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Garden Island grew from merely a dot

"Garden Island grew from merely a dot in the wilderness to be the home of hundreds - it made a bit of history all its own and now is resting. "

By Marion Calvin Boyd

These words written by Marion Calvin Boyd in March 1923 were found in a safe in the office on Garden Island belonging to her grandfather Hiram A. Calvin 45 years after they were penned.


Boyd's since published diary, The Story of Garden Island, paints a picture of a booming island of industry, a 19th century timber and shipbuilding empire that had a post office, a general store, and even its own currency. The 55-acre island was once home to 750 residents.

Today it is indeed resting on the private island between Kingston and Wolfe Island, the largest of the Thousand Islands. But the ghosts of another era on Garden Island remain scuttled in its graveyard bays.

Now descendants of the man who made it a vibrant village over a century ago are the guardians of Garden Island. It's a bit of a ghost island, the living legacy of its patriarch, a prosperous American-born industrialist turned Canadian politician who made his mark here as "The Governor of Garden Island."

Dileno Dexter Calvin, or D.D. Calvin as he was known, turned this pastoral island into one of the largest timber and shipbuilding business firms in Canada with branch offices around the world.

"It's unique because it hasn't changed," said Hank Connell, a great great maternal grandson of D.D. Calvin during a tour around the island's sleepy shores last summer. "The pressures of change have certainly changed Wolfe Island a lot. Because it's private and possibly because of it being inaccessible, Garden Island remains the same."

But reminders of the former village still stand, including a sail loft and the post office. Its residents, including caretakers John d'Esterre and wife Meg Calvin, the great great granddaughter of D.D. Calvin, carry on the legacy of Garden Island. They have been the caretakers since the mid 1950s and stay year-round.

Today the island is still owned by The Garden Island Ltd. Its 17 cottages are used as vacation properties. The post office is a museum and the sail loft is used as a party room for summer residents.

D.D. Calvin, a Vermont native and businessman from Clayton N.Y, moved to Canada to start a timber business in 1836.

The workers included French Canadians, Scots, Irish Americans and Natives. They transported timber on rafts down the River to Quebec City where it was loaded onto vessels destined for ports overseas.


Calvin purchased the entire island in 1862 and expanded the company community. A sail loft for the making and repairing of expansive sails was erected with a lighthouse on top. There was a sawmill, blacksmith shop, and horse stables. There were three streets: Broadway, Fancy Street and Blanchette Avenue. Homes were built to accommodate the Calvins and workers.

"There were more people living on Garden Island than Wolfe Island at the time," said Connell. The population swelled to 750 in the mid-1800's.

The Calvin Company issued its own money in denominations ranging from five cents to five dollars that employees could spend at the island's general store.

It is not known why Garden Island is so named though earlier French settlers called it something less fragrant sounding: "Isle aux Cochons" or Pig Island.

Calvin, a twice widowed man who married a third wife and had 14 children, became a British citizen in 1845. He was elected as the Reeve when the community was incorporated as a village. He was a staunch Conservative and a close friend of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Calvin was elected in the provincial election in 1868 and, except for two years, remained in politics until 1883.

A convert to the Baptist Church, Calvin declared Garden Island a prohibition village and banned alcohol.

Schooners, steamboats, tugboats, paddle-wheelers, and ships were built here. The largest ship of the fleet was an ocean-going vessel, The Garden Island, launched in 1877.

Calvin died at the age of 86 on Garden Island in May 1884, leaving an estate valued at over $324,000. A large flotilla of boats were part of the funeral procession that took the departed back to Clayton, N.Y., for burial in the same cemetery as his mother and first wife.

The First World War and the cease of timber rafting on the River brought an end to Garden Island operations. The population dwindled to four residents by 1921. Village status was renounced and Garden Island was placed under the Township of Wolfe Island. The Wolfe Island ferry made regular stops at the Garden Island pier until service ended in 1976.

