From Rail to Trail

by Spencer Busler, Assistant Director

The 1870s were a time of vigor and vitality for the small riverfront community of Clayton. This era sparked a century of local commerce primarily driven by one transportation amenity: the railroad.

Spurring from an inland junction in Theresa, the Black River-Utica Railroad (later the New York Central) transported all types of cargo to and from the shores of the St. Lawrence, including ice, salt, fish, coal, grain, granite, hay, lumber, but most importantly, people. 

As road systems improved and vehicular transportation expanded, the need for the railroad dwindled. Finally, just under 50 years ago the final service from Clayton left the station.

For several decades, the majority of the railroad corridor had remained abandoned, filling in with dense shrubs and overhanging trees. In the mid-90s, under the leadership of former Executive Director Louise “Sissy” Danforth, TILT started acquiring sections of the forgotten railroad bed for the development of a recreational rail-trail.

A particularly popular section of this trail system spanned from LaFargeville to Black Creek Road in the Town of Clayton. This section was used year-round by hikers, bikers, cross country skiers and snowmobilers. In 2011, TILT was able to acquire the S. Gerald Ingerson Preserve, helping extend its ownership of the railroad bed from Black Creek Road to just shy of the Clayton Village line.

Seeing the value in such an outdoor recreational asset, TILT, along with several community advisers, began contemplating plans for the extension of the recreational pedestrian/bicycle trail into the Village, with an intention of linking it to the waterfront (now the Village Riverwalk). It was realized that in order to take place, the trail would have had to pass through several privately-owned parcels.

TILT was up to the challenge, and has now successfully secured the easements and lands necessary to establish this important trail extension from LaFargeville to Route 12 in the Village of Clayton. Through the purchase of two parcels on East Line Road, and through the acquisition of three public trail easements donated by the Antique Boat Museum, Green Future LLC, and the Village of Clayton, TILT has now laid the groundwork for bringing these plans to action.

In fact, earlier this year TILT broke ground on a new parking area and trail leading south from East Line Road to the existing TILT-owned railroad bed on the Ingerson Preserve. The new trail provides access to the historic railroad trestle bridge over McCarn Creek. This impressive structure spans 160 feet across the ravine, and is elevated 60 feet above the creek bottom by a pair of massive stone piers. Due to the decades of abandonment, the bridge is in disrepair and is currently unsafe for crossing.

TILT soon plans to rehabilitate this trestle bridge for safe pedestrian use, and to move its trail-building efforts to the north side of East Line Road by following a corridor along Carrier Ridge and merging back onto the Village-owned railroad bed as it parallels the Clayton Country Club. The goal by year-end 2020: a connected and safe trail system leading from the majestic riverfront to the wild and open countryside for all to enjoy.

The guidance and support provided by the Rivergate Trail Community Advisory Committee, which includes the Town and Village of Clayton, has been instrumental in bringing this project forward. All who enjoy outdoor recreation in the Thousand Islands owe praise to the municipalities and the Advisory Committee for their dedication to bringing life back to this historic railroad.

Today in the Thousand Islands, if you’re looking for a peaceful bicycle ride without vehicles whizzing by the narrow road shoulder, your options are dissatisfyingly slim. But by this time next year, the solution will be a scenic rail-trail with a touch of local history and nature intertwined… all right in your back yard.

TILT is currently raising funds for the trail development and trestle bridge renovations, and intends to pursue grant funding to supplement their completion. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can support this community project, please contact the TILT office at 315-686-5345.


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