A River Runs To It

About the Author

Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine, a glossy publication distributed annually every May in northern New York and eastern Ontario. Lunman, an award-winning Canadian journalist and writer for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, returned to her river roots in her hometown of Brockville and founded Island Life Magazine four years ago. She recently launched an online edition of Island Life,www.islandlifemag.ca, and is also a member of the non-profit www.thousandislandslife.com. An avid kayaker and novice boater, Lunman enjoys exploring the Thousand Islands each summer in her Brockville backyard: The river overlooking New York State.

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A River Runs To It

By Kim Lunman
The Upstate New York coastal community of Clayton is the “Antique Boat Capital” of the Great Lakes, gateway to the world-famous Thousand Islands, and home to the best history, culture and scenery the region has to offer.

What Clayton, New York lacks in population it more than makes up for in history, culture and natural beauty. This picturesque village of 2,000 is perched atop a peninsula on the mighty St. Lawrence River, along the world-famous Thousand Islands. Its harbor is home to ships, yachts, St. Lawrence skiffs and antique wooden boats with whimsical names like Gadfly, Zipper and Pardon Me.

Classic wooden boats and boatbuilding is a major part of this region’s waterscape. Restored antique boats such as Chris-Crafts, Hutchinsons, Lymans and Gar Woods are common sights along these spectacular shores. Not to mention powerboats, freighters, skiffs, canoes, tall ships, ferries, kayaks and sailboats. But antique boats and the love affair with them are a big part of what make Clayton such a special place, rich in culture and teeming with history of bygone eras.

Venice of America

Clayton is a nautical town nestled on a storied stretch of the St. Lawrence River. Its location along the eastern edge of Lake Ontario overlooking the river makes it a prime destination in the Thousand Islands, which includes a total of 1,865 islands between Cape Vincent and Morristown, New York, across from Kingston and Brockville in eastern Ontario.

It’s hard to ignore Clayton’s heritage when you explore this river town. The St. Lawrence hugs the village’s shoreline, offering a spectacular vista of boats and ships gliding past islands. 

“It is known as the ‘Venice of America,’” says artist Michael Ringer, a renowned sculptor and painter who owns Michael Ringer’s St. Lawrence Gallery in Clayton. “Everything is about boating here.” The international headquarters for the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), the largest society in the world dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of classic wooden boats, is based in Clayton.

The village became a summer resort for the rich and famous when America’s wealthiest business barons discovered this cottage colony more than a century ago. You don’t have to go too far to see reminders of the Gilded Age in the 1880s and early 1900s. Take a stroll along the main street, Riverside Drive, and you’ll see remnants of one of the region’s first castles on Calumet Island. Tobacco tycoon Charles Emery, of New York’s American Tobacco Co., built the castle retreat on Calumet Island in 1894, directly across from Clayton. It later succumbed to a fire, but its original 82-foot water tower still stands, along with its original boathouse and caretaker residence.

Fame first befell this region more than a century ago, when a well-publicized 1872 visit to the Thousand Islands by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant put this place in the international spotlight. Grant was hosted by George Pullman, who manufactured the Pullman railway sleeping car. The industrialist built Castle Rest, a castle on Pullman Island in an area dubbed Millionaire’s Row, located just off Alexandria Bay. 

Back then, residents from New York City took railway cars to Clayton to visit their summer retreats. A famous vaudevillian and actress named May Irwin also made Clayton her home during the same era, building a pink mansion on Club Island and inviting guests like baseball star Babe Ruth. Millionaires from New York City like George C. Boldt, owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and Frederick Bourne, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, also built castles on islands near here. Bourne’s Singer Castle on Dark Island and Boldt’s never-lived-in, 120-room Boldt Castle on Heart Island are open to the public and are among the area’s top tourist attractions. Boldt abruptly halted constructing the castle after his wife, Louise, died of a heart attack in 1904 at just 42 years old. The structure stood vacant for decades. Today, the castle is being brought to life by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, as part of a $30-million restoration project.

Boldt’s luxurious 106-foot houseboat, La Duchesse, is an exhibit at the Antique Boat Museum. It was donated by the late Andrew McNally of Chicago. 

Singer Castle, a 28-room castle that was built as a fishing and hunting lodge for Bourne, offers daily tours and also rents out the Royal Suite overnight to visitors.

Antique Boat Capital

This northeastern port of call also is a world-renowned capital of classic boats. Clayton is home to the Antique Boat Museum (ABM), the town’s anchor tourism attraction drawing visitors from around the globe to take in its collection of more than 320 vintage vessels. 

ABM is oft referred to as the “premier freshwater nautical museum in North America,” according to Frederick (Fritz) Hager, ABM executive director. The extraordinary exhibits offer a fascinating voyage into the floating history of the Thousand Islands, and the best part is you don’t have to stay on shore to explore. The museum also offers rides aboard its fleet of classic wooden tour boats and St. Lawrence skiffs. Taking a tour around the Thousand Islands aboard these vessels is both an exhilarating and breathtaking experience, and one not to be missed.

The museum’s in-water fleet of classic antique boats offers “Ride the River” tours for a fee, giving visitors a trip through the Thousand Islands in style. The fleet includes a vintage-style commuter named Gadfly, a 33-foot Hutchinson Sedan Cruiser built with Mexican mahogany, and Teal, a 28-foot Gar Wood runabout, among others. It’s a chance to explore Clayton by water and get a closer look at nearby private islands and Rock Island Lighthouse, a historic lighthouse once operated by Thousand Islands pirate Bill Johnston. The lighthouse is open for public tours. 

