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.
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