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An Historic Treasure: Comfort Island


Comfort Island is for sale. . .  When Paul Malo created Thousand Islands Life in 2006, he created a Properties page and included his thoughts:  "In the interest of finding appreciative stewards of historic properties, Thousand Islands Life presents some real estate of exceptional importance when offered for sale."  Few islands match this qualification as much as Comfort Island.

Alson S Clark painting

Original painting by Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949)  © Comfort Island

One of the properties of fascination for Paul was Comfort Island. In fact, he wrote several references to the Clark family in his Thousand Islands trilogy of books. It is our wish that Comfort Island will find a new owner with as much of a passion for history as many of us have.

Paul created Thousand Islands Life magazine with two partners, Ian Coristine and Mike Franklin. Ian provided his amazing photographs and Mike helped Paul create his webpages and to understand the magic behind the technology. We - as the audience - benefited immensely.

The friendship between Mike and Paul went far beyond the magazine. Mike, a real estate expert, and Paul, a preservationist architect, worked together to save several properties in the North Country and the Adirondacks. It was Paul who introduced Mike to the St. Lawrence River and with this came Paul’s passion for the history. Carleton Villa is one example, and it is Mike who captured many photographs and historical material for TI Life.  Today Mike is our Carleton Island historian!

In the Fall of 2008, Mike created a website promoting the sale of Comfort Island. We at TI Life are grateful to Mike and the current owners of the island, as they give permission to publish a number of photographs and Island history. 

We begin back in the 1970's when a Clark family member and photographer, Alce Ann Clark Cole, visited Comfort Island and took dozens of photographs and compiled a family island history.  In fact, at the time of her death in 1989, Ms Cole was well known for her photographic studies of 19th Century architecture on Comfort Island in the St. Lawrence Seaway and of the arks on Corte Madera Creek in Marin County, California.

We hope you enjoy reading this piece.  Click on the photographs to enlarge view; and be sure to link to Mike Franklin's website to see the island's photography of today.

COMFORT IN AN UPTIGHT WORLD (Comfort Island, Alexandria Bay, N.Y.)

Editor's Note:  Written by Alce Ann Clark Cole; photo captions inserted by the TI Life editor, Susan Smith

This portfolio of photographs, old and new, connects a century of the history of a family from Victorian days to the present1, at their summer home in upper New York State.

"Comfort Island" comprises about two acres on the St. Lawrence Seaway and is one of the 1500 or more islands running from the mouth of Lake Ontario to about eighty miles north along the U.S. -Canadian border formed by the St. Lawrence River. They have long been known as the Thousand Islands (the salad dressing was concocted here). Beginning in the mid-1870's and through the 80's and 90's, the wealthy and near-wealthy "discovered" these lovely granite, tree covered islands, bays and channels. They built many elaborate summer homes, erected large deluxe hotels, and excursion steamers sailed the River on both the American and Canadian sides.

The house I have chronicled has been described as a fossil ugly-beautiful funky a place where time has stood still, and the other side of the looking glass-and it's all these! It was built in 1883 (for $12,000) and as far as we know is the only remaining house in the area still being used by the original family -- the Clarks.

Alson E. Clark, a native of New Hampshire, moved to Chicago shortly after the Civil War and became a successful businessman there. In 1869 he married Sarah M. Skinner and between 1870 and 1878 they had four children: three sons named Mancel T., Alson S. and Edwin H . and a daughter Mamie, who died at eleven in 1881. Before her death the family had vacationed at Old Point Comfort, Virginia. Not wishing to go back there in 1882 they visited friends at their summer place near Alexandria Bay N . Y. They were entranced by the region and decided to buy an island and build this large Victorian house for themselves. They called it "Comfort" as a remembrance of times past.

The house they built on Comfort Island consisted of a spacious living room, dining room and screened dining porch, kitchen, eight family bedrooms and three servants' rooms as well as large dormatory (sic) space in the tower, and a wide verandah surrounding it. Like all the summer places, there was also a large boathouse with quarters above for the Captain and Engineer of the small steam yacht the "Mamie C.", a coal house to feed its firebox, a pump house with windmill to supply water to the tank on the water tower. an ice house stocked with ice blocks cut from the river during the winter and preserved in sawdust, and a laundry building with its own steam boiler.

