Clayton's 150th: The Life of Simon G. Johnston

By: Richard Palmer

Volume 17, Issue 3, March 2022

Important Editor's Note: TILife's articles are usually limited to 1,200 words and sometime as many as 1,800 words.  But this article is transcribed directly from an 1896 book and written as an autobiography of an important citizen of Clayton, NY. Clayton is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and we feel articles such as this one are important. We have included a small number of photographs but we ask readers if they have additional photographs depicting some of the vessels described herein, or family portraits we will be grateful to include them.


The Life of Simon G. Johnston

Shipbuilding was the major industry and largest employer in Clayton, NY, from the early 19th century to well into the 20th century. The last sizable vessel built was the Miss Islander 11, a tour boat, in 1938. During World War I several naval vessels were built there, including lighters, sub-chasers, and tugs.

The largest number of vessels turned out at Clayton were schooners and steamboats built by, amongst others, Simon G. Johnston and John Oades. Johnston was born in Perth, Canada West, on October 9, 1821, the son of George and Elizabeth (Gray) Johnston.

Simon G. Johnston [Photo courtesy author's collection]

The following excerpts are interesting reminiscences written by Johnston himself and published in the 1896 issue of A Souvenir of the Thousand Islands and St. Lawrence River by John A. Haddock, who himself was a prolific writer, and who prevailed upon Johnston to write a sketch of his life.

[Original transcript and no changes in punctuation have been made.]

[Early Years]

It is fortunate for the historian of the St. Lawrence Archipelago that there yet a few men living who have been connected with that section from the time long before any attempt was made to improve it. One of the best known, most intelligent and companionable of these is Capt. Simon Johnston. We have importuned him until he has been prevailed upon to prepare a sketch of his life, which has been a long and active one, as he was born in 1821, two years older than the author of this book. We think it best to tell his story as ’twas told to us. Jno Haddock

“When a boy of nine years, in the year 1830, I left Ogdensburg, with my mother, for Sacket’s Harbor. In those days steamboats were slow and the fares high, so my mother, with her four children, took passage on a vessel called the “Phoenix.” Such sailing vessels or “packets,” as they were called, were fitted up with accommodations for passengers. We left with a fair wind, and all went well till we reached Gravelly Point, now Cape Vincent, when we were headed off, the wind coming down the Lake. The captain up helm and ran back to Hinckley’s Flats, where we came to anchor. During the storm the vessel dragged anchor and went ashore on the head of Carlton Island. The mate got a long plank to reach the shore, and we all landed. Here we had to stay about three weeks before getting off, but finally reached Sacket’s Harbor all right. At this time both banks of the St. Lawrence river were in a state of utter wilderness, with scarcely an inhabitant.

My father ran the first saw mill, one now built at Sacket’s Harbor, owned by Col. Elisha Camp. This was about the time the colonel got a canal through from Black River. Here were also built two saw mills, one grist mill, one paper mill, one plaster mill, and a furnace. But the canal, not paying, was eventually abandoned.

[About Early Steamboats]

One would laugh now at such steamboats as they had then, especially at the boilers and engines. They burned wood for fuel, and when they came into port, instead of closing a damper as they now do, the half-burned wood was pulled out of the fire chamber and thrown overboard, to keep down steam. Then when they were ready to leave port, a fresh fire was built. A boat like this, afterwards used on the river, was built at Brownville, N.Y., and passed through a lock at Fish Island (now Dexter). She was burned to the water’s edge the first trip; was bought by Daniel Griffin of Sacket’s Harbor, hauled out, lengthened and rebuilt, and called the “William Avery.” I was on board on her trial trip to Henderson Harbor, which was in 1834 or ’35. The steamer “Charles Carroll” was built at Sacket’s Harbor about this time.

[Garden Island]

In 1839 I went to Kingston, Ontario, and shipped as a horse-boy on the schooner “Brittania,” Capt. Alex. Muer, in Calvin, Cook & Counter’s employ at Garden Island, Ontario. In 1840 I was deck hand on the steamer “Telegraph.” She ran between Ogdensburg and Oswego. At this time there were no lighthouses between Ogdensburg and Cape Vincent. They ran day and night, by ranges from point to point or from island to island.

In 1841 I was made wheelsman on the “Telegraph” under Capt. Geo. Mason, and we ran between Ogdensburg and Oswego, stopping at Morristown, Brockville, Alexandria Bay, French Creek (now Clayton), Kingston, and Sacket’s Harbor. Kingston was the only market for surplus hogs, sheep, cattle, fish, butter, etc. Sometimes we would have a full load of sheep and calves, and the Kanucks would say, “There comes the Yankee Band,” when they heard the calves bleat.

