A Very Cool Place Indeed: Welcome to Clayton, N.Y.

Although Clayton didn’t take the title of coolest small town in America, coming in third isn’t too shabby

Story by Elaina Robinson
Photos contributed by Emilia Robinson

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Clayton, N.Y. has become a popular get-away for many summer tourists.

The waves from the St. Lawrence River hit gently against the old docks of Clayton, N.Y.’s historic downtown. A light breeze with the aroma of the river tousles gently at the clothing of the afternoon lunch goers and antique shoppers.  Strewn with lavish homes and restored historic buildings, this town is known for its charm and hospitality.

Located in the heart of the Thousand Islands region, just a small dot along the mighty St. Lawrence River, Clayton has a population of only 1,890. But with a strong tourism industry and local pride, citizens pulled together and outvoted towns that nearly triple its population for Budget Travel magazine’s annual coolest small town contest.

Online nominations were accepted during the fall, and from a list of 80 nominations, the magazine chose Clayton to represent their top 20. After the last votes were collected on Feb. 11, Clayton ranked third with 25,337 votes, winning a spot in Budget Travel’s September 2011 issue.

Clayton Mayor Norma Zimmer says there has been pure excitement around the town. As Clayton is such a small town, she explains, the news is huge. “There was a lot of joint effort, including mass e-mails to reach out to the community.”

“Clayton is not only a cool town because of its history, but because of its continued making of history.”

In order to qualify for the contest, the town has to have a population of fewer than 10,000, and it has to be on the upswing and drawing attention because of its quality of life, restaurant scene, proximity to nature, or its spunk. And according to the magazine, "Cool doesn’t mean quaint." Budget Travel was looking for towns with an edge.

Home to the famous Thousand Island salad dressing, Clayton lies in a region known simply as the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of islands on the St. Lawrence River that straddles the Canadian border.  What gives Clayton its edge may rest in the town’s history, argues town historian Norm Wagner.

“Clayton played a part in the early history of the country by being a ship building center,” Wagner says. Before the establishment of railroads and roads, the only mode of transportation was the river, which provided a gateway for the transportation of goods and services for the expanding country. But as much as the town has developed, it still has that same small town atmosphere, and for Wagner, this is what makes Clayton a cool small town.    

“The river is surely our town’s focal point.”

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Located along the St. Lawrence River, Clayton offers mualtiple water activities, including boating, fishing, and diving.

Sara Orvis, a resident of Clayton, says, “Clayton is not only a cool town because of its history, but because of its continued making of history.” One of Orvis’ favorites is The Antique Boat Museum. A museum dedicated to the preservation of North America’s maritime heritage, the Antique Boat Museum has had both economic and cultural impacts for the town of Clayton. “It is internationally known, and people from across the world come to see the museum,” Orvis says, who worked for the town’s chamber of commerce for three years. Other prominent museums located in Clayton include the Thousand Islands Museum and the Hand Weaving Museum.

Aside from arts and history, Clayton boasts multiple recreational activities with its main highlights on the water.  Zimmer points out that every street in Clayton leads to the river. “The river is surely our town’s focal point,” she says. Local kayak and paddling business, T.I. Adventures, offers services including kayak and stand-up paddling lessons.  In the summer months, Uncle Sam’s boat tours provide professional guides that take the listeners to the inside stories of many famous homes and castles speckled along the river.  Other popular water activities include fishing, tubing, and diving.

“As a community, there is something for everyone,” says Justin Taylor, town supervisor. “Whether it’s one of the three world-class museums or the opera house that provide year-round activities for both locals and visitors, something is always going on,” he says. The Clayton Opera house, located on Riverside Drive offers shows and events almost every weekend, ranging from concerts and comedic performances to ballroom dance lessons.

“Communities that work hard with common goals or interests are great communities. We are one of those.”

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The famous River Side Drive is home to numerous waterfront eateries, shops, and stores.

The famous Riverside Drive is also home to restored buildings, shops, and quaint eateries right on the waterfront including Bella’s, a small bakery and bistro offering freshly made salads, wraps, and deserts. Other well-known eateries include the Coffee Cove, Clipper Inn, Riverside Cafe, Attilios, The Lyric, and the Thousand Islands Inn, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was the first place to serve Thousand Island salad dressing.

Summer highlights include concerts and farmers markets at Frink Park, a small greenery right off the water, and the annual Food and Wine Festival hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, which is a big tourism draw. “I love meeting all the people,” Zimmer says, who believes that being featured in Budget Travel magazine will give Clayton huge exposure.

Taylor agrees and argues that the area is seeing more inquiries and travellers as a result of being read about nationally. The town would be nowhere, however, without the community’s support and positive attitude, he argues. “We couldn’t have as much going on as we do if we didn't have members of the community that are willing to volunteer and supply financial support.  Communities that work hard with common goals or interests are great communities. We are one of those,” Taylor says.

What makes a town cool to you?

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