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

Water Water Everywhere….

From my very first summer on the River, I’ve heard the story about Harry Chalk and his tin cup. Harry was the intrepid captain of That’s Her, which ferried summer residents from Fishers Landing to their island cottages. I’ve heard the story so many times, from so many different people, that I can see it myself: Harry Chalk dipping the tin cup he had tied to the side of That’s Her and slaking his thirst. Today, many people don’t drink water out of the tap even at home on the mainland, so that image of drinking straight out of the river seems almost shocking.

When I first arrived on Grenell in July of 1975, drinking water had a plastic taste to it. While the cottages on our point had running water, drinking water came from collapsible, 5-gallon plastic jugs. In the bathroom, there was a 1-quart, plastic container with a black dyno-label that read “Drinking Water” for rinsing our toothbrushes, etc.

Hauling drinking water to the island was a weekly chore. In those days, we most often made our supply runs to Clayton by boat, docking at the front dock and walking to the Grand Union (later Great America.) On our return from the grocery store, we would fill the plastic jugs with water from a faucet right there at the Clayton dock.

Gary’s parents had a strict rule. Never, ever, ever tap into that last gallon of water without refilling the others. They were very paranoid about running out of drinking water. If we needed water during the week, we sometimes went to Thousand Island Park and used the hand pump. The pump is still located across the street from the grocery store and next to the baseball field, but today is labeled, “not potable.”

At the same time we hauled in drinking water in plastic containers for our cottage, Gary’s grandmother was boiling drinking water for her cottage. Mrs. Ogden kept a glass bottle of water in the refrigerator with the label—“Do not Drink! For Emergency Use Only.” I guess the fear of running out of drinking water was passed down from one generation to the next. 

Gary’s grandparents remembered the days when there wasn’t running water on the Point. Last summer when I talked to long-time residents, many recalled the days when they didn’t have running water—when they hauled water from the river to wash the dishes, boil potatoes or even wash their clothes in a washtub with a washboard. Washbasins were used to wash up in the evening and many told of bathing in the river, often very early in the morning just before sunup to avoid the prying eyes of neighbors. Others told of spying on neighbors bathing nude at water’s edge.

Good drinking water was a concern of the newly formed Grenell Island Improvement Association (GIIA) in 1912. The GIIA dug two wells on the island and installed two hand pumps. One near the Grenell Island Chapel and the other on Park Avenue. Dorothy Topping remembers it was her job every morning to go get the drinking water for the day in an enamel bucket that sat in the kitchen. The family had a windmill and water tower they shared with the cottage next door. The water pumped from the river was used for cooking and washing.

Of course, several of the larger cottages on Grenell were built with running water. For example, Kermiss, a large cottage on the southeast side of the island, was built with three bathrooms in the late 1800s, which is wildly extravagant even by today’s standards. To provide water for the bathrooms, they had a windmill and water tank to store the water. I’m not sure how many windmills and water tanks were once on the island. At least a half dozen, maybe twice that number.

Water towers and windmills went out of vogue when electricity came to the island in 1929. That’s when our point got running water. Shortly after that, the privy was demolished and a tiny bathroom was tacked on to the end of the cottage with a sink, toilet and claw-footed bathtub. 

But not everyone had running water even after electricity came to the island. Some residents recall having privies as late as the 1940s. There are still a few left on the island, though none are still in use. Tina Baker recalls that one of the more sordid jobs in the old days was to gather the contents of the chamber pots each morning, row out to Tidd Island and dump the contents.

While many cottagers had flush toilets by the 1930s, they didn’t have septic systems until much. much later. Most sewage lines went straight into the river. By the 1960s, the wells on the islands were tainted by privys or inadequate septic systems. GIIA minutes mention that Dr. Doust recommended adding 3 drops of bleach to each gallon of water, or boiling the water. Eventually, the water was deemed non-potable. Many of Gwen Smith’s Thousand Island Sun columns in the 1960s talk about poor water quality in the river. Like our family, many resorted to boiling or hauling in water. Some remember going to a pump at the head of Murray Island for their drinking water.

Save the River was formed in 1978. Volunteers came to Grenell to check septic systems. Many residents allowed thees volunteers to check their septic systems and heeded recommendations and made improvements. We are lucky on Grenell. There are cottage owners on smaller islands without the space or soil for a septic system or leech field. Smaller, rockier islands must use composting toilets or electric toilets. Another aspect of island life that we never encounter in our life on the mainland.

Thinking that hauling water would get harder and harder for my in-laws as they got on in years, I suggested looking into a water purification system. In 1983, after lots of research, my father-in-law settled on an ultra-violet light system. He installed the system in our skiff house and it purifies the water for both cottages. As far as I know, we were the first to have such a system on the island. When the Clayton stopped allowing islanders to fill up with drinking water at the front dock, many more switched to this system, though most opted for a smaller, under-sink unit. 

