Queen's 175th Anniversary

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[Queen's University Douglas Library]
[Queen's University Douglas Library]
Celebrating Queen's 175th Anniversary

The Watertown Raid

February 22, 1956
Decade: 1950s


On a cold February night in 1956, three cars slipped across the Thousand Islands Bridge into the United States, planning to turn back the clock on nearly 200 years of history. When Americans in the border towns of Watertown, Clayton, Alexandria Bay and Lafargeville woke up to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, they were in for a surprise. The Union Jack fluttered from their municipal flagpoles and there was a faux proclamation declaring the republic was once again the territory of England’s King George III.  

The “year’s best prank,” as reported by the Queen’s Journal, required elaborate planning. Undergraduates sewed the Union Jack flags. An intricate synchronized “attack” schedule was drawn up so that the usurping flags would all be hoisted simultaneously; no mean feat in a time before cellphones. A campus calligrapher produced the royal proclamations that would be tacked to flagpoles. 

Most Americans were amused; a few were not. The City of Watertown sent Queen’s a bill for $40 for the services of a steeplejack to remove the invading flags. One community contacted the FBI to see if any federal laws had been contravened – they had not. Newspapers, radio and television stations across the continent picked up the story. Readers chuckled. 

The Yankees retaliated. A group dubbed the “Thousand Islands Navy” staged a raid across the St. Lawrence posting declarations on Kingston City Hall, the Queen’s men’s residences and Fort Henry. The invaders claimed Kingston and its hinterland for America. Amicable Canadian-American relations were subsequently restored when a “treaty” was negotiated at Alexandria Bay. Queen’s peacemakers were law student Gordon Sedgwick, later an Ontario Superior Court judge, and theology student Al Gretsinger.  

Pranks have continued on the Queen’s campus, but so far, no more international incidents have occurred.

The historical content of this site was curated by a committee of faculty and staff with submissions from the broader Queen’s community.
These moments are not intended to represent an exhaustive history of the university, but rather significant sign posts in its development.
Special thanks go to University Historian Duncan McDowall for his contributions.
Many thanks also to the people of Queen's University Archives for their support of this anniversary project.
Have feedback about the moments? Please contact qu175@queensu.ca