[Ship Building]

In 1842 I went with the late Capt. Thos. Collins to learn ship-building. He built vessels in the winter and sailed them in the summer. He built the first propeller that ran the rapids. She was named the “Precursor,” and was launched in 1842.  He sailed her in 1843, and that year I was with him as mate. Our run was between Montreal and Toronto. We went down the St. Lawrence through all the rapids to Montreal. There was no canal then except the Lachine. We came up through that, then up the Ottawa and Rideau to Kingston, then up Lake Ontario to Toronto. We made nine trips that season, running all the rapids, and had some close shaves to clear rock and shoal. The first thing the Indian pilot would do, just before running the rapids, would be to drop on his knees, say his prayers, count his heads, cross himself, and then take the tiller, while he kept his eyes peeled for the breakers. Just as soon as we were through them he would dive for the cabin for something to eat. What a change from these days to what was then. (See article on “How the Indians Learned the Rapids.”)

In 1844 I was at Rice Lake, Ontario, building a small vessel run on that lake. In 1845 was at Portsmouth, Ontario, working on the first vessel that went to England via the St. Lawrence river.  She was called “The Lily,” and was about 400 tons. In 1846 I built the schooner Odd Fellow and sailed her as master, trading between Picton and Jones Creek, Ontario.

[Garden Island]

From 1848 to 1850 I was in the employ of Calvin & Breck, at Garden Island. I sailed the schooner “Dexter Calvin” for them in 1850. Made one trip with her to Quebec in the fall, running all the rapids exception the Lachine. We were in tow of a tug, and the strain on the hawser at times, when in the rapids, would make one’s eyes stick out, for it seemed that we might strike some island or rock any moment while running them.

I left Garden Island in January for Hamilton, Ontario, to put timber ports in a vessel named “British Queen,” for Jno. McPherson of the firm of McPherson, Cram & Co. of Kingston.


In April, 1851, I went to Erie, Pa., and put timber ports in a vessel called the “Baltic.” From there I went back to Garden Island and built the yacht “Janet;” this boat 40 feet keel, 12 feet beam, and 6 feet in the hold. She had about seven tons of ballast in her. She left Kingston with a party of 45 men and women on board, bound for Clayton; they stopped at the foot of Wolfe Island and had dinner, then started for Clayton; but when they got over into the American channel a white squall struck the yacht, which knocked her on her beam’s end, filled the cock-pit with water, and threw most of the women into the mainsail – Capt. Hiram Hitchcock was master, and he called out to “let go the jib sheet,” but some one let go the main sheet instead. This let the main boom drag, and kept her on her side. As the cock-pit was water-tight, they thought she would right up as soon as the squall was over; but someone had previously taken out the valve to pump her out, and had neglected to put it back; so she filled slowly and sunk in 40 feet of water. There were 19 drowned, 17 women and two men, all from Kingston. Many of them I knew.

Some thought that the yacht was to blame because improperly built, but they changed their minds, when they afterwards saw her working up the river in a gale of wind. She went from Clayton to Kingston, when it blew so hard that the “Ontario,” Capt. Throop, would not land there.

When this happened I was building a steamboat at Keene, Ont., for Short, Kemp & Co., to run from Petersboro to Creek’s Rapids, through Rice Lake. She was called the “Otonobe”.”

[The Later Years]

“In February, 1852, I came to Clayton to work as foreman for Jno. Oades. He was doing all of Fowler & Esselstyn’s work. He built for them the steamers “Niagara,” “Cataract,” “Ontario,” “British Queen,” “British Empire,” “Bay State” and “New York.” He also built quite a number of sailing vessels. I was with him two years, and then started business for myself in Clayton. I first built the “Gray Hound,” and sailed her in 1854, running between Ogdensburg and Oswego. She was a fast sailor, making a round trip a week, for eleven weeks, and bringing us home every Sunday. I learned more of the navigation of the river in this vessel than I did in all others.


The 7th of September, 1854, I was married to Emmeline H. Oades, youngest sister of John Oades, she being twenty-four and I thirty-one years old. On the 11th of September, or four days later, I left for Colburn, Ont., to build two vessels for J. M. Grover, one of which was called “Mary Grover,” and the other “Alice Grover.” I built these two in one year, coming back to Clayton in the fall of 1855, and that winter built the “Eagle Wing” for John Oades and myself. Oades, at that time, was building for Messrs. Merick & Co. I was master of the “Eagle Wing” in 1856, sold her in 1857, and built the schooner “Watchful.” Sailed her in 1858, and in 1859 went to Dresden and built a steamboat to run on Seneca Lake. There I was taken sick and came home, where I was laid up for two years. In 1861 I sold the “Watchful” and built the “Mediator.” In 1862 sold one-half of her to A.F. Barker and John Johnston, of Clayton. In 1863 I sold her out and built the “Senator” and “Snow-Bird.” Sold them both in 1864, and built the “Brooklyn,” which I chartered to Merick, Fowler & Esselstyne, to carry timber for two years at $100 (in gold) per 1,000 cubic feet. She unloaded at one time when gold was $2.80.

