The story of Grasse River Heritage is one of great commitment, generosity, and creative energy on the part of a great many people. It’s also a more practical story of just how much time and work it takes to develop a good idea and bring it to reality in a remote, rural stretch of northern New York. The following account of the origins of GRH is adapted from an article by Varick Chittenden, its founding Board President and longest serving Board member, first published in the St. Lawrence Plaindealer.

It all began with a phone call back in 1997. From reports about the ambitious work being done on the Canton Community Action Plan (CCAP) by a large group of volunteers, I was hearing concerns raised for Canton’s future about health care, education, transportation, parking, business development, and more. But it seemed to me that something was lacking: any apparent discussion of the role of “cultural, historical or artistic issues,” topics I thought had been of real interest to many in the community for a long time. I called Peter Van de Water, chair of the planning group, to inquire about that, and Peter asked if I’d be willing to call together a group of people who shared my concerns to brainstorm and come up with recommendations for that part of Canton’s future.

Many ideas emerged, but we ultimately decided we should take advantage of one of our best assets, our waterfront on the Grasse. We noted that, over the years—with no planning and no restrictions—its beauty and potential had fallen victim to some neglect. What could Canton do about that? When the CCAP was completed in 1997, it included 50 recommendations for improvements of all kinds for the village’s future. One of these, from our group, was that a Grasse River Heritage Area be developed on and around the islands in the Grasse River.

Within a few months, the Grasse River Heritage Area Project Committee first met to help move the project forward. Some things happened pretty quickly. We got a small grant from the New York Planning Federation to bring consultants to help us consider our possibilities. St. Lawrence University purchased Coakley Island to encourage future development of the park. Volunteers accomplished considerable cleanup of trash and vegetation from Coakley Island. John Carr of Tisdel Associates donated a preliminary engineering study of the old iron bridge from Coakley Island to Falls Island, with recommendations for its stabilization and restoration.

Many Canton natives remembered that old bridge in better days. It reportedly led to some of the best fishing in the North Country. Some elders even remembered the last days of mills and shops operating from early in the century. Others recalled with a certain glee parties on the island in their high school or college days. I might add we found considerable evidence of that on the island in later cleanup sessions! Still others had frequently driven across the river and barely knew the old footbridge was there. No longer used, overgrown with brush and in such bad condition, it had gone out of sight and out of mind. Then one day a man came into the office of Canton historian Linda Casserly, identified himself as the great-grandson of Zenas King, and explained that his ancestor’s company had constructed our iron bowstring bridge in the 1870s. Only five of its type were still standing in New York State, making it well worth restoring as a community treasure.

In 1999 our committee officially became a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization—the Grasse River Heritage Area Development Corporation—and elected our first Board of Directors. We received $18,000 from the New York State Council on the Arts to help us develop a master plan and marketing study for the proposed islands park. The Niagara Mohawk Foundation and then Assemblywoman Deirdre Scozzafava provided grants to help our planning process. Perhaps most helpful of all, St. Lawrence University transferred ownership of Coakley Island to GRH, and Peter and Becky Van de Water purchased Falls Island in order to make a generous donation of it to our cause. We were on our way. In the year to follow, GRH contracted with the Cavendish Partnership of Vermont to undertake the master plan, and we invited a diverse group of about 30 local individuals for a “design charrette,” to brainstorm ideas for a future park. Knowing what we by then knew about the old iron bridge, we agreed that historic preservation would be among the goals driving the project forward.

With considerable grant writing help from Fred Hanss, then director of the St. Lawrence County Housing Council, and great cooperation from both our Town and Village boards, we started the long process that eventually led to almost $500,000 in grants from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and the Department of Transportation. Along the way, archaeologists found real evidence of the mills and shops that once inhabited Falls Island; aficionados of historic bridges showed up from all over to see our bridge and give advice; and ecologists like our own John Green and Roger Hutchinson gave us detailed information about the natural history, flora, and fauna of the islands and waterfront. Many other volunteers helped in many other ways.

By October, 2000, we scheduled a “report to the community” and our consultants from Vermont presented the first phase of the master plan and conceptual drawings at a well-attended gathering in the Municipal Building and found a receptive audience. One of our consultants had once observed that our river and waterfront had, in Canton’s first days, been the center of local life but over time it had become our not-so-beautiful “backyard.” She went on to say that we had the potential—with hard work and the political will to say we can—to make it once again our “front yard,” a source of great pride and vitality for us who live here and those who visit.

So that is how it all got started. In those first years, not much dirt flew and little was built, but a grand plan was created. Today I like to think that we have come a long way toward the goals expressed in that plan. The GRH Board of Directors has been a talented and committed group of individuals all through the years. They have worked hard in many ways to keep to the original mission and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities along the way. But our success is largely attributable to the great support of Cantonians from all walks of life who have given—and keep giving—time, energy, and money to making good things happen.

A second article originally published in The Plaindealer, by Louis Tremaine, picks up the story from there. (Read More)

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