1960’s Calumet Island
Written by Mike Fesko
posted on October 13, 2010 22:53
I was reading from Paul Malo’s book, “Fool’s Paradise”, the other day and noticed mention of the fire in 1957 that claimed Charles Emery’s famed Calumet Castle. What struck me was how close in years that event was to when my family first arrived at Calumet Island, around 1960. I was 6 years old, and when we saw what was left, we imagined it to have happened decades before.
My brother and I spent every summer weekend on the island for the next decade. We visited the castle ruins many times, amazed at the piles of bricks and twisted rusty plumbing that was intertwined with green growth slowly starting to take root.
Youthful curiosity brought us as close to the castle remains as we could get, and occasionally we’d find small bits of broken pottery or china. We marveled at the site, which people sometimes called “the castle” or “the ruins”. Now, some 50 years later I realize we were looking at something with quite a history, and just a few years before we arrived, it stood erect. Reading Paul’s book opened my eyes to images of a pre-1960 Calumet Island that I’d never seen or known about.
My frame of reference was the decade of the 60’s, and I’ve not seen much written about the island from that period, perhaps because in contrast to its former glory, the 60’s represented its day as “just an island marina”. However, to my brother and me, it was a place of summer fun and boyhood dreams, with memories that last to this day. Let me bring you back to what Calumet was like back then.
My father brought his new 26 foot Steel King cabin cruiser to the 1000 Islands from Baldwinsville, NY by way of the Oswego River, through a series of locks, into Lake Ontario, and on toward Clayton, NY. The details of that inspired trip are a mystery to me. Why Calumet Island? Perhaps it was a suggestion from a friend who had recently discovered this new marina. In any case, snippets of the voyage are still fresh in my mind, replete with tall towering locks that raised our boat to match the water level on the other side of massive swinging doors; of rolling, pitching waves on Lake Ontario, and of arrival at the new Calumet Island marina, which to my surprise seemed kind of quiet and empty after this several days’ adventure. My father docked by the yellow boathouse at a concrete walkway with a few stairs built into it. I see today from pictures of the island that the walkway has been remodeled a bit but is still there. It used to be narrower, with wooden slats on the side going into the water. These slats served as a great hiding place for the large water snakes that could be found on the island. They would sun themselves on the top of the slats and a sporting challenge for us kids was to get a stick and try to push the snakes in the water. It was all kind of creepy, but great fun.
During our arrival we met an older gentleman who I believe was the marina caretaker. If memory serves me, his name was Mr. McCarthy. He had a small Chris Craft cruiser (I think it was a 1940’s Express, but not certain) with a white hull and varnished cabin woodwork, which eventually became one of the shuttle boats between Clayton and Calumet (and by the way, was painted gray and white for some reason a few years later). There were really no other boats there that I recall, and because of our “early settler” status, I guess my father got his choice of what little marina dock space there was. For the first few years, he settled on what we kids called “the blue dock” for its blue-gray color. This wooden dock ran along the castle side of the harbor from what I’ve read was the old power house, about half way to the skiff house. In years to follow, our boat moved back to the concrete walkway dock on the opposite side, in front of the boathouse’s smaller opening (the larger opening was reserved most of the time for the island shuttle). I’m not sure if it’s still there, but if you look at the top of the small boat entrance opening on the boathouse you’ll see a sort of swing-out door cut out of the archway. That was done by the island caretaker for my father’s boat after a new mast was installed that was too tall to allow the boat in or out.
There was a diesel generator that ran power on the island between about 6 AM and 10 PM. It was housed in a small white brick building behind the old power house and made quite a bit of noise. It was there for a few years perhaps, and then one day in the early 60's a small landing craft rolled up on the rocky beach behind the generator building to begin installation of shore power to the island, silencing the noisy generator for the rest of time.
