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Clayton, Tour Boats, Alexandria Bay – 60’s Style

Editor’s Note:  This article is Mike Fesko’s compilation of  posts that first appeared on his popular website

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.

 Online interview with  a former crew member of the American Boat Line.

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,

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.

Posted in: History, Places
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Timothy Freeman
Comment by: Timothy Freeman ( )
Left at: 10:16 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
I spent my summers on Basswood Island with my Grandmother in the early 50s till 1963. clayton was different then.I remember the driftwood restaurant,the movie theater,and other stores.
Comment by: Mike ( )
Left at: 12:54 PM Monday, April 15, 2013
Thanks for the comment, Timothy. Another memory I have is a huge galvanized metal fish tank (maybe mid-to-late 60's) with Pike and other local fish in it. Probably a tourist attraction to highlight the area's variety. It was in a breezeway nder some stores on Riverside Drive about halfway
between McCormick's and the old coal docks (west of John St).

Len McCauley
Comment by: Len McCauley ( )
Left at: 9:57 PM Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The American Boat Line used to operate out of Gananoque as well as Clayton. My father Jack McCauley used to sell tickets for them here. I routinely would jump on the boat at the age of 8 or 9 and spend the day walking around Clayton by myself. Things have changed dramatically in the last half century.
Comment by: Mike ( )
Left at: 1:41 PM Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Hi Len,

Thanks for the comment; I'd agree, a lot has changed. I do recall getting off at the Gananoque stop on one or two tour trips (always worried there wouldn't be a return boat to come get us!)

Dave Farnsworth
Comment by: Dave Farnsworth ( )
Left at: 11:59 AM Sunday, April 21, 2013
I have not been back to the Island since 1967. I was 7yo at the time so I'm sure a lot has changed. My fondest memories are of the little toads hopping at your feet, and of course the chipmunks scurrying all over the place. I also recall the ships travelling down the seaway at night blasting their fog horns. PRICELESS!
Rob Russell
Comment by: Rob Russell ( )
Left at: 12:36 PM Thursday, May 2, 2013
Excellent piece.

I ran in the village of Clayton with my cousins during the 1970s. I recall the American Boat line and when McCormicks burned.

There were two arcades on main street. One was in the American Boat line. The other was where the Chamber of Commerce is now.

We used to have these running pea-shooter wars that still make me laugh when I think about the trouble we got into.

I recall Bohemian Rhapsody playing at one Arcade and Sultans of Swing on the Canadian radio station we listened to while sleeping on the porch at night. So roughly, that is 1975-78.

The biggest change in Clayton? I would guess that there are very few children in town. It's become a town for the retired. My mom lives there and I am fortunate enough to send my kids there for a few days every summer.
Ray Ulansey
Comment by: Ray Ulansey
Left at: 11:20 AM Monday, May 16, 2016
We used to spend a couple weeks every summer in Clayton visiting close family friends. I spent most of my days fishing on McCormick's dock... I always had a full stringer of fish....

At some point we always took a trip over to Gananoque and went to some monastery where the monks made some horribly smelly cheese that my father loved.... I remember one trip we brought back a fair quantity of this horrible stuff and the car stunk..... Coming back across the bridge the customs agent stuck his head in the window and immediately pulled back from the smell..... he quickly asked my dad if he had anything to declare.... My dad answered "no", and obviously the customs agent had no desire to search the car.... he simply waved us through....

We spent time over on Grindstone Island, and stayed at Schramm's Cabins with Marian Schramm... another family friend....
Tom Belgard
Comment by: Tom Belgard
Left at: 6:59 PM Friday, June 17, 2016
As a 10 year old boy in 1960, Alexandria Bay was larger than life and seemed like a long trip from our camp near Ogdensburg before Route 12 was built. No visit was complete without a stop at Adventure Town and a ride on a real stagecoach. Then a cruise through the islands on a vintage mahogany and white Uncle Sam's tour boat. There were a lot of tour boats plying the river back then. I also remember cruising past a place called "Sunset Island Restaurant", which I have been unable to find any history of. Every boat trip included a stop at Boldt's Castle which was wide-open and graffiti covered then, but it was ever so fascinating, exploring the endless rooms as a young boy. These are all wonderful memories.

Thomas Belgard
Rancho Bernardo, California