History of the Cornwall Brothers Store and Museum

Cornwall Brothers Store, circa 1901,with Marsden House just behind and Crossmon House in the background. Detroit Publishing Company photograph, courtesy Library of Congress American Memories collection.

Azariah Walton and his son-in-law Alexandria Hamblin built the first store at this location in 1839. They stocked a general line of merchandise, but specialized in lumber, timber and ashes which were used in the making of soap. At that time, the Village of Alexandria Bay had a population of 300 and only one other store. Mr. Walton’s store quickly became the center of commerce.

 In 1852, Andrew Cornwall became Mr. Walton’s business partner. The first store was torn down in 1855, and  new wood-framed building with a large warehouse were constructed. There were no railroads serving Alexandria Bay; the St. Lawrence River was the main artery of transportation. Traffic was heavy at this time and freight and passenger ships routinely landed at the store’s docks.

The store fell on hard times during the U.S. Civil War. The government had levied exorbitant taxes on businesses, and Mr. Cornwall and Mr. Walton almost lost their establishment. The day was saved, however, when Mr. Cornwall came up with the idea of issuing store script, which could be used in place of Treasury currency to purchase goods.

A fire destroyed the store in 1865, the victim of a spark from a passing vessel. The store was a total loss. The present day stone building was built in 1866, replacing the previous wooden structure. The exterior stone was excavated from village quarries. The cornerstone and windowsills were made of stone bought from the penitentiary at Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Andrew Cornwall bought out Mr. Walton’s interest in the store in 1877, and  his four sons joined his business which was renamed Cornwall Brothers Store. The area was flourishing. President Grant had recently visited George Pullman at his island across from the Bay, and the Thousand Islands region was becoming a playground for the rich and famous. By 1888, Alexandria Bay was developing into an important resort of roughly 1000 people. The Cornwall Brothers Store was prospering right along with the village and now had 13 employees. Among the commodities that the store retailed at this time were: camp and island supplies, notions, groceries, crockery, hardware, dry goods, fine dress goods, hats and caps, boots and shoes, and both ready-made and custom clothing. It was time to expand and J.B. Reid was hired to build a 20 foot addition across the front of the store including plate glass show windows. The Cornwall Brothers Store had become the nerve center of Alexandria Bay.

Cornwall Store interior
Interior of the Cornwall Brothers Store, circa 1914. (Click image to enlarge.)

The store was incorporated in 1906, however it had little more than two decades left. It fell victim to the Great Depression, closing it doors forever in 1929. After the store closed, the building was used for a variety of purposes, including housing the U.S. Customs Station and the U.S. Post Office. Eventually the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

In 1973, the Village of Alexandria Bay declared it beyond rehabilitation and the mayor signed an order of condemnation. After signing the order, however, he changed his mind. The owners of the building, the E.J. Noble Foundation, indicated that they would give the building for one dollar to a historical group that would be dedicated to the preservation of the structure. Thus the Alexandria Township Historical Society was created expressly to save the Cornwall Brothers Store building, and the mayor became the Society’s first president.

This historic building was placed in the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983.  Currently known as the Cornwall Brothers Store & Museum, the prominent stone structure is the last waterfront building remaining from the Gilded Age of the Thousand Islands.

The ATHS  opens the museum daily from Victoria Day weekend through the end of September.  The museum is home to diverse collections, and exhibits reflect the lifestyles of the river communities.  Exhibits, including household goods, vintage clothing, Thousand Islands memorabilia, turn of the century hotel, steam ship and steam yacht photos and documents, vintage post cards, history of local decoy carvers and their decoys, collectibles from island homes and works by renown 19th and 20th century Thousand Island artists can be found on the 1st and 2nd floors.  A vintage St. Lawrence River skiff and a restored early motor boat salvaged from a muddy river bottom are featured on the first floor.