There was a fuel pump inside the harbor, located at the end of what I referred to as the blue dock. As more and more boats came to the marina, the fuel pump was moved to the last dock at the very tip of the island. Also at the tip was a huge red and blue sign with the word "ATLANTIC", I assume advertising the brand of fuel sold. You could see it to port as you entered the harbor.
As more boats came to the island, the whole place took on more of a full-service marina flavor, and I recall many "finger docks" sprouting from the harbor’s stone periphery walkways to accommodate the growth. Mid-60's, the old yellow powerhouse building at the end of the harbor became a service (and perhaps sales) shop for a line of "Gale" outboard engines sold in the mid to late 60's. The island's new caretakers (Rollo and his wife Betty) occasionally used the old Chris Craft I mentioned before as a workboat and shuttle, but mostly used a small runabout for ferrying passengers. It was powered by a nice yellow and white Gale engine on it (60 horsepower I recall). Oh, and did you ever notice the orange roof on the skiff house from Clayton? Well the runabout's hull was painted that same orange for many years when used to ferry customers between the mainland and Calumet. I guess it was an advertising thing.
As the marina grew, and services expanded, there was a huge motorized boat sling installed outside the Skiff House. This included construction of a dock parallel to the skiff house's cement front deck with a steel tray placed on the wooden dock to help guide the sling's wheels during travel along the dock. This allowed boats to be removed for repair or winter storage.
I dug up this old home movie of the Adonis leaving the docks on the west side of Clayton one morning to get ready for her morning run... great memories!
One year we noticed a set of red and green guidance navigation lights installed at the harbor entrance. One was near the tip of the island, the other on the cement dock. At night if your boat was lined up for a safe entrance, you could see both lights. If you only saw one then you might be headed for a grounding. It actually saved us from running up on the island one night after a cruise to the 1000 Islands Bridge. Things didn’t look right; we stopped the boat and turned on the spotlight. About 50 yards in front of us was that huge blue and red ATLANTIC sign at the end of the island. Disaster averted!
For a few summers, the area under the front of the skiff house was used as an island store. A fellow named Skip used to work there selling ice cream to us kids (I recall he played some sort of instrument that resembled a tambourine on a stick and sang songs every now and then; "Henry the Eighth" was one of them!). In the late 60's there was another construction project... on the old foundation of what I believe was the laundry building (when the castle was there). It was the "Teen Hut" - there were enough families with boats on the island by then that the older kids needed something to do; listen to 45’s, talk, dance...
Some of the other interesting things I remember … a lot more trees on the island than you see today; a small cottage built on the rocky beach behind the boathouse; the large tower that could be seen from Clayton; two owls named Pete and Re-Pete, apparently used to keep the snake population down; one year there was a pig on the island. The caretakers made fun for kids by providing the occasional ride on their lawn tractor wagon. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, all the boats in the harbor sounded their horns in celebration. The cement dock was the focus of island swimming and water skiing - wondering how deep the water was at the end of the cement dock and what was down at the bottom occupied our minds (those were the days of Sean Hunt on TV, you know). The grassy hill on the backside of the island by the castle made a great sledding hill if you had a piece of cardboard to sit on…pretty bumpy, though. The Chris Craft I mentioned earlier got hit by another boat one summer and was sitting a few feet lower in the water as caretaker Betty carefully piloted her into the boathouse to be supported by the boat lift sling for repairs. Local TV (no cable of course) was a Watertown channel and one from Canada; reruns of the Andy Griffith Show were popular. My father’s radio always seemed to be on AM station CKLC. Good times, good times.
One of the last things I recall from the late 60's period was a large dock that sprang from the shore facing Clayton, near the Skiff House. I never saw it get much use except for an occasional seaplane docking, and when I visited the island in the early 80's it was gone (as was most of what I remembered from the marina days, like the rope swing that used to hang from a huge tree near what we called the "yellow house" (I believe it was the caretaker’s house at one time in history)... scares me now to think about swinging out over the huge rock and the boats that were under the rope's arcing path. I never did check to see if it was frayed!)
