Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Clayton’s Railroad Depot

When I was very young living on East Line Road, my bedroom window faced south over-looking the farm. Early in the morning, if I happened to be awake, the first thing that caught my attention was the sound of the train whistle, as it crossed Black Creek Road. I always liked to look out over the flats and see the trail of smoke following the tracks, as the train went through. That was a long time ago. We all took it for granted. I guess we thought it would always be there, but things change.

The railroad to Clayton had a long and complicated history. I had no idea when I started looking for the facts, what the railroad meant to our town. In the early 1800s the only means of transporting goods was by the river and the lakes. First the sailing ships, then the steamers, but the goods brought from the mid-west needed to find a way inland, and our products needed to be brought to the river. There were no good roads, no "Super Highways", no trucks to transport heavy loads.

By the mid 1800s the railroads had found their way into the southern regions of the state as far as Utica and Rome, but our local area was just starting to be recognized as an important part of the region. Discussions began around 1852-53 between the Rome-Watertown-Ogdensburg and the Black River-Utica railroads about which routes the railroad should take. By late 1853, plans were started, but were abandoned, with investors losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, by 1873, the Black River-Utica Railroad had extended the tracks through to New York towns of Philadelphia, Theresa, Lafargeville and on to Clayton.

LaFargeville shipped out its first load of cheese and butter for New York City, in March of 1873. Also, by 1873, Clayton had built their first Depot and the turn-table so the locomotives could make the return trips back to the bigger cities. The first passenger car pulled into Clayton in late 1873 with 250 dignitaries from the big cities.

This was a big turning point for our area. It wasn't long before George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Sleeper cars, brought President Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman to visit him on his Island. They were so impressed by the beauty of the area that word soon spread and the rich and famous from the larger cities all wanted to visit the area, or own Island property. This was when the railroad became very important.

By the late 1800s the Islands were the place to be for New Yorkers who could afford it. The Clayton Depot was a beehive of activity in the summer season. Many families from the big cities would travel by the Pullman Sleeper cars, (called Club Cars), which traveled non-stop from New York City to Clayton. They would come north on a Friday night to the Clayton Depot where they were met by their Yachts or by the steamers and then on to their Island summer homes. Often they brought nannies, maids and lawn workers to stay for the summer. The fathers would stay until Sunday afternoon and then travel back to the cities for the week to take care of business, and then back to the Islands for the weekend. Clayton became known for its tourist business and the huge Hotels were busy as people flocked to the area.

But this was only a part of the Railroad's importance. Thousands of tons of coal were brought by steamships from the Midwest and unloaded at the Clayton docks, to be shipped by rail, inland to the big cities. Grain, salt, iron ore, lumber and thousands of tons of products passed through the area all the time. Ice was harvested from the River and shipped by insulated railroad cars to New York City, which gave many men employment in the winter, when they would otherwise have been idle. Baled hay was shipped out on the railroad cars, which made a new market for the Farmers' crops. At one time there were 11 passenger cars daily coming into Clayton, being met by steamers and yachts. By1890, RW&O had 100 locomotives, 98 passenger cars, 35 baggage cars, and 2609 freight cars. In October of 1891 the railroad was leased to New York Central for 99 years. It was a booming time for Clayton.

The building of new improved highways and the invention of motor cars and trucks, in the 1930s and 40s, made it easier and cheaper for people to travel by car, and goods were starting to be moved by trucks. These vehicles could travel to places the railroads didn't reach. Business dropped off and it became less feasible to travel by train. Around 1946-47 the last sleeper car came to Clayton. Passenger service ended in1951 and the last freight service in 1972.  The tracks were abandoned.

However all was not lost. Beginning in 1993, through a mix of donations and land acquisition and right-of-way easements by local landowners, the rail road became a Thousand Islands Land Trust Preserve.  In fact, the original 18-mile stretch was purchased by TILT, through the efforts of the late Sissy Danforth, then executive director of TILT.  The rails were torn out and parts of the trail are now used by various local ATV and snowmobiling clubs. The trail is also appreciated by photographers, hikers and those on bicycles, cross country skis, and snowshoes.