[Down to Business in Clayton]

In 1865 Mr. Oades went to Detroit to build for Campbell, Owen & Co., Mr. M. F. Merick being the company. They wanted a man to take Mr. Oades’ place at Clayton and sent for me. I have never forgotten what Mr. Merick said to me. First he inquired if I “had tools to build a vessel,” to which I replied “yes;” second, “can you build a good one?” I said “yes, you know, Mr. Merick, what kind I have been building, and I had to pick up my timber through the country, and when you have all the timber of the best kind delivered to you, one ought to build second to none.” He then asked what wages I wanted, and I said three dollars a day. He said, “We don’t want you by the day, we want you by the year.” I then told him we might not suit each other, and if I was hired by the day he could let me go at any time. He said, “Name your price for a year – you will do.” Mr. Henry Esselstyn being present, I told them that if I took charge of the ship-yard, I wished to hire all the men, set the wages for each and discharge any one who did not do his duty – the men to be paid every Saturday night. This would throw the responsibility on me, and when I failed to do what was right to discharge me. “Very well,” said Mr. Merick. I then said $1,000 a year. He asked when I could commence, and I said “tomorrow.” “Very well,” he said, “I think we will have no trouble; but we have always had the best of vessels and don’t want any others. Full canal size vessels and of the best stock is what we want.” I never worked for a company I liked as well as Merick, Fowler & Esselstyn. I built for them the “Montpelier,” “Montcalm,” “Mont Blanc,” “Montgomery,” “Montmorenci” and others, besides rebuilding several.

Clayton shipyard in the 19th century. [Photo courtesy Palmer Collection]

The second year they raised my salary to $1,600 and offered me $2,500 to go to Detroit to work for them there. But with my home in Clayton, and wife and children with good friends and neighbors, I decided not to go. They then wished me to buy the ship yard, which I did. This was in 1867, and I did their work until 1870, when they took their fleet of some 20 vessels to Detroit.

Since then I built the “Hoboken,” in 1868, for A. F. Barker; the “L. B. Stone” for G. M. Read, Sacket’s Harbor, and the “Scud” for Mr. Rogers of Rochester.

In 1869, built the schooner “Irene”; in 1870, the sloop “Dashing Wave”; in 1871, the schooner “Wm. Home”; in 1872, the “Hattie L. Johnson,” and in 1874, the steamer “T. S. Faxton,” for A. F. Barker, Capt. Holt and myself. In 1877, I built the steamer “Island Belle”. Mr. T. H. Camp, of Watertown N.Y., wanted me to build this boat to run in connection with the R.W. & O.R.R. (Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad), from Cape Vincent to Alexandria Bay. She was a good one and a favorite on the river.

I built the steamer “S. H. Johnson,” for James Johnson, of Clayton. Also the “Henry Folger” for the Folgers, of Kingston, and myself. I built the “Black Diamond,” and many yachts, both sail and steam.

In 1884, I built the steamer “St. Lawrence,” for Folger Bros., Kingston, Ont. She was built and launched at Clayton, May 24, 1884, and finished at Kingston. In August, 1886, I built the steam yacht “Sirius,” for Capt. Henry S. Johnston. She was a fast boat and is now owned at Alexandria Bay.

In 1890, I built the steamer “Nightingale,” for myself, to run on the Clayton and Fine View route. She has admirably filled the bill and by good management and prompt service has come to be a general favorite among the cottagers and Islanders on all the Parks, as well as the general traveling public.

In 1894, I built the steamer “Island Belle,” (No. 2) for the Alexandria Bay Steamboat Co. She is a day boat running between Clayton and Ogdensburg, and has done admirable service.”

Written by Simon G. Johnston, Clayton NY. 1896.

Capt. Simon Johnston House, also known as Kemp House, built in 1880-1882. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Captain Johnston and his wife Emmeline (sister of Clayton shipbuilder John Oades), had six children. Captain Johnston died August 3, 1910 at his home in Clayton; his wife died in 1916. He was survived by his son, Henry Johnston, and two daughters, Mrs. Irene Hungerford and Belle I. Johnston, all of Clayton. He was pre-deceased by three daughters, Minnie and Jennie who died in infancy, and Lucy.                          ___

Researched and compiled by Richard Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter, and he was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times,” called "On the Waterfront." His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015, and since then, he has written a dozen-plus others. He is a voracious researcher, and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings. Click here to see some of Richard Palmer’s TI Life Articles or here.

Posted in: Volume 17, Issue 3, March 2022, History, People, Places

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