As we neared the end of our decade there, the marina was still going strong; at least it appeared to us. There was even a Calumet Island Marina store that opened in Clayton.
The end came around 1970, when my father sold the boat in preparation of a family move. It was sad to leave the island for the last time, watching our boat slip out of view on the trip back to Clayton. I saw her one more time a few years later, serving as a workboat in the Clayton area, but it wasn’t the same. So it goes with this 10 year memory. I still check the web every now and then for modern day glimpses of Calumet, and perhaps will go back again. Until then, I’ll recall climbing the broken path to the ruins, watching the ships pass by, swimming off the cement dock, harbor fishing, throwing stones from the beach near the cottage, fishing trips to Grindstone Island, touring the 1000 Islands on the American Boat Lines’ Adonis, Venus, and Neptune... what a blast!
Thanks for taking time to look back with me.
By Mike Fesko, Copyright © 2010
Mike Fesko is a freelance voiceover artist, credentialed Project Management Professional, and private pilot. He and his family live in New England and his interests include radio broadcasting, photography, and amateur radio.
Editor’s note: Capturing the history of Calumet Island is important and Mike Fesko’s memories are a fine addition to what has already been published in Paul Malo’s books as well as Rex Ennis’s new biography of Charles G. Emery. Thanks to all.
Posted in: History
Comment by: 1000islandadict ( )
Left at: 10:31 PM Thursday, October 14, 2010
awesome article! my family and i camp in clayton. we always fish in french creek bay or eel bay so calumet is always in the back drop.
Comment by: Todd Jones ( )
Left at: 6:07 AM Saturday, October 16, 2010
Great article! I am currently reading a book that offers a fairly detailed account of Charles Emery's family, businesses, and 1000 Island endeavors titled "Always Young" by Rex Ennis. I purchased the book from Corbin's River Heratige for anyone interested.
I continue to marvel at the grand structures built in the region during the Gilded Age, and how few of them are still owned by the families of the original creators.
Comment by: Leslie Rowland ( )
Left at: 2:03 PM Sunday, October 17, 2010
Thank you so much for these recollections. The whole time I'm reading I am thinking we had to have played together as kids. We were on Calumet the same years you write about, and I'm 51, and my sister, Kim, 55. A group of sailors from Rome would meet at Calumet every Friday night. Rollo would then motor all the kids back to Clayton dispensing Hershey bars to all, to go to the movies and the adults would stay on the island to drink! Day sails in 40 acres, and Calumet was on most weekends home base. We stopped going there when we bacame a family of five and the boat slept four! My father started the "Niddle Race" - do you recall? So fun to relive so many childhood Calumet memories - all great, except for the dock snakes - reading this article. Thank you for sharing, and jogging my memory. P.S. I am writing from our cottage on Wellesley Island now looking out on the most beautiful fall day...
Comment by: Sharon Coss Reed ( )
Left at: 11:17 PM Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Dear All River Rats, I was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y. My family started going to Calumet the summer of 1958. My father was Joe Coss. He spent most every weekend on the island until he died in 2007, at the age of 98. I grew up on the island with some of the fondest memories. We had a 14 foot boat with a 25 horse Evinrude motor. We would rent the beach house for $14.00 for the weekend. Do you all remember the fish heads nailed to the trees Rollo would put up? We didn't have power after 10:00 pm. The generators were turned off. The wonderful fires David Anderson and I started behind the Skiff House. We would sing and toast marshmallows. Digging in the ruins was the best. Dad took all the kids water skiing off the cement dock. Our boats were the Sans Souci, Madelyn, Lotsafun, I'm Fun Too and the Red Cap. My family still continues going every Summer. After my dad died and Skip started renovating the Skiff House we found a new life on Grindstone. We have 5 generations on the Calumet Last summer we enjoyed watching our grandson, Gavin, try to walk around the way my kids did. It brought tears to all of our eyes. My late sister Pam Coss Linn and her family have enjoyed Calumet for all these years also. John and Margo Linn have their boat in town and still love the comforts of Calumet. Please get in touch we me and share stories. Mike do you remember the cows? I still call one of the little islands Pig Island. The Andersons boat,Prince David, was on the cement dock to the right of the Skiff House, Rikerts, then ours. I remember your boat. I also remember one of you two falling off your boat and everyone running to help your dad. My dad was also part of the Niddle Race. I'm older than all of you, but I bet we swam together. Dr.and Mrs.Patch owned the island for many years. I grew up with their kids. I saw their son, Pat last year and we had a few good laughs. Our friends are still on Calumet and we get together for the 2 weeks we r up there. We'll be there next year...