We love our island because it is surrounded by the beautiful, clear water of the St. Lawrence. We enjoy fishing, kayaking and splashing about in the water. Managing our drinking water, septic systems and gray water leech fields is number one priority of daily life on the island. When the electricity goes off, so does our ability to pump and purify water. On those days, I understand my in-laws paranoia and wish I had the bottle in the refrigerator—“For Emergency Use Only.” Setting up and closing down the water system is the first and last thing we do each season. Gone are the days when you can dip a tin cup and drink out of the river, but also gone are the days of bathing in the river, privies and hauling water in buckets from the shore to do the laundry. Modern technology makes island life a bit easier and helps ensure our river will stay beautiful and clear for generations to come.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees.  

Lynn is the author of Can You Feel the Thunder? published in 1999 in New York by Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing Division. It is suggested for youth ages 10-14.  She is also the ghost writer for several other children’s books.  We thank her for providing another answer to “what it is like to live on an island”.

To see all of Lynn’s island experiences search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.

NOTE:  Do have a "water story" to share?  Please do so in the comment section below.

  • These wells were dug around 1913

    These wells were dug around 1913

  • Gary primes the pump to get the water system up and running. McElfresh Collection.

    Gary primes the pump to get the water system up and running. McElfresh Collection.

  • Before the shutters come off the windows, the waterline goes in.

    Before the shutters come off the windows, the waterline goes in.

  • The neighborhood “brain trust” helped diagnosis the problem for Patty’s water pump

    The neighborhood “brain trust” helped diagnosis the problem for Patty’s water pump

  • Neighbors help the Richards install a new leech field in 2009

    Neighbors help the Richards install a new leech field in 2009


Posted in: History, Places
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.


Dennis Honeywell
Comment by: Dennis Honeywell ( )
Left at: 11:51 AM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Author Lynn comments that the Village of Clayton no longer has water available at the front docks. Well of course we do and we invite all the islanders to use it anytime they are in the Village. Just one more service for our friends on the islands.

Clayton Village Trustee
Dennis Honeywell
Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 1:27 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Another excellent article about life on the river! Thank you. So good!

On Axeman we traveled both the water path AND the electricity path- among others, of smaller islands. Starting with kerosene lamps, stoves, etc. And hauling, then hand pumped water from the river. For all uses.

As you know, two pipes ran into (out of) the river- one slightly-at least, upstream from the other. A struggle all the way as we have 'progressed' from that long ago (?) beginning. Hugely worth it.

We are currently in the T. Islands have become 'gentrified' and very high taxes that buy NOTHING for islanders phase. Yet family low on cash in the States supporting such. Whew.

I did a 'secchi' test for many years- water clarity. Such moved around greatly (a 6" disk lowered into the river on a line- I used a galvanized circular disk painted flat white and lowered it on a knotted- every foot, fishing line.)

Started maybe 1964 and did for 15 years at most- results gone but do remember as low as 12 feet, maybe- between Axeman and Sugar Islands in August on similar bright days. Was as much as 32 feet also I recall but maybe not in that time span.

Zebra Mussels hugely altered water clarity; even doubled depth at which one might still spot a 6" white disk...

It was at that time also I sent an algae sample from the river to the International Oceanographic Institute in Miami asking what they thought. That, for us in the Lake Fleet group was the beginning of the end of truly clear water. And the advent of detergents and the Phosphorous therein.

Algae STILL extant and I still WORRY (as Sue knows) about the river and its eventually becoming the Mississippi, Missouri, Hudson, etc.
Susie Smith
Comment by: Susie Smith
Left at: 4:51 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
When we built our house in 1985 we had a well dug because we were going to be there in the winter. A "diviner/well digger" come with the stick. We watched him walk up the path looking up not down. As soon as he looked up and saw no trees he announced this was the place. Then he looked down and the stick was down. He did reach water but it was very deep and expensive!!! But everyday of the season I realize how lucky we were. The well digger said it was so hard to load his equipment on a barge and travel to the island as well as do the job that he refused to do any more island wells. thanks Lynn for reminding us of lucky we are today. Susie Smith, Sagastaweka Island.
Comment by: Lynn ( )
Left at: 9:12 AM Monday, January 16, 2012
Sorry Dennis...forgot to mention that Clayton turned the water back on eventually. It may be on NOW, but the season it was off sent the islanders scrambling to find a new source of drinking water. It was at that time that many islanders got their own purification systems.

Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 9:55 AM Monday, January 16, 2012
Susie- good for U! As to economy- TILT (meaning here is a way to provide jobs-creating/inventing): we need(currently especially...): 1. Way to use river water on islands in winter. 2. Way to dispose/make not toxic/in the least contaminating- human-toxic (to RIVER, especially), waste on islands. To wit, Book for hikers: Entitled, "How To S--t In The Woods", concludes- pack it out (Have some knowledge here-I walked GA to ME on Appalach. Trail; too, walked Mex. border to Columbia River-some gaps- on Pacific Crest Trail). We (Islanders, Canadians, Americans, all) can do better as to solving above. .
Winky McGowan
Comment by: Winky McGowan ( )
Left at: 12:25 PM Monday, January 16, 2012
When we were little, and before electricity was on Sagasteweka Island, we had a gasoline pump that was started (by hand pulling- think outboard motors) to fill a large water tank behind the house. The tank was high up on a metal frame and it was a treat for us kids to stand underneath as the chilly river water overflowed the tank until one of the adults turned off the pump. In those days we boiled drinking water and had several covered pitchers to hold it.
Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 4:22 PM Monday, January 16, 2012
See you there, little kid under/by 'hydrant'!

