Like its neighbor to the East, Alexandria Bay, Clayton has been a major riverside community since the early 1800s. In the 1820’s the area was settled by French explorers. In 1823 the Post office and the Village was called Cornelia. In 1831 area residents elected to change the name to Clayton, and the Town of Clayton was organized from the Towns of Orleans and Lyme by an act of the New York State Legislature on April 27,1833. The name of the Town was chosen in honor of John M.Clayton, United States Senator from Delaware. By 1835 the community consisted of 93 buildings and 426 people. The Village of Clayton was incorporated on April 17, 1872.
A major tourism center for the Thousand Islands Region of New York State, Clayton claims to be at the “geographic center of the Thousand Islands.” Everyone who has ever eaten dinner in a restaurant has probably heard of Thousand Islands Dressing, a popular topping for chef’s salad. At least one local restaurant claims that the popular dressing was created on its premises. The rival community of Alexandria Bay insists that the condiment was created at Boldt Castle, now the region’s most valued tourist attraction, located on an island within its township.
Because of its location on the St. Lawrence River and an ample supply of lumber, the first major industry in Clayton was timber. Trees were lashed together in rafts and then floated down the St. Lawrence River to mills in and around Montreal, Quebec, Canada. There, the logs were cut into lumber. The local economy was dominated by the lumber industry until the railroad made its way to the region in the 1870’s.
The railroad found its way to Clayton in 1873, which soon made it a popular escape from the major cities of the day. Hotels, restaurants, boat liverys, fishing guides and other tourism related services began to flourish. Wealthy summer residents built vacation homes on the numerous islands in the St. Lawrence River near Clayton.
Many luxury hotels were built to accommodate the influx of vacationers. The Clayton Hotel is now O’Briens, a popular restaurant and bar. The Herald House is now the TI Inn. The other old hotels have either burned or were torn down.
The large influx of people to this river community during the late 1800s created a burgeoning boating industry that supported many local entrepreneurs. Claytons strategic location on the St. Lawrence River along with its great supply of lumber attracted the shipbuilding industry to Clayton. Captain Simon Johnston owned one of several prosperous shipyards in the Village. The Town Hall is located on the site of this shipyard. Clayton figured prominently in the boating industry, and today is home to the Antique Boat Museum. A popular recreational and fishing guide boat of the late 1800s was the St. Lawrence Skiff, manufactured here starting around 1868.