Comment by: Jonathan Reed ( )
Left at: 11:59 PM Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Fun read! You and Leslie probably didn't play with my mom (Sharon Coss), but she was there at the time. She and her sister Pam grew up on Calumet with their parents Joe and Madiline. Their boat was called the "Lotsafun".
Both sharon and Pam started families, and raised their own kids on the island. I personally have vacationed on calumet of two weeks starting as a one year old in 1976. There were only a few summers when we didn't stay on calumet, and that was when one of the owners attempted to run a restaurant in the main house. I remember tour boats bringing people for dinner.
Most of the things you mentioned lasted right through the eights (including the wooden pier facing Clayton). When I was a kid, the pier had a gas station sign on it for the gas station on the end of the islands point. That gas station made it into the 90's if I remember correctly, until it was literally blown off the island during the microburst that took out cost of the trees on the island. The travel lift and the dock in front of the skiff house was there well into the eights. Then one summer the travel lift was gone...and a few years later the dock with the steel beam in front of the skiff house was gone too. My family stayed in the skiff house and teen hut for many years. When I was a kid there was a coin operated pool table in the room below the skiff house. When my grandfather became too old to operate the Lotsafun, he gave it to the current owner of the island. In return the owner Skip (no relation to the skip above) was kind enough to convert the lower rooms into a private apartment for my grandfather. My grandfather used that apparent up until his death at 98 years old, just a few years ago. The skiff house is now under a masive renovation project with the intent of having it turned into a private summer home for one of the owners kids. I've toured the skiff house this past summer and the renovations are very nice, I only wish they could have preserved the turret in the corner, but it was too far gone and costly.
Sadly, once my grandfather passed, the owner rightfully decided that it was time to make calumet a family retreat. So the last two seasons, my family ( now with a wife and son) have vacationed right across fromm calumet on Grindstone. We still make it a point to go over to the island and visit every summer. We still have good friends who keep ther boats on calumet. If you ever go back, be sure to say high to Charlie on "Pot O Gold", and Pete on "Haywire"!
Calumet Island has a website with video cameras at www.calumetisle.com. Be sure to check it out.
Comment by: Barbara Rueckert ( )
Left at: 11:14 AM Monday, November 1, 2010
My late husband, Bill Rueckert and I owned a cottage on the south side of Grindstone Island. We faced Calumet, ate at the short-lived restaurant and viewed the island as a landmark. We owned several St. Lawrence skiffs. My favorite was a wide beamed skiff that Milton Carnegie had restored. After dinner and in good weather, I enjoyed rowing Bill over to Calumet and viewing the boats tied up. Much to my surprise, various skippers shouted out, “Way to go, guy!” What a memory to cherish.