Another nearby island, Round Island, once housed the 300-room New Frontenac Hotel; sadly, it burned down in 1911. Famous guests included J.D. Rockefeller and the Duke of Newcastle. Its original U.S. Post Office still stands on the island, which is lined with 19th-century cottages and boathouses. Nearby Grindstone Island boasts one of the largest sandy beaches in the Thousand Islands.

More to Explore

There’s no doubt that classic and antique wooden boats on display at the Antique Boat Museum are Clayton’s biggest tourist draw. This year marks the 50th anniversary of ABM’s annual Antique Boat Show and Auction, being held August 1-3. The event attracts thousands of boat enthusiasts, locals and tourists annually to the museum’s sprawling waterfront campus. 

This year, in honor of the 50th consecutive show, the event is being extended by seven days. Activities surrounding the show and 50th celebration will take place through August 10, including the annual Race Boat Regatta scheduled August 8-10.

But there’s a lot more to explore here than just boats. Enjoy Clayton’s idyllic downtown waterfront, lined with shops and restaurants. For a small town, there’s plenty to discover. Bella’s, a bakery and bistro located in a building once occupied by a tour boat company, serves gourmet sandwiches named after local islands. The patios here and at nearby Channelside Restaurant serve up great meals and scenery, with a passing parade of boats and the best views of Calumet Island. 

Michael Ringer’s St. Lawrence Gallery offers a unique collection of books, art and paintings that capture the beauty of the Thousand Islands.

Clayton’s history is literally on display inside Corbin’s River Heritage. The shop carries historical photographs and a collection of Thousand Islands books.  

Two other museums worth checking out are the Thousand Islands Museum and the Thousand Islands Art Center, home of the Handweaving Museum. Just east of Clayton on Route 12 is Captain Spicer’s Gallery and Gifts, worth a stop for its collection of stoneware, artwork and books. Nearby Clipper’s Restaurant and Foxy’s on the waterfront at Fishers Landing are local favorites. 

Back En Vogue

Clayton has made a comeback in recent years as the community restores its landmark buildings, including the Clayton Opera House, a nationally registered Historic Place and century-old, 525-seat theater. And now, a new, 105-room 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel overlooking the waterfront is set to open this summer in the village — along with 50 new boat slips for visitors.

“We’re encouraging people to make it more than a day trip,” says Clayton Mayor Norma Zimmer.

Clayton has been named one of the nation’s “Best Small Towns” by Coastal Living magazine and ranked among the “Top Ten Coolest Small Towns in America” by Budget Travel magazine. The New York Times chose it as one of its “25 Northeast Getaways.” 

For guided boat tours check out Clayton Island Tours, located along the village’s main street. The landmark Thousand Islands (TI) Inn restaurant claims to have the original recipe for Thousand Island Dressing. It’s attributed to a local fisherman’s wife named Sophia LaLonde, who came up with the recipe in the early 1900s. She’s said to have concocted the tangy dressing for dinners hosted by her fishing-guide husband, George LaLonde. 

The TI Inn will be opening this summer with a refurbished upscale restaurant, boutique hotel and piano bar. Today, fishing tours from Clayton for bass, perch, walleye and muskie still remain popular.

If you’re a cheese lover, you won’t want to miss 1000 Islands River Rat Cheese, a store that offers delicious cheese, spreads, curds and chocolate, among other tasty treats. Pair local cheeses and wines and sample local award-winning vintages at the Coyote Moon Vineyards Wine and Craft Beer Store. 

Clayton is home to the first regional micro-distillery in the Thousand Islands. Clayton Distillery produces premium-grade distilled products from locally-grown grains and fruits. The distillery will host the first-ever Whiskey Wingding July 19. The event will feature food made with their products and tastings of their spirits, as well as offerings from other local wineries and breweries.

Peruse the Porch & Paddle for its selection of contemporary cottage decor and river-inspired gifts. Lyric Coffee House, the village’s historic, century-old movie house, has been transformed into a chic wireless coffee shop and restaurant. Take in one of the live performances and amazing acoustics at the Clayton Opera House. Or explore other shops featuring local artisans, jewelry and souvenirs.

Island Hopping

Just south of Clayton, in a renovated boat house on Bluff Island, one can enjoy an unforgettable shopping experience at the Boateak. Here, you will find unusual art and craft products, river memorabilia, antiques and gifts for any occasion. This is truly a shopper’s paradise not to be missed!

If you have time, there are several neighboring Thousand Islands villages and towns that are just a short jaunt either by boat or car. There’s Alexandria Bay, which overlooks Heart Island’s Boldt Castle. It’s a bustling tourism hub that includes Uncle Sam Tour Boats, restaurants and souvenir shops. A drive west along Route 12 will take you to another coastal town, Cape Vincent, where the river meets Lake Ontario.

Cape Vincent is known for its historic Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, built in 1827. The iconic landmark is a beacon for tourism and features a hostel. It’s also known for an annual French festival celebrating its French heritage and connection to exiled emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Thousand Island Park at Wellesley Island, which can be accessed by the Thousand Islands toll bridge, offers another nearby day trip just east of Clayton. Step back in time here, where preserved, porch-adorned heritage gingerbread cottages line streets with names like Paradise and Rainbow. Residents here aren’t in a hurry. They get around on golf carts. A historic pavilion offers sweeping views of the St. Lawrence and Rock Island Lighthouse.

If you fall in love with this special destination, Thousand Islands Realty can provide you with in-depth knowledge of the market, available properites and a window into the unique lifestyle this area offers.

Clayton not only takes you into the heart of the Thousand Islands, but into a world of antique wooden boats and the best place of all to see them: A real river town with the best classic boat collection in North America. 

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