The seventh of fifty possibly fictional places to visit in Vermont you won’t find in any travel guide. These are the places the locals keep to themselves, and if you go, you’ll soon learn why.
I was researching some of Lake Champlain’s smaller islands when I discovered the peculiar history of Potato Island. A hundred years ago locals called the island Anna’s Island but I found one instance in 1903 of it being called Tsar Island.
An odd name for an unpopulated island sent me on a deep dive for information. Let’s start at the beginning, the Island is close to the Canadian border near Vermont’s Burton Island State Park. The first recorded owner of Potato Island was a New York City real estate tycoon named Byron Langston.
Langston bought the island in 1860 or so as part of a more significant purchase of land in Vermont and Upstate New York. The island as it is hardly big enough to put a house of any substance, Langston forgot it’s existence.
It wasn’t until while traveling to London in 1893 did he even recall owning it. There, he found a game of poker amongst some gloriously wealthy individuals. One of whom was a gentleman from Russian named Nicholas visiting England for a wedding of a Duke. Nicholas outplayed Byron for much of the evening.
The others in the room thought it hilarious that poor Byron was unaware this Nicholas was Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia. I say poor Byron because he was a horrid gambler and lost the bulk of his travel money in this lavish backroom to the emperor and other European elites.
On his last bet, with his funds completely depleted, Nicolas went all-in with a trio of kings. While Byron thought a pair of aces would be enough. And what was the thing Byron wagered? It was, of course, his island in Vermont. He advertised it as lush paradise and not the mosquito trap it was, and Nicolas accepted the wager.
Byron lost the bet and left London nearly broke. Records show the Island changed hands from Mr. Langston to a Nick Roma, as was recorded in the town registry. No one knew Nick Roma was actually Nicholas Romanov. As he too was a busy man trying to manage the affairs of a vast country, Nicolas never visited his Vermont property. He owned it from 1893 until 1917 when he and his family were executed.
Things get murky from there. The name on the registry changed in 1919 to A. Roma. Boys from Camp Kill Kare across the water reported a cabin built on the island between 1917 and 1918. They had used the island as a fishing spot for years but were after that forbidden to set foot on it.
Some spirited boys still did over the next decades. They’d land a canoe on its beach, curious about the hidden cabin which by all accounts was quite well designed and the beautiful woman who lived there.
The woman who once lived on the island was a mystery, known only as Anna to the locals. She would canoe to town once a week for supplies, but eventually, her visits stopped. Some say she disappeared, while others believe she was the same Anna who married a local and opened a charming bistro and motel in the 1930s. The roadside stop served American staples, but also featured a delicacy fit for royalty – a suckling pig with buckwheat stuffing, said to be a favorite of the Tsar and his family. The memory of Anna, and the taste of that suckling pig, lingers on for those who knew her.
The cabin fell into disrepair, succumbing to the elements and vandals. Today you’ll find only the frame of the cabin’s foundation and a collection of stones from the fireplace.
The Kill Kare Camp took over the island soon after. It was renamed Anna Island for the mysterious woman who summered there. Eventually, she was forgotten, and everyone just began calling it Potato Island after its shape. A sorry fate for a royal isle.