The house reflected Oriental motifs which became stylish after Admiral Perry's visit to Japan. It had straw matting on all the floors and pseudo-Japanese touches everywhere, such as the large paper parasol suspended over the dining room table. The furnishings were simpler than some of the massive Victorian, for it was, after all, a summer place. Usually the family and staff arrived in May or June and often stayed until October, with "Father" Clark commuting frequently by train from Chicago. The prolific diaries of the day tell of sometimes sharing a private car with the family of their good friend and neighbor. George M. Pullman, the sleeping car magnate. The boys. 5. 7 and 9 the first summer there, learned to swim, fish and sail while their parents and guests cruised the St. Lawrence on the "Mamie C." or were towed to picknicking (sic) spots in the houseboat. The Logs of both these boats still exist. Also in existance (six), and still in use, is the original Guest Book, which lists a steady stream of visitors and frequent parties. The family enjoyed music, singing, and amateur theatricals held in the enormous attic, called "Upper Attic Entertainments" with the boys' ticket booth still there. Logistics for summer supplies must have been a problem for we found a receipt for a train carload of groceries shipped there from Chicago!

Thus life continued without much change-except for a new steam yacht, the "Winnetka", in about 1904 and a gasoline powered speedboat, the "Buzz" in 1908 and still going strong 66 years later. Upon the death of AIson E. Clark in 1911 and Sarah in 1915, the three sons maintained the place and took turns visiting with their families -the third generation, of which I am one. In the winter it was watched by a caretaker. George Root, who spent 75 years looking after Comfort and the Clarks.

As the sons grew up the months at the island expanded into vacations from college and boarding school. Mancel, the eldest son, was most interested in boats and also ran the family paint business. Alson Skinner Clark, the second son, became an artist of some recognition and the house is full or his paintings. While an art student, he and his friends spent rainy days painting murals in the downstairs rooms and large Japanese figures on the walls of the stairwell and upper hall. Although these give a unique flavor to the house, they have made it impossible to repaint anything, so age-darkened walls and peeling plaster are a definite part of its present somewhat seedy charm. Edwin, my father, was the youngest son, and became a well known Chicago architect.

The premature death in 1928 of Mancel T. Clark marked the beginning of the decline of Comfort. By this time he had become the sole owner, and had kept life going much as it had been. From I928 until 1961 the Island was occupied only infrequently. Mancel Jr., the current owner, went up occasionally when in college, less often after moving to California in 1936. A!son, also living in California, came from time to time. as did Edwin, once bringing his son and grandsons. Very little maintenance was done. and as my father said. "It was too full of ghosts to be fun". In 1941 Mancel Jr. visited Comfort with his bride who was thoroughly frightened by the tail end of a hurricane experienced in the pure Charles Adams, creaky old house and vowed never to return! But in the summer of 1961, Mancel persuaded her to go back again and show it to their three children, who were completely fascinated by the place.

By now it was in a state of decay. Rank growth obscured the path to the house, the cupula (sic) had been struck by lightning and teetered, the boat house and docks were long gone, victims of winter ice, ceilings had rotted from a leaky roof and fallen plaster covered the upper floor, and linens, silver and china had been stolen. The pipes had burst. Armies of bats filled the vast attic. The tour boats going by would describe it: "On your left you see the home of Alson E. Clark of Chicago. a paint manufacturer believe it or not!"

But the fourth generation and Mancel Jr. were enthusiastic about the prospect of restoring it. On a project-a-­year basis, a new roof and a good new coat of paint was put on everything but the Ice House. Plumbing pipes were replaced -- difficult to hook up to 1883 fixtures. A modern boat house was built and out-of-character electricity and a phone installed. The grounds were mowed and with sporadic success the bats dislodged. The old family boats were tracked down and restored to use, including the 90 year old St. Lawrence Skiff and the 66 year old speedboat .. "Bzz" ... (As a sideline. Mancel has built up a fine collection of antique boats.) There's hope to soon get the cupula (sic) rebuilt and perhaps restore the old houseboat, now located on the shore in Canada.

