Editor’s Note: This article is Mike Fesko’s compilation of posts that first appeared on his popular website www.1000islandssteelking.com.
Boating in the 1000 Islands is timeless. I remember it from the boyhood vantage point of the 1960's when I spent the summers at Calumet Island Marina and Clayton, NY. I can still hear the sounds and see the sights in my head. I haven't been back in maybe 14 years, but I imagine today it's a lot like it was then. So what's different? Who out there remembers the 1000 Islands from the 60's and can compare it to today?
Let me take a stab at it, without the benefit of first-hand knowledge.
Obviously Calumet Island is different. From its glorious heyday complete with castle and service harbor, to the 1960's marina, to today as a private residence, Calumet has a beauty and charm all its own.
The castle ruins were still plentiful and provided quite a sight-seeing adventure for my brother and I, though there was no way to safely get too close. It was pretty easy to find broken pieces of china (I remember blue on white) on the periphery, but I never kept any. I visited Calumet in the early 2000's and the top of the hill where the castle was situated was very clean, and for the first time in my life I was able to see the turret and stairs facing the Clayton side that was completely overgrown in the 60's.
The Calumet harbor itself was filled with boats; so many, that "finger docks" sprung out from the stone walkways lining the inner harbor to accommodate the growing customer base. Today none of those remain, though a few new ones have sprouted according to updated photographs.
Regarding Clayton, one of the big changes between then and now is the missing coal refueling dock. As a kid, it was so neat to see the big ships close up while they took on coal for fuel.
I can still hear the very unique sound of the coal as it dropped down the long chutes into the ship's storage areas. Watching these behemoths maneuver to the mooring with deckhands securing the steel cables to the huge pilings and cleats left indelible images in my head. I've seen pictures of that part of Clayton today and it has certainly been spruced up since the coal docks went away. The adjacent town docks were configured a bit differently then, and the Golden Anchor restaurant sat above the side opposite the coal docks (and as I recall, the US Customs office as well). Occasionally, small single-deck wooden tour boats docked next to the Golden Anchor; I believe these were part of the Uncle Sam Boat Tours line. Far down the other side of town was Rice's Marina where my father got minnows for our weekly fishing trips to Grindstone Island, and McCormick's restaurant.
McCormick's Restaurant and American Boat Line In this vintage postcard, you can see the street-side view of McCormick's Restaurant next to
the old American Boat Line tourboat office. Tours have changed a bit since then. Early in my decade of visits to Clayton, my brother, mother, and I boarded one of their tour boats, the wooden double decker American Adonis.
1000 Islands American Adonis from an old postcard we bought in the 60's
I still remember the captain slowing her to a near stop as the tour guide asked us to look carefully over the side to see the line painted under the water, marking the boundary between the US and Canada. I was quite frustrated that I couldn't see it, and a double check with my brother and mom confirmed it must have been really tough to spot! According to a former Adonis crewmember I’ve talked with, the trips were prerecorded but the captains pointed out other bits of good stuff like the underwater borderline.
A few more tour-years later, we were greeted with the announcement that there would soon be an all new aluminum double decker - the American Venus. Wow, I could not wait! This was at the heart of the space age and anything shiny, new, and made of metal was one step above the rest. The Venus turned out to be everything I hoped for and then, as if you got an extra present after all your birthday gifts were unwrapped, word of a second aluminum ABL vessel hit -coming soon, the American Neptune!
Fishing off Grindstone Island most weekends, we could spot all three of them from across the river. Eventually their wake would make it to us, though quite small compared to the huge tsunamis they made when viewed up close. The gentle rocking of our Steel King brought a comforting reminder that all was well, timetables were being met, and people were out having a great day courtesy of the American Boat Line. On several occasions, while seated by the window at McCormick's Restaurant, the familiar blast from the tour boat's horn warned of departure and foreshadowed the start of another tour run as happy people on the upper deck passed by "my" restaurant window.
Years later there was a third practically identical aluminum boat introduced - the American Adonis II, but I never got the chance to see her. They're all gone now, but not forgotten. I read that one was in the Boston area about 20 years ago, and another in Florida, but the trail thins out. I'd love to to know if Adonis/Adonis II, Venus, or Neptune still exist – and if so, where.
Alexandria Bay is an unknown to me as far as change. I’ve never been back unfortunately. In the 60’s, it was a distant destination since we didn’t usually cruise too far from home base. Nonetheless, every few summers my family would take our Steel King cruiser and make the voyage from Calumet downriver. I remember how “neat” is was to pass under the 1000 Islands Bridge as cars passed overhead, moor at the docks near a hotel, and visit a western-themed family spot called "Adventure Town". They had wild-west shows and a train ride that included a "real" gold robbery! (You did not want to be the kid sitting on the bag of gold when the bad guys came a' ridin' in!) That was quite a trip back to our home port, especially when the river kicked up whitecaps that tested the Steel King’s basic single-arm windshield wiper. Coming upriver under the Bridge and into Calumet Island Marina we’d go, and once docked outside the old yellow boathouse, Gray Marine engine shut down, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t on the train watching for those gold robbers anymore. Even still, that was a journey worth waiting for.
So now I ask you - What else has changed?
By Mike Fesko, www.1000islandssteelking.com
Mike Fesko is a freelance voiceover artist, credentialed Project Management Professional, and private pilot. He and his family live in New England and his interests include radio broadcasting, photography, and amateur radio. Mike has created a website boating……the 1000 Islands and Calumet Island Marina in the '60s. Be sure to check it out often as he adds photographs and commentary.