Comment by: Nancy Oliver Wentling ( )
Left at: 12:57 PM Monday, June 24, 2013
I can't believe I stumbled on this site to read the post and blogs on my fondest childhood memories. I too grew up on Calumet during the summers from the 1960's until I graduated college in 1983. My family had the "Sal-Nan". My older brother by 4 years (Bill) and I ran the island like we owned it, slept out on the grass at night in our sleeping bags behind the "Tower", took our run about all around the river chasing ships, hung out in the Skiff House then later in years in the Big Yellow house with our same group of friends we had year after year! Does anyone remember the Lombardis? Laura was my age. We knew the Reikerts and I was friends with two of their girls named Ann and Mary. We would climb in the ruins and find the broken pottery, dishes, glass, twisted pipes. We built forts down in the woods on the southwest side of the island facing Clayton. I remember we all watched the Apollo landing on our little 12 inch portable black and white TV's in the cabins of our boat. I remember when Mark Spitz won all those Gold Medals in the summer Olympics, we also watched that on our little B&W TV's. Do you remember when they tried to make a fine dining restaurant in the Yellow House one summer? The harbor marina would be full every weekend with boats from all over. My dad held the annual fish fry dinners in August every year with Salt Pork Sandwiches as an appetizer, and French Toast with Canadian Club and Syrup for dessert. Big drinking party for the parents!! That was when they still sold ice in big blocks for the "ice box" in the 1950's &60's era boats from the gas dock on the point side of the island. How about the Armstrong's in the big old wood Christ-Craft on the main dock. We all water skied with their kids! I loved the old light posts all over the island. Buck drove the Taxi Boat and we all brought our pets with us on that boat every weekend Friday night to get their and Sunday night home again. Always hated to leave on Sunday night so our dads could go back to work on Monday. Our cat was scared to death of the Stemmer's bulldog and we held him tight until we got close enough to the main dock for our cat to jump off and run to our cruiser. He knew our boat and was waiting for us on it as we carried our clothes and food for the weekend. We are vacationing on Wellesley Island this summer, but nothing will duplicate Calumet Island summers in the 60's & 70's! If you remember any of this blog away!!
Comment by: robin cremer ( )
Left at: 3:15 PM Tuesday, March 4, 2014
roaming thru these thousand isl pictures and stories briNgs back great memories of summers and weekends with my grand parents.Grandpa fish built a cottage (called it camp)Then taking the boat over to the island were they owned old cabins and staying . Watching those large ships pass and there was a small inlet behind the cabins were people would come in to dive. grandpa said the would bring up cannon balls.We would fish, ooo those wonderful tasting perch. There was one evening some one in a canoe with a beautiful huskey went thru just at sunset grandmafish got that picture.
Comment by: Gail Sullivan
Left at: 2:29 PM Sunday, May 17, 2015
Loved reading all these memories of Calumet;we too loved this island and made it our second home from about 1970- till 2004 when my husband Ed passed away. .Our boat was the "Lindy" we docked next to the "Mary Malone "owned by Jerry and Midge McCarthy and the"White Cap" owned by Norm and Sally Kesterke; The Bremers were there too; Marilyn and her husband. The Stewarts were across the way on the "Blue Cat" owned by Ty and Donna Stewart. Eventually we graduated to the best spot on the island; out on the point where we could almost touch the ships and view the majestic St Lawrence right in front of us and we could swim right off the boat which was wonderful!! nothing can compare to that! we docked right next to the Stewarts and the Cepkas were next to them on the"Pot of Gold" The Steehlers were down by the Skiff House on the"Beats Workin"Chuck and Janet. Of course across the harbor was the legendary "Lots of Fun" captained by Joe Coss with first Madeline and then Pat after Madeline passed. Their two daughters Pam and Sharon continued with their own families too. My children and grandchildren have treasured memories of Calumet also--
Comment by: Scott Blackwood
Left at: 8:44 PM Tuesday, January 3, 2017
There is a reunion being planned for August 1 2017 for folks who spent summers on Calumet back in the 60's. Going through these notes bring back a lot of memories! I remember Sharon Coss, and Joe Coss. Leslie Rowland... I recall you and your sister Kim. I see the name Cremer in the notes, but I remembered that as Kramer, more specifically "Crash Kramer". I suppose it could have been "Crash Cremer".
Anyhow, if the surnames Armstrong, Gestner, Blackwood, Taylor, Pickering, Lombardi, Cook, Patch, Flood,, or Platner ring any bells for you, then you're in the right era to enjoy the reunion. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll put you in touch with June Pickering, now Smith, who is the organizer.
