Tales of medieval times are well-loved classics that are still enjoyed in the 21st century. Remnants of this time are easy to find all over Europe in the form of castles.
America, too, has castles that few people know about. Upper New York state takes you to islands some wealthy Americans bought for vacation homes in the 19th century. On their private islands castles were built because they could afford them, and after all who doesn’t want to live in a castle?
Most of these houses are mansions, built as playthings for the ultra-wealthy. But one castle brings something a little different to the table, a castle full of secrets. This castle, full of mystery and intrigue, is Singer Castle on Dark Island.
Don’t let the name Dark Island fool you, this island is anything but dark. Dark Island is a seven-acre (2.83 hectare) island in upstate New York along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, in the eastern part of the area known as the Thousand Islands. Not just salad dressing, this is a small group of 1,864 islands in the Saint Lawrence River.
The island is near Chippewa Bay and is only a few yards away from the border between the United States and Canada. It is so close to the Canadian border that on Dark Island, you can watch an American sunrise and turn the other way to see a Canadian sunset.
From 1874 to 1912, the Thousand Islands was the summer vacation spot for the rich. Some islands are home to castles that were built by the owner of the island, and Singer Castle is no exception. What is exceptional is the castle itself.
Singer Castle is the only structure on Dark Island and is named after the original owner of the island: The self-made multimillionaire, Frederick Gilbert Bourne. Bourne worked for the Singer sewing machine company, climbing the corporate ladder, and became the company’s Fifth Director and President at the impressive age of 36.
The castle was not likely intended as a permanent residence: Bourne and his family lived at the Dakota Apartments in New York City and already had a 1,000 acre (404.7 ha) 110-room palatial summer estate on Long Island. Instead the island was more of a gift.
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This island was a surprise for his lovely wife and nine surviving children. Bourne bought Dark Island so he and his family could have an “island hunting retreat”. Bourne bought Dark Island from a golfer for $5,000 and then spent one hundred times that amount, a cool $500,000 (13 million today) to build Singer Castle. Bourne didn’t have to search very long for an architect, he was friends with the man who built his Long Island summer home, Ernest Flagg.
The Brilliant Ernest Flagg
Ernest Flagg was an American architect who was known for his Beaux-Arts style. Flagg was an incredible architect and many well-known buildings across the United States were his work. A few included St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, as well as many buildings at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
His connection to Bourne didn’t begin with the Long Island estate, and Flagg had in fact built the headquarters of the Singer Manufacturing Company. The Singer Building was the tallest office building on earth when it was completed, and Bourne was obviously pleased enough with his architect to bring him in on this new project.
Singer Castle followed the trend of the very wealthy building their own castles on their island in the Thousand Islands. It is largely believed that Bourne, who was known as a bit of an eccentric, just wanted to build a castle.
The design of this Gothic Revival castle was inspired by Woodstock Castle described in Sir. Walter Scott’s 1826 book Woodstock or The Cavalier: A Tale of the Year Sixteen Hundred and Fifty-One. The original name of the castle was actually “The Towers” because the 4-story castle had two main towers, one of which was Bourne’s personal office.
Several tons of granite were used to build Singer Castle, and Italian stonemasons were flown in to help with the construction. This castle featured a 5-story clocktower with a face that is rumored to be made of solid gold.
Along with the clocktower, the castle itself had 28 bedrooms, a large and finely decorated drawing room, a kitchen, and a formal dining room. There is a very large wine cellar, a breakfast room with gothic style arched windows, and a great hall. The great hall is medieval styled with two full coats of armor on either side of the entrance. It features a massive marble fireplace and a stunning library with walnut-paneled walls. All around the castle are antique Singer Sewing machines.
The property had a squash court, a traditional rose garden, and three boat houses. One boathouse was large enough to fit a 120ft (36.6m) yacht, while another boathouse was used as a powerhouse containing a generator. The castle needed to be practical, after all.
What Makes Singer Castle Unique?
Singer Castle is a stunning example of architecture, but the castle is known for some very unusual features. For an unknown reason, Singer Castle is full of secret passageways. The library had a book that when pulled, would unlock a panel in the wall leading to the wine cellar.
A wall next to the fireplace was also an entrance to a secret passage. There is a framed portrait on the wall in the drawing room that can be tipped forwards or backward so someone behind it could look into the room unnoticed. More ominously, in Bourne’s tower office there was a secret trapdoor that led down to a dungeon.
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Staff in the castle today keep finding new secrets all over the house. A trap door was discovered located in the maid’s quarters under the floor. Staff believe the trap here was used to hide valuables and things like jewelry when the family was not staying at Singer Castle. Thieves would never think to search the maid’s quarters for valuables, making this room the perfect place to store them.
The door on the floor could be opened by pulling a coat hook in Bourne’s closet. He was known to have several locked closets in Singer Castle and at his Long Island summer home. There are tunnels in the walls and under the floors throughout the castle, and grates were built into the walls so someone could look into rooms unnoticed.
A Penchant for Privacy?
Some of these hidden secrets are easily explained, others are a mystery. The secret passageways were used mainly by the servants; they were able to look into rooms when the Bourne’s had company. The servants could see when someone needed a drink refilled or when the next course of a meal could be served.
There is a tunnel that leads from the kitchen, directly into the formal dining room and the secret passageway in the wall of the library leads to the wine cellar. These features were considered “normal” at the time and were functional when someone owns a large estate or castle.
Almost every room in the castle except for two (a bedroom and another unnamed room) have hidden buttons that when pressed, would call a servant. The tunnel from the kitchen to the formal dining room makes sense, as does the storage room in the maid’s quarters.
These secret passageways allowed the servants to arrive before being summoned. This was also a way to travel discreetly in the castle. The trap door leading to the dungeon is not used for functionality by the servants, hopefully.
However, this only explains some of the architectural oddities. Why a dungeon was built and why certain passages led to very specific rooms are a mystery to this day. Some believe that the hidden rooms and tunnels were built because the castle in the book Woodstock had those features. Others believe that these passageways were made for fun.
When Singer Castle was finished in 1905, Bourne had retired and was no longer the president of the Singer Manufacturing Co. allowing him to fully enjoy the castle with his family. These fun features of the castle would have been things that his wife and nine children would have found novel.
Bourne died in 1919 and Singer Castle has had several owners since, including a Roman Catholic church, and a religious non-profit organization, as well as Dark Island Tours Inc. which gives tours around the island and inside Singer Castle.
Most recently, in 2006 Sotheby’s International Realty put Dark Island up for sale for a staggering $24.5 million. The property went unsold. Today you can visit the castle, and stay overnight in a private suite for over $700. There you will be able to marvel at the strange secrets of the castle, even if we have no idea why they were built.
Top Image: Riddled with secret passages: why was Singer Castle on Dark Island built this way? Source: Ad Meskens / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Lauren Dillon
Meredith, M. 2018. Singer Castle: Dark Island, Chippewa Bay, St. Lawrence County, New York. House Histree. Available at: https://househistree.com/houses/singer-castle
Lunman, K. 2011. The Castle of Secrets. Thousand Islands Life. Available at: https://tilife.org/BackIssues/Archive/tabid/393/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/721/The-Castle-of-Secrets.html
Sharon. 2016. Singer Castle of The Thousand Islands: A Storybook Dream. 19th Century Ghosts. Historic Houses. Available at: https://19thcenturyghosts.com/2016/09/21/singer-castle/
Singer Castle. Brief History – Singer Castle on Dark Island. Singer Castle Museum. Available at: https://www.singercastle.com/brief-history/