The Cornwall Brothers Store has seen it all. From its vantage point on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the old stone building has witnessed the progression of Alexandria Bay history, from its infancy as a trading post, to its present day ranking as the destination of travelers from all parts of the world. Many things have changed since the last stone of the building was laid in 1866. The will to survive must have been a secret ingredient added to the mortar by those early stone masons when they went to work.
Society has evolved. Cars now park where store customers used to hitch their horses and buggies. The majority of the grand hotels and buildings which graced the waterfront have met their fates, through fire, demolition and neglect. Village street signs remind us of the names of the village’s founding fathers, but most of the families are no longer part of the community.
The first store was built at this Riverfront location in 1839, by Azariah Walton and his son-in-law Alexander Hamblin. They sold a general line of merchandise, but specialized in lumber, timber and potash, which was used to make soap. The village of Alexandria Bay had a population of 300 and had only one other store available to serve the growing community. Mr. Walton’s store became the center of commerce.
After forming a business partnership in 1852, Andrew Cornwall and Azariah Walton tore down the original store, and constructed a new wooden building and large ware house in 1855. The St. Lawrence River was the main mode of transportation and traffic was heavy with freight and passenger ships routinely arriving at the store docks.
Cornwall’s entrepreneurial skills and Walton’s business acumen were the right combination to advance their leadership in the blossoming River front village and its destiny.
However, the rise to success and fate of the store fell victim on more than one occasion to the Robert Burns quote, “The best laid plans of mice and men can sometimes go astray”.
The elements of earth, rain, wind and fire have been no friend to this stalwart structure. To begin with, proprietors Andrew Cornwall and Azariah Walton challenged Mother Earth when teamster Ned Poster and his two oxen, Buck and Brin, were hired to haul enough fill in a stone boat and a two-wheeled cart to expand the otherwise block of bedrock, ending at the northwest corner of the lot, by approximately one half acre. Eventually, the lack of bedrock foundation below this corner of the stone building, years of wave action and ice erosion, became an ongoing structural stabilization problem. Corrective measures have halted the shifting of the building, however, decided listing and uneven floors are always a topic of conversation of first time visitors.
During the Civil War the store fell on hard times. Exorbitant taxes levied on businesses to finance the war nearly brought the thriving business to an end. The clever partners issued store script to their customers. This was used in place of currency and allowed the commercial hub to continue business as usual. In later years another accommodation was made to extend credit to their seasonally employed customers by carrying accounts through the lean winter months and expecting balances to be paid during the lucrative summer season of employment.
In 1865 the original wooden structure was destroyed by fire when a spark from the stack of a passing vessel ignited the roof. Nearly all of the contents of the store were salvaged by local citizens and the store was back in business, in John Fuller’s 1820 vintage stone store, by the next day. Construction began immediately to complete the new stone structure within the year, utilizing the captive work force of prisoners at a Kingston, Ontario prison, to cut the window stools and water tables. The massive granite was supplied by local quarries. Additional wood and coal sheds were erected as the business expanded to meet the needs of the growing community and River traffic.
At Azariah Walton’s death in 1855, his son John became the junior partner in Cornwall and Walton. In 1877 both John Walton and Andrew Cornwall retired. The store became Cornwall Brothers, with three sons involved in management and the fourth operating the coal business.
The Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River was quickly becoming a popular destination for well-known personalities and visitors seeking the beauty of the islands and the lure of fishing expeditions. President Grant’s visit, as the guest of George Pullman, was a catalyst for many who now wished to have their own piece of paradise. As wealthy industrialists all along the east coast arrived and built palatial homes on the islands, the area became known as The Playground of the Rich and Famous. The Cornwall Brothers Store now had thirteen employees and offered an expanded list of commodities to meet the needs of the diverse clientele. These included camp and island supplies, notions, groceries, crockery, hardware, dry goods, fine dressmaking materials, hats and boots, and both ready-made and custom tailored clothing. The large vault, which is anchored in the bedrock below the store, became the banking center for the town. Trolley tickets, train tickets and steamship passenger tickets were all sold at the store. J.B. Reid added space to expand the store, with a twenty-foot plate glass window addition across the front on the street side. The store became the nerve center for the village of Alexandria Bay as it grew into an important resort destination.
An unexplained fire in 1929 caused about $30.000 in damages to store inventory. George Cornwall did not have sufficient insurance coverage for this catastrophic event. That devastating loss and the advent of the Stock Market crash sealed the fate of the long running center of commerce in Alexandria Bay. Cornwall was unable to recover from the financial loss of the fire and effects of the Stock Market Crash. The Cornwall Brothers Store never re-opened.
The U.S. Post Office, an earlier tenant in the stone store, moved back into the empty first floor during the early 1930s and remained until 1960 when it moved to the current Bethune Street location. U.S. Immigration and the U.S. Coast Guard occupied office space in the building, during the 1960s. Once empty of all commerce, the store fell victim to neglect and vandalism. In 1973 village Mayor Steve Taylor signed its death warrant, in the form of an order of condemnation. Local residents rallied to defy the destruction of this prominent building block of Alexandria Bay history, by forming the Alexandria Township Historical Society. Ironically, Mr. Taylor became the first president of ATHS. The historical society purchased the building from the E. J. Noble Foundation for $1.00 in 1974, with the caveat that the organization would be dedicated to the preservation of this landmark.
