As the saying goes, good things come in small packages. That’s certainly true of Clayton, New York, a village of about 2,000 year-round residents on the St. Lawrence River in the heart of the beautiful Thousand Islands.
An easy sail from the big waters of Lake Ontario, Clayton is a favorite haunt for local American and Canadian cruisers. Thursday evening concerts in Frink Park draw crowds during the summer, and the sunsets over the river inspire a sense of serenity as you watch ships pass on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The freighters present a peculiar oceanic ambiance when juxtaposed against the greenery of the many wooded islands that give the area its charm and name.
My arrival in the Thousand Islands marked the end of a long inland voyage. I’d sailed and motored my Bristol 24 to Clayton from New Jersey by way of the Hudson River and Erie Canal. You might say getting there was like finding my personal Holy Grail—I’d dreamed about an inland passage for years. I’d previously visited Clayton as a land cruiser, but arriving on a sailboat that had come all the way from the Atlantic Ocean was something else. I’d completed a passage thousands had made over the centuries, and I felt I was part of a maritime tradition that had been integral to the development of the United States and Canada.
Clayton’s strategic position on a peninsula so near the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River and the vastness of Lake Ontario made it an important town after its founding in 1833. Timber, mining, quarrying and shipbuilding were key industries. Then when the railroad came in 1873, the region became an international playground for the rich, famous and notorious. Today, the historic downtown has a touristy vibe, with plenty of boutiques, gift shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants, but it’s still relaxed and pleasant.
Clayton is home to three museums, each of which is well worth a visit. If you only have time to visit one, I recommend the famous Antique Boat Museum, which has 200 wooden boats, the largest freshwater collection in the country. The classic mahogany speedsters, sleek St. Lawrence Skiffs (which originated in Clayton around 1868 and were used as fishing guide boats), and the plethora of funky and primitive antique outboard engines are beautiful and captivating.
The annual antique boat show and auction held every summer at the museum is a regional favorite. Classic boat admirers throng the 4.5-acre campus and the adjacent municipal dock, where visiting boats tie up. Check in advance to see when such big events are on, as space at the town dock and marinas can be scarce.
If you can, be sure and also amble over to the Thousand Islands Museum, with its hunting decoys, impressive freshwater trophy fish and many other exhibits celebrating the region’s storied history. The Handweaving Museum at the Thousand Islands Arts Center is another interesting attraction, if you’re into antique hand-woven textiles and like to inspect rare weaving and spinning equipment.
Some small towns are just that—small, sleepy and out of the way—but not Clayton. It’s neither off the beaten track, nor slumberous in summertime. It’s a jewel in the midst of the incredibly beautiful Thousand Islands that is well worth exploring.
Photo by Ian Coristine