Founders of this one-time isle of industry are fondly remembered by descendants of D.D. Calvin while The Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston features a display on Garden Island.

Today Calvin's great great grandson Connell lives on a waterfront hobby farm called Sugar Woods Farm where he has started his own enterprise: a winery. A membership director of the Wolfe Island historical society, Connell enjoys learning about his ancestors on neighbouring Garden Island.

"I used to love coming here as a kid," said Connell, a retired high school teacher and former junior sailing champion who grew up in Kingston and took up permanent residence on Wolfe Island in 1972. "I'm always at home on the water."

"I like the space," said Connell, steering his Limestone off the shores of Kingston. "You put your boat in the water in the spring and you say: 'Oh boy, am I ever glad I live here."

By Kim Lunman, kimlunman@thousandislandslife.com

Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim's Island Life magazine, was distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York.  A special Islander Edition was on sale in local book stores in both the United States and Canada. This winter she will be putting together the 2012 edition.  As always, we continue to look forward to her monthly contributions to TI Life.  

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 8:28 AM Thursday, November 17, 2011
Great story, Kim. Always something new to learn, for instance, I didn't know the streets were named. I well remember the ferry stopping there to pick up passengers and deliver supplies and mail. I remember Captain Fawcett pointing out the 'approach limits to the dock for the ferry. It had something to do with lining up the tower of the office building to the end of the pier or else "you'll be aground for sure." Well done!
brian j
Joan Russell
Comment by: Joan Russell ( )
Left at: 11:02 AM Thursday, May 24, 2012
I was on the Wolfe Islander (II?) one summer day - probably in the 1950s when it called in at Garden Island to pick up or deliver (?) someone or some thing. The pier was on its last legs, and when the ropes were tied around the pilings (sorry, I don't know the terminology), the movement and weight of the ferry pulled the whole dock apart. Was it rebuilt?.
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 7:48 PM Thursday, May 24, 2012
Hi Joan,
No, probably not. Maybe patched up a bit. The ferry continued to land there until the newer Upper Canada arrived in 1965 and didn't put as much pressure on the shore bollards as the previous Wolfe Islander. In 1976, the Wolfe Islander III arrived and did not land at Garden Island, thus breaking a 160 year honourary tradition.
Veronica Hart
Comment by: Veronica Hart ( )
Left at: 7:38 PM Sunday, March 9, 2014
Great to read about Garden Island, my great, great gr/father was born there in about 1830,but that is about all I know. Always wondered why he was born there when his father was born in Aleha, Spain (bit of a mystery as well), but I guess it was all to do with the work as original family came from england.Have never been able to find any birth records etc from Garden Island, maybe none existed!!
Keir Weseloh
Comment by: Keir Weseloh
Left at: 12:25 PM Saturday, June 13, 2015
Great article! I'm lucky enough to spend my summers on Garden Island and can say its hardly changed at all. We're very lucky to have such a special place, and you can see and feel the history all around you! It was great to read a little more of the history of the island.
Catherine McLeod
Comment by: Catherine McLeod
Left at: 1:06 PM Monday, June 15, 2015
While perusing the June issue of TI Life I saw the note regarding a comment being posted on this article. Here I am better late than never, but in the past month after the article was published I found out while doing my Family Tree that many of my ancestors including my great, great grandfather were shipwrights and carpenters working for Calvin on Garden Island. I have managed to obtain a copy of Marion Calvin Boyd's The Story of Garden Island, written in 1926, that describes all the work that went on and the environs of the island residents. Oh to have been a fly in the wall during that time when my family lived there. I have passed the island in my boat many times unaware it even existed and my connection to it. Now I just need to find a way to be able to visit the island.
Bernie Schraw
Comment by: Bernie Schraw
Left at: 8:38 PM Saturday, January 16, 2016
Nice article! About 30 years ago my Aunt Dorothy Dix Krause sent me several letters regarding the Dix family as they relate to Garden Island. Her father William Overton Dix (my grandfather) was born on the Island in 1875. His father Captain James Dix was also born on the Island around1849. He was a well known on the Great Lakes hauling timber back to the Island where he resided.The timber was made into rafts and floated up the St. Lawrence to be sold. His brother Joseph Jr.was also a captian.Another brother John Dix was a Captian on the Schooner Maud. Their father, the aforementioned Joseph Dix, was born in Swansea, Wales in 1815. He was apprenticed in Liverpool as a sailmaker later moving to Garden Island around 1849. He was twice married and fathered 14 children who were to the best of my knowledge born on the Island.His first wife Margaret Jorden gave birth to a daughter named Patience in 1856. Margaret died as a result of childbirth and Patience died 2days later. Very sad story, Margaret who is my second great grandmother was only 36 at death.
Anyone having additional info on this historic family please feel free to contact me.I would like to have some photos if possible.
Jan Normandale
Comment by: Jan Normandale
Left at: 12:10 PM Friday, August 26, 2016
I was told many stories about spending summers as a youth on Garden Island by Bob/Robert Calvin. Needless to say I won't bring up personal history but I worked with 'Bob' for 10 years as a director of a pension investment group focused on real estate investment. Bob was genial and entertaining telling stories of idyllic summers on the island. Last I saw Bob he was retired and living in Toronto in the area known as Oriole Park.
Carol Rowland (Oshawa, Ont)
Comment by: Carol Rowland (Oshawa, Ont)
Left at: 8:35 AM Sunday, July 23, 2017
Interesting article! Just this past week while working on my family tree, I discovered that my great great great uncle Benjamin Davy worked as a ship wright on Garden Island in the md to late 1800's. He and his wife Charlotte (Birmingham) Davy (whos family I am descended from) lived and raised their family on the island for a number of years.
Carol Rowland (Oshawa, Ont)
Comment by: Carol Rowland (Oshawa, Ont)
Left at: 8:44 AM Sunday, July 23, 2017
Interesting article! Just this past week while working on my family tree, I discovered that my great great great uncle Benjamin Davy worked as a ship wright/carpenter on Garden Island in the mid to late 1800's. He and his wife Charlotte (Birmingham) Davy (whose family I am descended from) lived and raised their family on the island for a number of years. I am looking for any distant cousins who may be able to add any interesting stories about this time in our Canadian history.
Christine Hilt
Comment by: Christine Hilt
Left at: 10:00 AM Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Many of my Irish ancestors (Quinn) were ship wrights on Garden Island so I loved being able to learn more about my Canadien roots. Thanks!

