I haven’t said much about the river, or Clayton for good reason. Anyone who claims to remember things clearly as a 3 year old is probably recalling later memories, or fibbing or both. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe there are prodigies whose memory of being born is clear and accurate. I doubt it. Mine sure aren’t, and since my Dad was thoughtful enough, and had the records available to provide me with my I.Q. at too early an age for my own good, I’m pretty sure I’m not just too dumb to remember. It is more that what needs to be said about the real Clayton and the real river have to be experienced again, at the source, before being committed to paper. That done (it happened or is happening this summer) we can continue...
I can say that there was this great big, blue, river right there nearby. A river that Dad just loved from day one in Clayton, I think. The only problem was, despite most Claytonians opinions to the contrary, we were relatively poor. Principals of schools didn’t make much then. We couldn’t afford a boat, let alone a motor for one. We didn’t even have a car for a long time, but borrowed a school station wagon for trips when possible. Something that would be scandalous in today’s school systems, but was done with the approval of the powers that be. Dad would never have done something such as that if it was not so approved. We could, and did walk a lot however. Mom wasn’t much of a walker, but Dad loved to walk around town. Often he would take me with him. Sometimes we would walk to the rail yard downtown. Sometimes we would actually walk the tracks.
The rail yard was my favorite. To look at it today, you would not know Clayton even had a rail spur, nor what it was used for. It is gone, now, totally erased. If you want to see where it was, look at an old map, or ask a local. You can still walk the old bed, a wonderfully raised clear trail from which you overlook swamps and golf course and old pastureland. Start on the East Line Road (you may have to search a little on the north side of the road) where it rises slightly after crossing the “T” at upper Graves Street. You can walk all the way down to Mary Street, where you will lose it in development that took place after the tracks were taken up.
The railroad of my childhood had two uses actually. Now, those of you reading this book with real historical knowledge of Clayton please forgive me. Once again, I am seeing this from a child’s perspective, not from a historical viewpoint. The history is hard to find nowadays, but it is there if you know where to look. The Thousand Islands Museum has some excellent references, for example. My brother Jack and his wife Marylou once gave Carol and me a lithograph of an old drawing of Clayton in the late 1800’s, a copy of which you can obtain from the Shipyard Museum. Our copy hangs in our living room where I can look at it now and then, and clearly shows what it probably looked like at the bustling terminal when steam excursion trains arrived in the area “downtown” by the coal docks.
In that last paragraph, you find the two major things the railroad brought to Clayton: tourists and coal. They also took back with them milk produced locally. Most of the traffic up and down the St. Lawrence River was powered by coal, and Clayton was a coaling station for passing steamers. Some of those steamers were local, some from outside the area, and some carried passengers and mail to and from the island homes of millionaires, and the resort hotels like the Frontenac on Round Island. Long before the American highway system metastasized into what it is today, the rail lines were the main arteries of transport. The line to Clayton was the only rapid transit to the Thousand Islands. If one reads of the folk who were entertained at Boldt Castle, and Calumet Castle, Dark Island Castle and Mr. Pullman’s Castle-like home near Alexandria Bay (hereafter known as Alex Bay for short), it is clear that they arrived by train.
My boyhood walks with Dad were not to see hordes of such tourist folk, for they were mostly gone by then. You could get to Clayton by car in the 40’s and 50’s. We did, however see the steam engines pull in, and sometimes, sometimes if we were lucky, there would be a mail car and a coach with them. Most of the time it was coal cars and milk trains, though. Dad and I, and sometimes Mom, would walk down to the docks and see the train, and I could tell one of those times might be coming when we heard the steam whistle blowing as the train came into town. Over the crossing at the East Line road, down past the golf course, past the decaying marine structures along the bay fronting Washington Island it came. We’d walk, and sometimes drive down and get as close to the train as we could. Close enough to smell the steam and oil and feel the heat from the engine.
Then we moved to Beecher Street, nearer the school and farther from the river. Oh, we still went down there after that, but at some indefinite time (that time in your life when spring and summer and fall and winter seem to blend in together, and there are no date markers and you didn’t look at a calendar with any real understanding) it all went away. In the 50’s, diesel replaced steam and the shrieking toot as the engine approached the East Line Road crossing became the honk of an air horn. I remember Dad saying something about the railroad making the horn louder (they finally did) so people could hear it better before it killed someone at that crossing.
What I recall best is the way the tracks were cut into the orangey quartz laden bedrock just off the street, down by Frink’s Snowplow works. You can still see where the tracks were, if you know where to look. Carol gets bored, I’m sure, when I walk down memory lane with her in that spot, so changed as to be unrecognizable. The oil you got on your shoes, the ever present coal dust and the noise, all gone now. In the late 50’s the big wooden structure housing the coal bins and machinery for coaling burned. The fire siren went off and my mom took us to see the fire, which burned for days if my memory is correct. I took my Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera down there and took pictures of the skeletal remains. Those photos, along with many others that I took of Clayton, are gone now, lost in the Great Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972 in Elmira, NY. I wish I could have saved them.
