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Appreciating the River in Winter

My grandfather, Thomas Mitchell (1913-1990), told me many stories about life on the river during the winter months. Many winter jobs were actually tied to the area’s economic engine of tourism. They had to fill the icehouse (already posted on the website). They moved houses between islands by sliding them across the ice. Dock work was often performed on the ice where it served as an excellent working platform.

But there were also stories of survival — ice fishing to put food on the table or trips to Clayton by sleigh or truck for supplies ranging from food to coal to Christmas presents. And sometimes tragedy struck, as when four members of the Charles Hagerman family (the mother, two sons, and a daughter) fell through the ice in front of their homestead at Waterson’s Point on Wellesley Island around Christmas day, 1898. (Hear the Story of the The Tragedy at Waterson’s Point and read excerpts from newspapers and other sources at

One of my favorite stories, alas not captured on tape, is of Chancy Patterson driving into South Bay from somewhere with his truck, witnessed by my grandfather who was on shore near the South Bay Ice House. The truck began to fall through the ice, so Chancy gunned it. Ice flew up from behind the truck and Chancy carved a channel all the way to the icehouse ramp.

For at least the second year in a row, we’re in the midst of what I would call an open winter — a year when the main channels remain as open water with no ice. I believe this is unprecedented. Yes, there have been open winters in the past, but they were infrequent, maybe once a decade, and not two years in a row, to my knowledge. This concerns me on multiple levels, and I believe it should concern everyone with a love of the river, indeed, of the planet.

I believe we are entering a new era of river winter meteorology that could have innumerable impacts from the amount and duration of lake effect snows on Central New York, to the ability to form an ice bridge to Grindstone Island and other locales. Then there are the ecological effects on the river bottom which, for eons, has experienced an extended period of calm caused by the sheet of ice above.

Finally, and perhaps most devastating, there will be a renewed call for winter navigation as there will be virtually no ice in the shipping channel. Unfortunately, the displacement effects of large ships will only be exacerbated by the ice still locked in the bays and along the shore, just as it is this year. Imagine that ice being lifted and lowered by several inches every time a ship goes by — the effect to fragile wetlands and docks would be disastrous.

In the hopes of raising awareness to the impacts of climate change along the river, I have posted four new stories from the RiverStories archives.

First, my Great Uncle, Grant Mitchell (1900-1979), Executive Secretary of the the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority from 1938 to 1972, speaks about how the winters seemed “longer and colder” when he was a kid. Interestingly, this observation was made in the mid-1970s, before Global Warming was even on the radar for scientist. He also explains how people “depended on ice for transportation.” From the recording, it sounds as if people would skate to Clayton while pushing an ice punt, although we know that people also traveled by iceboats, sleigh, vehicle, foot, and horseback. His recollections can be found in Crossing to Clayton for Supplies.

Another task that often occurred during the winter months on the ice was the moving of houses. My grandfather moved a lot of houses over his lifetime as a contractor at Thousand Island Park — many times just a few blocks. But one time he towed an old kitchen shed from T.I. Park through the Narrows and over the current Wellesley Island State Park isthmus with a multi-ton World War I Continuous Track Gun Carrier. The structure would eventually become his camp on Crow Island, across from Ivy Lea. He tells about the ice shaking experience in Hauling the Camp to Crow.

Finally, it was common to use the ice as a bridge to ferry materials from one location to another. In Truck Thru the Ice, my grandfather tells about one time when his truck fell through the ice with a load of stone from Picton Island. Somehow they had the truck out and running again by the next morning, but it was late into the night before they got home. My mother recalls how they were pacing the floor, “getting ready for death,” sure that the men had fallen through the ice. She was ten at the time, but she was keeping a journal even then. Her entry for the day reads, February 20, 1951 Tue. Warm. I went to school. Daddy went in the river with his truck.

There are surely more stories of life on the river during the winter. Some are in the archives, and I will attempt to post them as I can. Hopefully, there are more to be discovered. Regardless, may they inspire you to appreciate the river in new light.

By Tom French

Tom French was raised on Wellesley Island at Thousand Island Park. His book, River Views:  A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, was recently awarded a Silver Medal for Best Regional Non-Fiction Book in the Northeast in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards.  (see our Publications page for details).  His work has been featured in Mac|Life Magazine, Adirondack Life, Stereo World,TI Life and The Watertown Daily Times. Several of his commentaries have aired on North Country Public Radio . In addition, he is a member of the band, The Buoyrockers

TI Life published one of Tom’s short stories in our July 2012 issue,  “Mom Makes River a Garden,” A Short Story from  his new eBook now available on Smashwords and Amazon.   Wind Water Waves is a  collection of nine short stories reflecting on various characters' relationships with "The River."

In April 2012, Tom introduced his “River Stories” to TI Life.  His website is popular as it captures life of old with real voice and wonderful images.  Enjoy!

  • Truck goes through the Ice off Picton.

    Truck goes through the Ice off Picton.

  • Bartlett Point Dock, Clayton in Distance

    Bartlett Point Dock, Clayton in Distance

  • Bartlett Point, Crew of Thomas Mitchell & Sons, Contractor.

    Bartlett Point, Crew of Thomas Mitchell & Sons, Contractor.

  • Bartlett Point Dock with Calumet behind Ice Boat.

