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.
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