Potsdam author starts St. Lawrence River oral history website
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 5:34 pm

Tom French, Potsdam resident and author of the award-winning book, “River Views: A History of the Thousand Islands in 3-D,” recently launched a new website, Riverstories.org.

French says the site is a way to share oral histories from along the St. Lawrence River that he and his mother, Nellie Taylor, have collected over the years.

It also features historical photographs, old film clips, and French’s writing about the river.

French began recording his grandfather in the 1970s and has over six hours of stories that have been digitized. In addition, he has acquired recordings of several other long-gone old timers from along the river, including stories by his great uncle Grant Mitchell, executive secretary of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority from 1938 to 1972; renowned duck carver Chancy Patterson; Grindstone Island resident Leon Rusho; and Canadian Margaret Reed.

The site contains recollections of bootlegging in the 1920s, the dedication of the Thousand Islands Bridge in 1938, and the Columbian Hotel fire at Thousand Islands Park in 1912. The site also features video from the 1970s of Harry Chalk, captain of the That’s Her, a 40-foot wooden tour-style boat used to ferry people from Fisher’s Landing to various nearby islands from the 1930s through the 1970s.

French recently posted pages dedicated to “Life Along the River in Winter.” Stories include filling an icehouse, traveling from Wellesley Island to Clayton across the ice for supplies, hauling houses across the ice, and the time a truck fell through the ice with a load of stone. The workers cut a channel to shore, hauled the truck out, and had it running by the next morning.

One webpage is dedicated to the story of the Hagerman family that lost the mother and three children through the ice near Waterson’s Point on Wellesley Island in 1898. The page features an oral history, excerpts from a printed interview, and newspaper articles from the day. The three sources highlight the changing nature of oral histories.

French has acquired numerous historical photos, which are presented on the site. He has also discovered several home movies from the 1930s through the 1970s, which he hopes to have posted in the next few months. He plans to continue his work preserving these histories and posting them on the website as soon as possible.

French’s book, River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, recently won a silver medal for Best Non-Fiction in the Northeast in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards. The book includes over 100 Victorian era 3-D stereoviews from along the St. Lawrence River as well as a special viewer so readers can experience the stereocards in much the same way as the first Victorian patrons of 3-D.

French’s work has been featured in Mac Life, Adirondack Life, Thousand Islands Life.com, Adirondack Explorer, Adirondac, Stereo World, and the Watertown Daily Times. He teaches English in Massena.