Comment by: Susan Gessner
Left at: 1:38 PM Sunday, April 9, 2017
We were there in the early 60's and moved to Ohio in 1965. It is a wonderful memory and our children, Rich, Bob., and Elizabeth talk about what a great place it was. They also tell me some stories I am glad I didn't know at the time. We were at the last reunion and had a wonderful time. We don't travel anymore but would love to be there. I know it will be great.
Comment by: Susan Gessner
Left at: 1:24 PM Monday, April 10, 2017
We were on. Calumet in the early 60's. we had a 29ft Richardson called ELSAN and a Criss Craft runabout called Kidswon we used for water skiing. We moved to Ohio in 1965. We still talk about the wonderful times we had there. We also had a dog Sam. Children Rich, Bob and Liz. Susan and Dick Gessner
Comment by: Arthur Lehrman
Left at: 9:26 AM Friday, April 14, 2017
I came across this site after describing the St. Lawrence River, Clayton and Calumet Island to a friend in Carolina who had never experienced the beauty of our summer paradise.
In the late '60's and early 70's our family summered on Calumet Island aboard our 31' C&C sloop Spray. After all these years, we still chat with John and Margo Linn occasionally, reminiscing about that time and place, particularly the delightful people with whom we shared it.
Among my fondest memories are the times in early autumn, when so few people remained, that is seemed as if one was in an earlier century. I would sail to one of the Canadian island parks near Gananoque for a few days of polishing teak and brass, just me and my dog in splendid isolation.
Comment by: Joe Reichert
Left at: 12:16 PM Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Wow, how lucky I feel to have stumbled across this blog!! All these familiar names (boats and people!) from Calumet are so wonderful to remember. I spent summers at Calumet starting in the late 60's and into the mid 70's aboard "Dodie II", a 34' Chris Craft built around 1949. We were lucky to have a finger dock between Prince David and Lotsafun. The Anderson's and Coss's were the nicest neighbors anyone could ask for (especially since we had Ed, Margaret, Mary, Anne and I along w/my parents Shirley and Bob).
As kids, Dougie Linn and I knew just about every inch of the island. There was always something to do from exploring the ruins to throwing stones at the water snakes. We'd spend hours building forts (Nancy Oliver) or swimming / skiing off the cement swim dock (usually behind I'm Fun Too, John and Pam's beautiful runabout). Sleeping out on the island was almost a given. The stars and ships passing by rarely failed to entertain. And sometimes we'd hear an engine roar to life around midnight, we could tell by the sound which boat it was and we'd go running down to hop aboard for a midnight cruise!
A few times in the late 90s my wife Sheila and I were able to bring our kids up for a vacation, staying in the Skiff House was the best but also the (former) Teen Hut and Beach House were terrific as well. In particular I enjoyed that my children had a chance to meet Mr. Coss who used to look me right in the eye with a big smile, hearty laugh, and say "I wanna be a kid again!" I quote him all the time...I finally really know what he meant. Calumet turns me back into a kid.
Fair Winds All.
In the early 70's there was a schooner being rebuilt on the island. I believe it was called "Alouette." Does anyone recall the boat? I've often wondered about it's fate.
Thanks for all the memories!
Comment by: Mike Fesko
Left at: 8:20 AM Friday, September 22, 2017
So glad you found this website and my article! Susan Smith does such a good job publishing this.
Calumet... so great a place, though the water snakes did both fascinate and freak me and my brother out a bit. I do have some more information (2 other articles on this site, plus other Calumet and 1000 Islands stuff on my blog if interested. 1000islandssteelking.com )
Everyone has left such nice comments here, and I'm bummed I missed the reunion talked about above. For that decade there were a lot of kids we knew but it's amazing how many others we never got to meet. So, HELLO everyone!
Thanks again for commenting.