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History By The Water

Written by: Shelley Yu

Years ago, when I first came to Kingston and its surrounding areas, I discovered that a lot of popular tourist attractions were by the water, especially near Lake Ontario. What I was most excited about, however, was seeing the world renowned 1000 Islands, a collection of more than 1,800 islands along the St Lawrence River. Four years later, when I finally had the chance to visit, I stopped by the 1000 Islands Museum, where I learned that water was significant for more than just a tourist attraction. From culture to economics, the 1000 Islands Museum showcases the diverse history of one of the most stunning waterfront communities in Eastern Ontario.

1000 Islands History Museum

The 1000 Islands Museum was founded in 1995 in the picturesque community of Gananoque (/ˌɡænəˈnɒkweɪ/ GAN-ə-NOK-way) after a fire devastated the previous town museum. Often known as the “gateway” to the 1000 islands, the town name is derived from the Indigenous word meaning “town on two rivers.” With an average population of 5,000 people, the size of the museum reflects the small community outside of it. In contrast to the ROM, the 1000 Islands Museum only has two levels, and each is roughly the size of a ballroom. However, this heritage site packs a mighty punch, describing everything from Gananoque’s early glaciers and muskies to pirates and civil war memorabilia.

Generally speaking, the museum is centered around four historical themes: natural history, military, colonization, and culture & tourism. In recent years, the first theme (natural history) has tried to meaningfully illustrate how local Indigenous histories preceded European settler communities. The way exhibitions were placed in this section was very engaging. Upwards, the image of a long fishing canoe was extremely striking. Below, four boxes with the words “Shake and Sniff” caught my eye. Each was filled with the scent of specific plants that could be found in Ganaoque’s early days, lemongrass being an example. I thought this interactive display was definitely a hit with children; it smartly uses one’s other senses to create a sense of nature hundreds of years ago.

Speaking of interactive displays, I noticed that the 1000 Islands Museum has a lot that interests people of all ages. As a detail-oriented person, I thought it was extremely cool how many real life model replica (s) of important structures throughout history were in the museum. Although heritage sites can have an unfair reputation for being “boring,” models like those in the 1000 Islands Museum shows how history is more than just facts in a book. My favorite was one of a naval warship used in the War of 1812, where American soldiers raided Gananoque to disrupt the British-Canadian supply chain from Kingston to Montreal. Also interesting was the land model of the town as it existed in the 1800’s.

Beyond watershed transportation, water was essential to all parts of town life. Naval warfare was an important element to Ganaque’s role in the War of 1812. Additionally, even religion was influenced by water. On one wall on the second floor, there is a massive picture which- at first glance- seems like several people in canoes simply congregating in one area. On closer inspection, I learned that it is actually a picture of a church service held on water since the 1800’s (on the left side, you can clearly see a church minister reciting on a flat surface). These religious campgrounds became permanent camps with large crowds, and by 1887, services were held on Sundays at Half Moon Bay on Bostwick Island.

Church service held on water exhibit at 1000 Island History Museum

I ventured to the first floor towards the end of my visit, where new exhibitions were found. Currently, the museum’s summer exhibition is called “Unmasking Influenza” and explores the history of influenza, especially after the Spanish flu. In Gananoque, the first case was found on October 12 1918, two years before the flu became endemic. The funny thing is the museum started working on the exhibition before COVID-19 hit, so it was almost like history was being made in real time. In fact, one of the items on display are masks donated by citizens during COVID-19.

Cloth Masks from ‘Unmasking Influenza’ Exhibit

Overall, the 1000 Islands Museum is a great site for cultural exploration for people of all ages who enjoy history by the water. For more information, visit


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