    Bartlett Point Dock with Calumet behind Ice Boat.

  • The Crew of Thomas Mitchell & Son, circa 1942, towing an old old kitchen from TI Park.

    The Crew of Thomas Mitchell & Son, circa 1942, towing an old old kitchen from TI Park.

  • (L-R) Harry Dano, Will Grant, Chancy Patterson, Jay Waterson, Waterson, unknown, possibly a Dano.

    (L-R) Harry Dano, Will Grant, Chancy Patterson, Jay Waterson, Waterson, unknown, possibly a Dano.

  • Early Snowmobile & one Group off Thousand Island Park circa 1910-15. Photo by Charles Cornell.

    Early Snowmobile & one Group off Thousand Island Park circa 1910-15. Photo by Charles Cornell.

  • Harvesting Ice in South Bay off Thousand Island Park, early 20th Century.

    Harvesting Ice in South Bay off Thousand Island Park, early 20th Century.


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Debbie Hull
Comment by: Debbie Hull ( )
Left at: 9:10 PM Thursday, February 14, 2013
Just love reading about the old times at TIP. It reminds me so much of my grandfather, Ken Maxson, and his stories about Chancey, Tommy, and the rest of the crew.
Dick Withington
Comment by: Dick Withington ( )
Left at: 8:21 PM Friday, February 15, 2013
I very much enjoyed reading of river life in decades past. The photos are exceptional. River folks were made of "good stuff" in those days!I hope this is just one of a series of similar articles. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the river with us.
iris waterson
Comment by: iris waterson ( )
Left at: 10:05 PM Saturday, February 16, 2013
Thoroughly enjoy your river stories, especially this one about ice harvesting. My father, Gerald Reed, also did some of that to fill island ice houses on this side of the river. We have pictures and remember tales of one of his trucks breaking through the ice between Frederick and Vanderbilt. The picture of a boathouse being built with an unidentified location - I believe it might be in Arcadia Park, Fishers Landing. The house in the background looks familiar. Also the picture of the six gentlemen, with the fourth one from the left id'd as Jay Waterson is correct, with the fifth one from the left is his brother Will Waterson. Keep the stories coming!
Jim Waterson
Comment by: Jim Waterson
Left at: 2:50 PM Sunday, February 17, 2013
My father Bill Waterson is the fifth from the left. Most of the men in my family worked for "Tommy" Mitchell at one time or another when we lived on "the Island." The back wheels of my dad's Model A broke through the ice once on the Lake of the Isles and it was stuck there. It was close to shore, and they hauled it out with a Fordson tractor with steel lugged wheels. Ah, memories. Thanks!!
Louise Ford
Comment by: Louise Ford ( )
Left at: 9:35 AM Friday, February 22, 2013
Wonderful Article. The Bartlett Point dock was the original Clayton Yacht Club Dock. That original L is still there ... It was built out of one solid Crib of stone which is why it lasted so long... Perhaps the truck full of granite was heading there? Unfortunately when the wood started rotting around the crib about 20 + years ago the Corp of Engineers would not let the one big crib remain and the CYC had to put in smaller square cribs so that the fish could swim through... I still laugh about that as I assume the C of E approval person has never actually seen how much room there is for fish to swim around Bartlett Point !! The original large crib was so solid that it was a shame on the point to loose it but ... the government knows best (??)

I am wondering 1.. How did they dare drive a truck loaded with rock on the ice in the first place and 2 .. when it did break through why didn't it sink, forgive the pun, like a stone ? Maybe it was very shallow water and the wheels were on the bottom ? No idea how it would stay suspended as it is in the photo..

Winter Navigation should forever more be stopped for all the same reasons as before 2 years with little ice or not ! Although I just heard today that it has now frozen over from Bartlett point to Grindstone !

My neighbors the McRea family on Grindstone used to tell wonderful stories about going to Kingston in a horse drawn sleighs on the ice and also how when the 80 something generation were young they would ice skate all the way from McRea Bay to Clayton !! I know many trips on cross country ski's in recent years have been taken on the ice around the Island or as the Kayakers call it in the summer... doing a Grinder !

Too bad its so darn cold and dangerous or all of us who love it so much would just stay... Wouldn't that drive the year rounders mad !??!
Mike Ritter
Comment by: Mike Ritter ( )
Left at: 12:35 PM Friday, February 22, 2013
I remember hearing so much about the river in winter from Nellie, when I was first working on the videos for the Park Museum...Thanks, Tom,
for adding dimension to those tales!
Comment by: LyndaCrothers ( )
Left at: 6:21 AM Saturday, March 2, 2013
Nice stories Thank You , a good read with my tea looking out on the ice on the St. Lawrence on Wolfe Island, early morn.
Scott Dano
Comment by: Scott Dano ( )
Left at: 11:02 PM Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Nice to see some Dano's
Robert S. Dano Jr
Comment by: Robert S. Dano Jr ( )
Left at: 5:59 PM Friday, August 1, 2014
Hello, I am looking for family in this area of Thousand Island Park, NY that can help me and my father trace our family history. My father is Robert S. Dano sr, my Grandfather was Kenneth L Dano, My Great Grandfather was Albertus Dano, my Great Great Grandfather was Stillman H/G Dano. Any help from family or relatives would be a blessing! Please contact me at deep clean @ (Remove spaces)