The old Clayton Depot, once a beehive of activity and a thing of beauty, fell to ruin and was eventually torn down. My late husband, Leo, working for Gerald Ingerson, tore it down. He joked that sometimes he felt that he was being watched as he worked and thought the old depot was haunted by the ghosts of the engineers or the passengers who were there in the years before. (Only joking. Leo was not one to worry about ghosts)

However, if you visit the site of the old depot you now see a beautiful pavilion, very similar to the old-time depot, with colorful and comfortable seating at the Frink Park. Perhaps, with the new Islands Harbor Hotel and all the reconstruction in downtown Clayton, it may someday bring the 1000 Islands back to its heyday. Stranger things have happened.

Now, after researching and writing all of the fascinating things about the railroad, I still think about hearing the whistle of that little train as it crossed Black Creek Road and seeing that trail of smoke along the tracks. It's one of those childhood memories that you really don't want to forget.

Special thanks to Elaine Tack Vedette, who created this video for TI Life

For iPad or iPhones link to

By Nancy Bond

Nancy Bond began writing in high school 60+ years ago, but then family life took hold, as she and her husband Leo raised twelve children, on their farm in the town of Clayton. It was only recently that Nancy began writing her memories on paper, for her children to enjoy. The Thousand Islands Museum persuaded her to share these memories with the Thousand Islands Sun and now with TI Life for all to enjoy.    Click here for Nancy’s other articles.

Wish more history  and details about the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail -  contact Thousand Islands Land Trust in Clayton, NY

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Comment by: Peggy
Left at: 5:50 AM Wednesday, October 15, 2014
I really enjoy these stories of times past in Clayton. The personal comments mixed in with the historical facts are what make it so special. Another great story to save for our children's children.
Herb Swingle
Comment by: Herb Swingle
Left at: 6:45 AM Thursday, October 16, 2014
Robert Lincoln was on Pullman also.[Civil War-historian]
Nancy Bond
Comment by: Nancy Bond
Left at: 10:20 AM Thursday, October 16, 2014
Mr. swingle, thanks for the info. I often find my information is not as complete as I would like. Would Robert Lincoln have been related any way to Abraham Lincoln?
Lee Crandall
Comment by: Lee Crandall
Left at: 7:45 PM Thursday, October 23, 2014
Thank you Nancy for another wonderful story. One of the things that arrived in the railroad freight cars in the fifties and early sixties was bags of grain and other farm supplies for my dad's GLF (later Agway) farm store (now the location of Christensen Realty). I remember helping him load it onto his truck and then unload it at the store. A railroad car held enough for several full loads of his truck, so it was a good Saturday afternoon's work. I wonder if Leo also unloaded some of these cars when he worked for my dad.
Nancy Bond
Comment by: Nancy Bond
Left at: 8:23 PM Thursday, October 23, 2014
Leo worked for your Dad for a few years. It might have been in the 50s. He and Bob Meeks and Vernon Burrows worked unloading grain from the trains, taking it to your Dad's feed store to grind and mix it and then delivering it to the farms. Frank was a good man and well respected.
Completely unrelated, your Dad saved my life one time. I was driving out from a driveway (I forget which one) on outer James St with my usual car full of children. I turned my head to settle a squabble in the back seat and inadvertently eased my foot off the brake. I heard the screeching of brakes and there was your Dad with a big truckload of feed skidding to a stop. He barely missed us, but he avoided a terrible accident that was completely my fault. I never forgot it.
Bill Bazinet
Comment by: Bill Bazinet
Left at: 1:33 PM Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Love your articles Nancy. Growing up on Franklin street provided a wonderful playground for us boys with the turn table and the trains. Another thing that came in with the train during the 50's were "hobos" as my mother used to say. They would come up the hill and knock on our door looking for any extra food we might have or odd jobs around the house. I was always warned to stay away from them but I'm sure they were harmless.