The story goes on with the descendants of the original cast loving it in the same way they did. No staff. of course, but the way of life more flexible as a result. A retired Forest Ranger ekes out his Social Security by opening the house in the Spring, caring for the grounds, boating and garbage to the mainland, and has an inventive mind when it comes to antique plumbing! Mancel Jr., his daughter Deborah, son Mancel III and bride Kira (third generation from another island) spend long summers there. Their wedding took place on the lawn last summer and the bride tossed her bouquet and garter from the top of the tower to guests that included almost everyone who had been there in the last fifty years! Alson's son. Alson III, and I visit annually. Guests come and go as before; the tour boats pass constantly with pleasanter comments now. The SEAWAY traffic is an entertaining diversion, and the charts of foreign flags and funnels are checked to see where that ship comes from and what she carries. The fourth generation and their friends explore attic and basement, turning up treasures. The missing globe for the lamp that used to be over the dining room table was found recently and will soon be hanging again. My son came last summer, and before long I hope to take my grandchildren there-this will be the start of a fifth generation of Comfort Island. So it goes, and so it will-a Comforting thought!

The project of documenting it with photographs has been delightful. Some of the pictures I took in 1972, using a 35mm Pentax and a Rolleinex. By 1973 I had acquired a Brook Veriwide camera and got better interiors, which I hope to improve further next summer with other lighting equipment. Bil Lingard of Alexandria Bay made most of the copy negatives for me from old photographs found in the house. My cousin, Mancel T. Clark Jr., has helped compile this history. I am deeply grateful to my many photographer friends who have been so helpful with their criticisms and suggestions, and all of whom I hope will visit the island someday!

ALCE ANN CLARK COLE

P.S. Comfort's old boat house is gone, but a few others are still there. I've added photographs of three, one now converted into a summer home. The great "Yacht Barns" are fabulous and belonged to Mr. Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The doorways were built to open in sections so that even the largest boat could enter with its masts up!

Old Comfort Island
The house was built in 1883 for $12,000 by Alson E. Clark.
family gathering
The family gathered round 
Piano room
"The furnishings were simpler than some of the massive Victorian, for it was, after all, a summer place." 
dining room
"The house reflected Oriental motifs..."
 Comfort Island bedroom
"There were eight family bedrooms"
Boathouse
The boat house was home to the Clark's steam yacht, "Winnetka".
interior of house
"... straw matting on all the floors..."
interior
"While an art student, he (Alson) and his friends spent rainy days painting murals in the downstairs rooms and large Japanese figures on the walls of the stairwell and upper hall."
Steamboat
The parents and guest cruised on the "Mamie C",
Buzz speedboat
"A gasoline powered speedboat, the "Buzz" in 1908 and still going strong 66 years later (Written in 1970s).
St lawrence Skiff
"The old family boats were tracked down and restored to use, including the 90 year old St. Lawrence Skiff..."
Balboa
The old Comfort houseboat, "Balboa"
sailing skiff
"The boys. 5. 7 and 9 the first summer there, learned to swim, fish and sail..."
 comfortisland_hist23_propertydetailpic
Old photograph of Comfort Island
Cover photo
Alce Ann Clark Cole photograph in the 1970s

Alson Skinner Clark

Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949) established his first art studio In Watertown New York. He was born in Chicago in 1876 and began art lessons are age 11.  In 1903 he had a successful exhibition in Chicago which allowed allowed for several years of European and Canadian travels.

 

He served as an aerial photographer in World War I, and in 1919 settled in Southern California where in 1922 he and Guy Rose formed the teaching faculty of Pasadena’s Stickney Art School. During this period, he also maintained a studio in Palm Springs. Clark was an instructor of landscape classes at Occidental College in Eagle Rock in the late 1930s. He died of a heart attack on March 22, 1949.

 

This summer (2009) an exhibit of Clark's art will take place in Alexandria Bay. He is considered one of California's most renowned Impressionists of Southern California.

TI Life Comfort Island and Clark Family articles

Original River Houseboat Balboa, September 2007 by Paul Malo

Thousand Islands Summers - Manhattan Winters: May Dewey's Diary July 1888 - August 1889  December 2008 by Kristen Pinkney

Part II - May Dewey's Diary, January 2009 by Kristen Pinkney

May Dewey's Diary, Part III September 1888, February 2009 by Kristen Pinkney

Comfort Island is linked to our TI Life Magazine Properties Page

 

1

1971 history prepared by Alce Ann Cole. To see modern day photographs go to Mike Franklin's Sotheby's webpage.

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Eric
Comment by: Eric ( )
Left at: 10:54 PM Friday, July 2, 2010
I visited Comfort Island when the other property was for sale in the early 1990's. Never forgot how wonderful both of these properties were.

I certainly a place to be proud of.
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Michelle
Comment by: Michelle ( )
Left at: 10:52 AM Monday, March 14, 2011
Does anyone know the name of the painting at the top of the article and if prints of it may be availabel for purchase?

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