer homes close to one another and Munsey’s initial visit to Wau Winet Island may have ultimately lead to Dewart later meeting Mary Louise, whom he took as his second wife in 1908.
Dewart’s purchase of Keewaydin allowed the families to spend the summers together in the Thousand Islands for only a matter of several years as Thomas Wheeler passed away at the age of 82 in 1926. Mrs. Wheeler’s death followed her husband’s three years and 12 days later. The Watertown Daily Times reported of her death and —
Mrs. Celia Roberts Wheeler, 78, widow of Commodore Thomas H. Wheeler and mother of Mrs. William T. Dewart, New York, died this morning at 8:35 at her summer home on Wau Winet Island. She had been ill for some weeks.
A native of Hornwell, Mrs. Wheeler was born May 21, 1851. She had resided at Cleveland, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Orange, N. J., at various times. For the past 30 years she had resided in New York city, excepting for summers spent in the Thousand Islands.
Mrs. Wheeler was one of the best known summer residents of the Thousand Islands started many years ago. She and her husband, the late late Commodore Wheeler, resided for some summers at the Edgewood Club, later at Cuba Island and in 1902 they bought Wau Winet Island. Her marriage to Mr. Wheeler occurred May 21, 1872.
Wau Winet, where Mrs. Wheeler’s death occurred, is one of the most attractive summer places in the neighborhood of Alexandria Bay. Across the river is Craigside, the home of Miss Anne Laughlin, and nearby is Jewel Island. Looking down river one sees Hopewall Hall, Castle Rest and the Thousand Island Yacht club of which Mr. Wheeler was one time commodore. The villa contains a large ballroom, 120 by 110 feet.
Mrs. Wheeler left behind an estate valued at over $5,000,000 ($84.5M in 2022.) Mary Wheeler Dewart inherited with her siblings what was written in the Watertown Daily Times as “Wau Wo Net” on the St. Lawrence River, but was given the option to purchase Wau Winet Island outright and did.
Two years after the death of her husband William in 1944, Mary Wheeler Dewart disposed of Wau Winet Island to William F. Kohn and his wife, Harriet E., of Rochester. The very next day after the announcement was made public, advertisements were found in the Watertown Daily Times for the “Wau Winet Lodge” on Wau Winet Island. Shortly thereafter, the island would be referred to as Wheeler Island for a period of time.
The Kohns operated the lodge until the end of the 1956 season when it was sold to Frank M. Quinlan, an architect, also of Rochester. Frank’s son, Frank, Jr., assisted in managing the operation which lasted not quite two years before the property was sold once again.
A fire destroyed the two upper stories of the three-story Wau Winet Restaurant in 1959, causing more than $50,000 in damage and ruining the once palatial 25-room Thousand Islands summer home. The Daily Times reported of the damage—
Fire, believed to have originated on the ground level of the building, destroyed the two-upper stories of the three-story Wau-Win-Ett (sic) island restaurant and lodge one mile west of here Wednesday afternoon, inflicting more than $50,000 damage and ruining the once palatial 25-room Thousand Islands summer home.
Mrs. Helen Bolton, then owner of the island property, detected the smell of wood smoke while preparing herself a lunch in the kitchen. While she was investigating, the Alexandria Bay fire alarm sounded. She went outdoors to see the roof of the building in flames.
As documented in the Daily Times–
Mrs. Bolton, resident of Rochester who purchased the property on July 30, 1958, reported that she was closing the restaurant and lodge for the season on Wednesday. She had been having some wall papering done in the bar section. It was chilly in the room so she lighted a fire in the fireplace. She indicated that in her opinion the fire started in the upper stories as the result of the over heated fireplace.
The fire chief contended the fire started in the ground floor closet as the result of a faulty fuse and then crept up through the partitions to break through the wood-shingled roof.
During the 1950s, Wau Winet was literally “Your Best Bet.” During those years, WWNY Radio ran a “Let’s Go Calling” game where if residents receiving a phone call from the radio station answered with “Wau Winet is your best bet,” they won a free dinner for two on the island restaurant.
The Modern Era of Wau Winet Island: 1984 – Present
Very little information was found on Wau Winet Island from the 1960s through the mid 1980s, but it continued to operate as a lodge with a restaurant and bar until it was destroyed in a fire during the late 1970s.
In 1984, Richard Champney purchased what was later described as the “ruins and rubble” of Wau Winet and constructed what was deemed “The Tower House” at the northern tip of the island. When it was advertised for sale in 1987 by Realty One Thousand, it was described as-follows-
The tower section of the house has three sleeping areas with vaulted ceilings and brass and glass chandeliers. The view is so extensive that it wraps itself around you. The modern kitchen with its pegged wood floors is also part of the spectacular view. When you leave the premises through any of the beautiful wood and glass doors, you step from the lush carpets not the imported black tile, then outside to spacious decks that completely encircle the house. The docking arrangement has provided a berth large enough to accommodate a 62 foot Bertram.
Wau Winet Island was eventually sold by Richard Champney to Robert and Cindy Lozo of Victor in 2003. At some point, the current, modern cottage was built and once advertised on Vladi Private Islands with the following information–
Spectacular views from every window in this 6 BR/3 BA river home on Wau Winet Island. This home features Brookhaven cabinets, fireplace, wainscoting on the ceilings, wood panels and columns leading to formal dining, an amazing 3-season porch, hardwood floors, custom built staircase and detailed millwork throughout. Also includes over 150 ft. of protected deep-water dockage and swimming.
The Vladi Private Islands’ website has an archived view of the home with a number of exterior and interior photos here.