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Oral histories of the river cherished, preserved, shared


The story about the day they embalmed Peter LaMarr was almost lost to history.

But the tale, along with other recollections of life along the St. Lawrence River and at Thousand Island Park are preserved thanks to Thomas L. French’s love of local history and his desire to preserve it.

The Potsdam resident and English teacher at Massena’s J.W. Leary Junior High School has launched a website,, dedicated to the tradition of storytelling along the river.

Mr. French was raised in Thousand Island Park on Wellesley Island and spends his summers there. His family have been year-round residents at the park since the late 1800s, and his parents, Steve and Nellie Taylor, still reside there.

Mr. French had a great resource for stories in his grandfather, Thomas H. Mitchell Jr., who died at the age of 77 in 1990.

“He recognized that I had an interest, and he would tell stories unprompted,” Mr. French said. “At some point, I realized that he wasn’t going to be around forever and that these stories were important, not only for me, but to the region. So I started recording him.”

Mr. French has about six hours of recordings made by his grandfather, who owned a construction business and was an avid conservationist. The recordings were made in the late 1980s. Mr. French has posted several of them on “Tragedy at Waterson’s Point,” “Building the T.I. Bridge,” “Filling the Ice House,” “Bootleggin,’” “Truck Through the Ice,” “Hauling the Camp to Crow” and “Crashing a Car Through the Ice.”

There are more to come, such as the tale of Peter LaMarr.

Mr. LaMarr can be seen in one of the photographs on He’s the gentleman on the far left in the shot of the rugged ice harvesting crew.

“When Peter LaMarr died, my grandfather was working for the undertaker at Thousand Island Park,” Mr. French said, relating the story he taped. “They were embalming Peter LaMarr and they drained the body of blood. My grandfather had all this blood in a pail or pan or something.”

Mr. Mitchell asked his boss what he should do with the liquid.

“The guy said, ‘Just take it across the way there and throw it in the marsh,’” Mr. French said. “So the marsh at South Bay at Thousand Island Park is where Peter LaMarr’s blood ended up.”

Mr. French said his grandfather wasn’t trying to be funny or gruesome.

“I think it was one of those stories that had a big impact on him,” Mr. French said. “He clearly didn’t forget it for the rest of his life. I’m sure at the time it was a little bit horrific.”

Other stories Mr. French has on his site pertain more directly to the river. Many were recorded by his mother, Nellie Taylor, who shared her son’s interest in oral history. She began recording in the late 1970s.

“We both agree that local history is the best and most important kind, because you can actually touch it,” Mr. French said.

Mrs. Taylor recorded her uncle W. Grant Mitchell, who was Thomas H. Mitchell’s brother. Grant Mitchell relinquished his post as the first executive secretary of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority in 1972, a job he began in 1936. He died in 1979 on his 79th birthday.

Mr. Mitchell recalls the July 9, 1912, fire at the Columbian Hotel at Thousand Island Park on

In the recording, Mr. Mitchell, who was 12 at the time of the fire, recalled that a funeral was taking place for a Mrs. Benedict when the fire broke out.

“Some people were superstitious because she was an Indian,” Mr. Mitchell says. “Just as the bell was tolling for the funeral (to) start and they got there with the body, the alarm went off and somebody hollered ‘Fire!’”

He then relates the difficulties he and others had in rolling a “fire cart” containing a 50-gallon tank out of a shed as black smoke began to pour out of the doomed hotel.

Mr. French said one of his family’s favorite segments in the recordings is when Thomas Mitchell talks about bootlegging during Prohibition — 1920 to 1933. His stories include names, much to the dismay of Mr. Mitchell’s wife, Martha, who is heard in the background spiritedly protesting the revealing of such information.

“You’ll get arrested! You have no proof they were lawbreakers!” Martha, who died in 1996, tells her husband. “They’re all lies! You don’t know anything!”

“It’s a great little dialogue,” Mr. French said. “It’s great to hear grandma’s voice, too. You can imagine these two elderly people in their rocking chairs and me with my tape recorder.”

A popular spot to hide illegal booze, according to Mr. Mitchell’s tales, was in the bilge area of boats. He says the feds didn’t want to get their uniforms dirty so they didn’t check the bilge, which is the lowest inner part of a boat’s hull.

“The water tends to be oily,” Mr. French said. “It’s not a very pleasant place.”

Other bootlegging tidbits shared by Thomas Mitchell include the mention of man who had a contract for three bottles of scotch a week (“That’s all his wife drank”) and the consumption of a near-beer he said was made by Utica Club.

Mr. Mitchell also called the brew “needle beer” because “a shot of ether” was used to give it kick. Apparently, the ether was injected into batches, or bottles, via syringe.

“It was like drinking a bottle of 44-D cough syrup,” he says.

The theft of booze put Mr. Mitchell in a distressing situation. He noted he was a caretaker of property for “two codgers on Grandview Park.” He brought a friend to the property one fall to close the place up. In the spring, Mr. Mitchell noticed all the booze the old men collected was gone. He saw the “friend” a few weeks later at a barbershop and accused him of theft.

“I said, ‘Listen, I don’t ever want to be buried in the same cemetery as you!” Mr. Mitchell says. “Well, of course, that isn’t going to happen because they put him down there in the cemetery,” he adds, apparently referring to Riverside Cemetery on Wellesley Island. However, Mr. Mitchell didn’t get his wish; he is buried in Riverside too.

“The Tragedy at Waterson’s Point” oral history on is also told by Mr. Mitchell. In December 1898, Charles Hagerman’s wife and three children drowned. The children broke through the ice, and the wife broke through in a rescue attempt. Charles was away at the time. He’d taken a sled team across the river to Gananoque to buy Christmas presents for his family and discovered the tragedy when he returned.

There are some inconsistencies between Mr. Mitchell’s telling and the written reports about the tragedy.

“That’s the nature of these oral histories,” Mr. French said. “Anytime you have a story that’s told orally, it gives you a sense that you can’t necessarily be 100 percent accurate.”

Mr. French encourages people to digitize old tapes, audio or video, that contain family or local history before they degrade.

He also suggested that people begin taping their relatives to save histories that could become lost.

“If you have someone in your family that tells good stories, I would encourage people to start recording those stories,” he said. “The people won’t be here forever, and the stories could get lost.”

He added that with today’s digital technology, such recordings are easy to make and archive, something Mr. French is constantly reminded of. His oral histories are in his iTunes library.

“Whenever I click to randomly pick songs, one of those stories pops up,” he said. “I’m listening to music and all of a sudden I have my grandfather telling me a story.”

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