I remember looking out of the big plate glass windows of the Driftwood restaurant at the blackened beams. By then, the coaling station was rarely used anymore except for coal sold to heat homes, diesel also having replaced steam as a power source for the lake freighters plying the big, blue St. Lawrence.
That area of Clayton brings many confused memories of my childhood. Confused because they don’t have dates connected to them in most cases, and I’m never sure which ones came where in the time scheme. The Utard sank at the coal dock, and we went to see it in answer to the siren’s song. A gas tanker sank in frigid water in the same place after hitting (I think) the same shoal. The latter was when I was in high school, and the pictures have been lost also. Once, while wasting time with my best friend Bryce down by the town docks, we saw a boat come in and a body was carried off and laid out on the dock. I don’t really know if I saw what I seem to recall, but I knew that the dead person was a scuba diver, and that some boater had ignored his floating buoy (or he didn’t have one, I’m not sure) and had run him over. He had prop marks on his back, an all too common way for divers to be injured or killed. It was the second dead body I had seen.
When I was barely 8 or 9, my next door neighbor died. He was an old man, and well liked in the town. Tom had been a school custodian and handyman, and had been very kind to me. He smelled of cigars, and had a gruff voice. Years later, whenever I saw a Popeye cartoon, I would remember him for some reason. When he died, the “viewing” and funeral were held at his house, a traditional Irish thing, I think, but again, there’s that memory thing. My brothers insisted that his ghost would haunt me forever if I didn’t go to the viewing and see him. Mom did not want me to go. I went next door, and did not see into the casket, but had nightmares about his ghost for a while.
Dad and I, and sometimes Mom, used to go to the coal docks to fish. They fished, I watched. Having no boat, the best way to fish was to get as close to the water as you could. You couldn’t get closer than that without a boat. Sometimes they fished and I would wander among the coal piles (large chunks of soft coal, not the small hard coal nuggets. Both were present, but I knew not to climb the latter, or play around them, as they could fall easily) and coal dust, pretending they were mountains, or forts, etc. Some of the chunks had fossil outlines in them if you broke them open. Sometimes I took paper and drew clouds and sunsets, which I imagined were very artistic, and received much praise from my parents. As I got older I realized that they were encouraging me out of love, not because I could draw well.
The older I got, the more independence they gave me. I wandered far afield, as far as the old round table used by the railroad to turn engines around. I watched the sparks fly inside the doors of the Frink plant. I threw stones at frogs, snakes and anything in general I knew would not break. I somehow knew that if I broke things, Dad would not be happy. I wandered up and down the old rail tracks, balancing on the rails, sometimes falling and skinning a knee. I watched the clouds build high in the west, fantastic tall shapes over the tops of the coal piles, with the sun gradually falling behind them. I liked to pretend they were ships, or planes or huge people. Children still look with fascination at clouds, but I wonder, with TV, do they still imagine they see the Red Baron and his Sopwith Camel, or castles in the sky?
As darkness approached, I would return to the river, on the old brown railroad tie dockside, and wait for them to finish fishing. Sometimes I would sit near the edge, on the sun warmed ties, and sift the dried wood rot smelling of creosote through my fingers, or just sit and watch the sun set in fiery orange. Now, there is little left of those ties, except split grey slivers and metal rods poking out of the jumbled rocks at the north end of the waterfront park that replaced the old yard. Frink’s is closed, there is a fence preventing anyone from wandering into the property, and the winter waves have taken most of the wooden dock frames away. My Dad’s spirit reminds me that going around the no trespassing sign is a bad idea, so I never do.
Instead I stand on the blacktop paved area where bands now play in summer, and day dream of the three foot great northern pike Dad pulled out of the river within a hundred feet of the viewing benches now meant for concerts, not victorious fisher folk. I see the look of determination on his face as he worked the black nylon high test line and the silver Shakespeare reel, the green metal rod bent in a tense arc nearly to the water. The sun is setting, and I am awed by the struggle. Several people are watching, and one realizes that the net lying by Dad’s feet won’t bring the fish in. He runs to his car and gets a larger net with a long handle, and a gaff hook materializes from somewhere....
Just like the other Clayton memory photos in my collection, this one has to remain a memory etched by that fading sun’s rays. I lost the only copy I had of Dad holding that big fish, me standing next to him, fish as nearly as tall as I was. Someday, if you see me standing there, looking out at the river, that is what I am seeing. The fish coming into the net, gill hooked with the gaff, the rod still bent, then the fish thrashing around in the netting on the dock timbers. My Dad sought Muskies year after year, but never caught one. I believe that his moment with this pike made up for that. I have often silently wished the fisher-folk I see there good luck as they persevere against all odds in their attempt to catch the big one off that dock.