Apex, North Carolina, United States
James Angrove
Comment by: James Angrove
Left at: 5:39 PM Tuesday, August 28, 2018
My Great grand father was Captain James Dix. He married a French Canadian girl who also was living on the island I believe and her name was Hickey. My father believed the Hickeys were possibly part Cree as well, as she had quite dark skin, originally from Chicoutimi, Quebec where there is a large Cree nation. Her family had a sail loft on the island from what i was told. They also built log rafts and would ride them down the St. Lawrence to Trois Riviere.
John Calvert
Comment by: John Calvert
Left at: 7:54 AM Tuesday, January 15, 2019
I am the grandson of Cecil Milligan (1884 - 1925) and :Hattie Milligan 1888 - 1975). Cecil was the Captain of the Westmount after his Father's (Alexander Milligan) stroke. Are there any photos of Cecil Milligan or the Westmount?
Rumour is that Cecil Milligan was forced to give up ships by Hattie just after their wedding. Hattie and Cecil went on the Westmount for their honeymoon where she was constantly sea sick and she forced him give up his command. He then start a store very close to Welland Canal in St. Catharine offering ship supplies.
Also are there any photos of his father and grandfather. I belief both were given the name Alexander Milligan without any middle name or way to distinguish one from the other.
Thank you for time.

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