There is no doubt that ATHS founding members and all who have followed have been dedicated to their task. Restoration efforts began on a shoestring budget. It took many bake sales, membership drives and all sorts of creative fund raising efforts to achieve small steps in what was to become more than four decades of diligence to this noble cause. Although much has been accomplished, the Cornwall Brothers Store will always be a work in progress.
Fire threatened the stone store again in August 1994 when a blaze, which originated in the dock area, caused $40,000 damage to renovations underway by the newly formed Alexandria Township Historical Society.
So, having survived the threat by earth and fire, wind and water were still waiting to make their assault. On June 8, 2010 a catastrophic wind and rain storm swept down River at 5 p.m. The museum manager, in the process of closing the museum for the day, paused to answer the phone, while the storm raged at ear splitting level outside. A caller from River Hospital reported that employees had just witnessed the wind peel the roof from the Cornwall Brothers Store and it was now resting in the adjacent parking lot. Upon climbing the stairs to investigate, the manager discovered that, sure enough, the sky was pouring buckets of water into the exhibit area of the second floor. The noise of the storm had been so great that it concealed the sound of the departing roof. If not for that phone call, the museum door would have been locked for the night and this disaster may not have been discovered until the next day. Once again, the citizens of Alexandria Bay came to the rescue as volunteers arrived to carry the collection contents to the first floor.
Charles Garlock and Sons re-opened to provide endless plastic tarps and sundry supplies to cover as much as possible of what was not moveable, and to protect the now threatened contents of the first floor. The next day, with blue sky and sunshine flooding the gaping hole in the roof, damage control began with the help of Mike Putnam and his crew fabricating a temporary plastic barrier over the damaged roof. Plans to replace the roof and repair damaged stone work were soon underway. Once again, the resilient stone store survived. The second floor remained closed for two years, while repairs and a cosmetic make-over created yet a better environment for this local museum.
The Cornwall Brothers Store is not only a survivor. It is an unpolished gem waiting to be discovered by the many visitors from near and far who will cross the threshold this year, as ATHS and the village of Alexandria Bay celebrate the Sesquicentennial Anniversary.
During the summer of 2016, the Cornwall Brothers Store will be right back where it was always meant to be, the hub of activity in Alexandria Bay. Andrew Cornwall’s son Charles was quoted in a 1938 interview to say, “I remember father’s saying that when he started his store here there were no sidewalks at the corner of Market and James Street and the mud was so deep that he took logs, had them flattened on one side and laid side by side so folks could better get to the store”. The opening of the new River Walk will make it easy for all to make that stroll to the Cornwall Brothers Store Museum as they also seek the beauty of the St. Lawrence.
A variety of events will take place at the museum in observance of the 150th anniversary. Saturday, July 9 the U. S. Postal Service will be doing a special stamp cancellation event, at the chess board area, at the corner of Church Street and James Street to mark the anniversary celebration. Special postcards will be available. “Re-discovering Fitzgerald and Lee”, an exhibit portraying the extensive collection of documents and artifacts, from the legendary Mill Point boat builders, will be introduced with a reception July 10 on the first floor of the museum from 4-6pm. Other features of the first floor include the “Round the Houses Race” story, the documentary history of the Cornwall family and a sample of the Thousand Island Memorabilia from the John and Shirley Wells Collection.
A more extensive display of this lifelong collection, donated by the Wells family, can be viewed on the second floor. The two iconic River boats, the St. Lawrence Skiff and the putt-putt “Polywog” are always favorites for visitors.
Second floor exhibits include The History of the Battle of Cranberry Creek, a trip down memory lane into the exhilarating experience of visiting the local theme park, Adventure Town, decoys by local carvers, including a typical work bench and carving tools, the photographic history of turn of the century hotels, steam yachts and the famous boat builders and productions of Hutchinson Brothers. A quiet reading corner may beckon you to sit and delve into the books available in the library area. Other festivities being offered throughout the summer are the Gallery Presentations Lecture Series, every Thursday evening in July, the Victorian Tea at Casa Blanca on Cherry Island and an afternoon architectural cruising tour of prominent and distinctive homes along the River.
The Alexandria Township Historical Society looks forward to sharing this anniversary celebration and hope future generations will continue to visit and enjoy the old stone building for many years to come.
By Martha Grimes
Martha Grimes was born and raised in Alexandria Bay. She and her husband Hunter, raised a son and daughter to love and appreciate the River as much as they do. During her career as an educator, Martha taught various Primary Level grades at Alexandria Central School. Since retiring she has been actively involved with the Alexandria Township Historical Society and the interpretation of the Cornwall Brothers Store & Museum, in Alexandria Bay, NY.