Pirates of the Thousand Island 0
The pirate chief orders the leader of the defenders to walk the plank after invading New York's Alexandria Bay. It's all part of the fun in the annual Pirate Days pageant in the Thousand Islands port. (Mitchell Smyth photo)
Ahoy there, me hearties. Splice the mainbrace, the pirates are coming!
The skull and crossbones will fly over this St. Lawrence resort town in mid-August. Amid the roar of cannon and the clash of cutlasses, the townspeople will try to repulse a raid by river pirates. And everybody will have a rollicking good time.
Old-time buccaneers are popular these days, following the success of the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies (producer Jerry Buckheimer has confirmed a fifth is on the way) and that gives an added boost to Alexandria Bay’s swashbuckling.
The movies are fiction but this town’s pageant is based on solid fact, even if it’s even more tongue-in-cheek than the Johnny Depp outings. It’s called Pirate Days and it’s a celebration of the exploits of one Bill Johnston, who with his band of cut-throats terrorized communities on both the Ontario and New York sides of the Thousand Islands in the first half of the 19th century. This year’s celebration runs Aug. 10-19.
“The invasion will be re-enacted on the two Saturdays,” says Sue Boyer, executive director of the chamber of commerce. “Tall ships will sail into the town. Guns are fired and the pirates swarm ashore and fight it out with the defenders.”
Terry Side, a local builder and renovator, has researched the pirate story and every year he dons a tricorn hat, bandana and knee-breeches to become Bill Johnston. His men — and women, for this is an equal opportunity pirate crew — always win the battle and Captain Bill makes someone walk the plank.
Many of the pirates and defenders are trained gunners and swordsmen from the Brockville Infantry, a military re-enactment squad that crosses the river for the occasion, and from a similar organization from Herkimer, N.Y.
The Saturday invasions — each of which last year were watched by 6,000 locals and visitors — are only part of the fun. There are block dances on both Fridays, a sail-past, a marching band parade, children’s contests, a treasure hunt and more.
“And townspeople and visitors get into the spirit by dressing up as pioneers, militia and Native Americans,” Side says.
Alexandria Bay was indeed once invaded by the real Bill Johnston, a Canadian who renounced his native land to spy for the Americans during the War of 1812 and who later carried on a guerrilla war against British forces stationed at Kingston’s Fort Henry.
He was joined by his daughter Kate, who has been mythologized in novels and plays as the Pirate Queen of the Thousand Islands. Two Kates will take part in the Alexandria Bay festivities, one on each of the invasion Saturdays.
Johnston was jailed several times but is said to have become more or less law-abiding after he received a presidential pardon in 1841, when he was 59. He became a tavern keeper in Clayton, a St. Lawrence port, and reportedly dabbled in smuggling into and out of Canada. He died in 1870, aged 88.
NEED TO KNOW
Alexandria Bay is a few kilometres from the Ivy Lea international bridge at the Thousand Islands. As stated, Pirate Days runs Aug. 10-19 this year. For more information, check the website visitalexbay.org.