The St. Lawrence River town of Clayton, New York overlooking the Thousand Islands has a claim to fame other than being a world-famous tourism destination known as a summer playground for the rich and famous more than a century ago. Today, Clayton is considered North America’s capital of classic wooden boats.
Wealthy business barons came here during the Gilded Age and built castles for cottages while gliding along these very waters aboard lavish steam yachts. In modern times, tour boats cruise along storied stretches of this archipelago with names like Millionaire’s Row.
While steam yachts are no longer a common sight in the Thousand Islands, antique wooden boats still grace the river as idyllic icons of the region’s floating history.
That’s largely due to Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum (abm.org), which boasts an astonishing 320 boats in its collection. That includes everything from St. Lawrence skiffs to the world’s largest runabout, Pardon Me, a 48-foot mahogany vessel with a 1800 horsepower engine that can hit 70 miles an hour. Many of the vessels have whimsical names like Snail, Miss Behave and Gadfly.
Snail, owned by Life Saver candy scion Edward J. Nobel, was anything but slow. The millionaire offered to pay anyone $1,000 if they could beat the Gar Wood speedster in a race. The boat was worth $10,000 when it was built in 1927. It was considered a fortune in those days and had a WWII aircraft engine that could reach speeds of 50 miles per hour.
“Every classic wooden boat has a story,” says Fritz Hager, ABM executive director. “People preserve them, love them and are addicted to them.”
The not-so-slow Snail is just one of these boats with a story to tell — one that is beautifully preserved at ABM. The exhibits include restored Chris-Crafts, Hackers, Hutchinsons, Gar Woods and Lymans, as well as canoes and skiffs. “We unabashedly call ourselves the ‘Premier Freshwater Nautical Museum in North America,’” says Hager.
International tourists visiting the Thousand Islands aboard tour boats learn about the region’s classic wooden boats at the museum, along with seasoned antique boat enthusiasts who make ABM’s annual boat show and auction an annual summer pilgrimage.
“We see people coming here from all over the world,” Hager says.
Waldorf Astoria hotel owner George C. Boldt’s opulent 110-foot houseboat is also on display at the museum. Boldt famously built Boldt Castle on Heart Island in the Thousand Islands, but halted construction when his wife, Louise, died in 1904. The long-vacant castle was restored by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority and is now the region’s most popular tourist attraction.
La Duchesse is a castle of a houseboat. From its Tiffany skylight to the upright piano, marble fireplace, bedrooms and elegant dining room, this is a floating palace — and a popular exhibit at the museum. Boldt had an impressive fleet including three steam yachts and racing boats called P.D.Q.s (which stands for Pretty Damn Quick). La Duchesse was donated to the museum by the late Andrew McNally of Chicago.
Classic boat lovers can put ABM’s 50th annual Antique Boat Show & Auction on their calendars for next summer, August 1-10, 2014. It will be an extra-long event jam packed with festivities to commemorate the show’s Golden Anniversary. The boat show originally started in 1967, when the outfit was known as the Antique Boat Auxiliary of the 1000 Islands Museum. It was officially renamed the Antique Boat Museum in 1971.
Exhibits at ABM are eclectic and make all things on the water engaging and informative. Where else can you step off a millionaire’s houseboat and take in an exhibit about historic and epic paddling expeditions?
“This is the beginning of recreational boating in the Western world,” says museum curator Emmett Smith.
Classic boat HQ
The Antique Boat Museum is the Town of Clayton’s major tourist attraction. Visitors can row a skiff for free and “Ride the River” aboard some of the facility’s fleet of classic wooden boats including Teal, Zipper and Miss Thousand Islands for a fee. It’s an incredible way to see the Thousand Islands up close and experience the vintage vessels the way they were made to be experienced: On the water.
Clayton truly is home to antique boat lovers. The international headquarters for The Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), the largest society in the world dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of antique and classic boats, is based here. Its offices are located just up the street from ABM. Cornwall Brothers Museum in nearby Alexandria Bay, New York also features exhibits on classic boats of the Thousand Islands. Alexandria Bay was home to legendary Hutchinson boat builders and also had the nation’s largest Gar Wood dealership at one time.
“This is the hot spot for wooden boats,” says Peter Mellon, president of Antique Boat America/Antique Boat Canada, the largest international broker of classic antique boats with a showroom based in Clayton.
It’s no accident that the business, which brokers boats from around the world, calls Clayton home. The showroom features one of the largest collections of antique boats in the U.S., says Mellon, with more than 100 of the vintage vessels on display.
Mellon, a summer resident of the Thousand Islands on Wellesley Island, makes Ottawa his home in the winter. His company brokers classic wooden boats internationally online (antiqueboatamerica.com and antiqueboatcanada.com) and ships boats around the globe.
He also charters classic wooden boat rides aboard a custom-built, 42-foot triple cockpit mahogany Hacker-Craft named Pardon Me
Too, which takes visitors on tours and is used for weddings on Singer Castle on Dark Island, Heart Island’s Boldt Castle and elsewhere.
Clayton’s charming downtown on the aptly-named River Drive overlooks the waterfront and the islands, including Calumet Island, which was originally built and owned by American tobacco tycoon Charles Emery as one of the first “castles” in the region. Though it burned down, the water tower can be seen from restaurant patios that also overlook passing ships in the channel. Merchants cater to the town’s river theme. Bella’s restaurant even serves sandwiches named after the islands and area boathouses.
The landmark shop Corbin’s River Heritage offers up the region’s ripe history with books and historic photographs, while Michael
Ringer’s St. Lawrence Gallery sells paintings by Ringer of the islands and tranquil scenes of classic wooden boats that visitors will get to see or experience for themselves off the shores of Clayton: A floating world. LB
By Kim Lunman
Published in “Lakeland BOATING”, September 2013.