Yes, we too had gas pump. Poor Ann (Husband- Divinity Doctor, Charles. Wonderful, wonderful people!) Phillips. They across a short stretch of water on Redtop! Our grandfather ran that pump non-stop. He believed in FLOODING the island. And he graduated to bigger and more capable pumps pumping more and more gallons per minute. AND the pump was situated against a rock reflecting the noise directly at Redtop.

Yikes, Bampy!

But, then again, he would get up on boathouse (second story) deck and argue with any fishermen who he deemed too close to island, his land, docks, boathouse- all. If they fought back, out would come the 'speedboat' and he would 'buzz' them. By now we all had fled to North side until 'weather' cleared!

Even did so- buzzed-eventual great friends who came island hunting w. realtor on Astounder. Weren't properly moored. Out he comes, North we go.

More stories EVEN than boats (on Axeman Island circa 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, et al.!)
Comment by: BOB GATES ( )
Left at: 7:17 PM Monday, January 16, 2012
My mother always said there was a tin cup tied with a string on the back of the boat of my grandfathers (Thomas Maloney)MY Father Marshall Gates (we still own it)Ran Sand Bay trailer park one year he told the nys health inspector he was drinking river water for 70 years and it never hurt him and they thought he was crazy.
Teddy McNally
Comment by: Teddy McNally ( )
Left at: 6:57 PM Tuesday, January 17, 2012
What an interesting article. Brings back many memories with hand pumps of years ago and multiple well issues both old and more recent. We may have changed our drinking habits over the years but it is still the "water" that brings many of us back to The River. We boat on it, swim in it, listen to it, fish from it and look at it, The water is the reason why it is a flyway for migrating birds which we all enjoy.

Your article mentioned Save The River (STR) and Island Septic checks. STR has an updated edition of their Sewage Handbook available.

As President of the Board of STR, I encourage all who enjoy the River to support STR's efforts to improve the River's health. STR is the only organization in Canada or the US that is focused on the health of the River.

The other mention of STR in your article was the wonderful drawing from the Cordes family. I would love to know more about that. Perhaps it or a copy could be hanging in the STR offices!

Thanks to all on Grenell Island for protecting your water which is OUR water.
Dennis Balchius
Comment by: Dennis Balchius ( )
Left at: 12:37 PM Monday, January 23, 2012

I spent many happy days in the late 50's and early 60's enjoying the beautiful St. Lawrence River, both Canadian and American sides. I often heard that if your water pickup was three feet or more below the surface of the river, it yielded potable water. Many islanders lived by this rule and I do not recall hearing of any water-related illness. I would not recommend this today. Thank you for this terrific magazine. Dennis
Mary Johnson
Comment by: Mary Johnson ( )
Left at: 3:53 PM Thursday, January 26, 2012
I grew up at the cottage between Gwen Smith's parents and the Deutsch's (they lived next to Kimbers). My great grandmother, Harriet (Hatty) Baxter and her husband bought the cottage origionally. She spent her last summer alone (when company wasn't there) when she was 95.Then my grandparents Earle and Florence Baxter spent their summers, then later other realtives. We boiled (and boiled) the water we drank. You were allowed only a small glass at a time, it was kept in the refrigerator. With of course a small quantity for emergencies. If you drank too much, you were re-directed to some juice. I recall Harry Chalk's tin cup and That's Her very well. Thanks for the memories.
William ( Will ) Lawrence Salisbury
Comment by: William ( Will ) Lawrence Salisbury ( )
Left at: 10:12 AM Sunday, January 29, 2012
My family was raised in Syracuse NY and weekends in the summers on Grenell at Gardners PT. Harry would let us kids ride up on the back of "That's Her" with our legs dangeling into the sliding hatch. Sometimes Hazel would take us over in the "Terry". She was quite a captian in her Denim dress and hat.
Every Saturday morning Dad would take us to The Merrick's on Murray Is. to fill up our jugs with the famous clear water from their well. The Pump was at their back door and always someone was there to greet us and laugh it up. They were an inportant part of my growing up. I still wave at Aldie as I go by and remember. We did use the well at the Grennel Chappel once in a while when it was too rough to boat. We had a 14 ft. Thompson for the 5 of us, so on rough days we stayed put.
Gardners were on Grennel since 1883. (The cottage and windmill are shown in the Picture). Granpa ran a boarding house and people were brought over from Wellesly Is. and his daughters rowed the skifs for the fishermen. So my Mother told me.........
My Sister Judy is still enjoying the view every summer.