History of Zion

Built in 1883 as a memorial to Elizabeth Clarkson, a member of Potsdam, New York’s prominent Clarkson family, the Zion Episcopal Church is architecturally significant as a remarkably intact and distinguished example of late-19th century ecclesiastical architecture, which reflects an English parish church inspiration with Victorian Gothic elements.  The building is constructed in rough-cut ashlar masonry of red Potsdam sandstone taken from the family’s sandstone quarries.   Zion Church began  as a mission of Trinity Episcopal Church (Potsdam)  for  Adirondack workers and their families, and was a significant testament to the lives of those workers and to the missionary zeal of the mother church.

The hamlet of Colton was settled in the 1820’s by New England-derived farmers.  Most notable were James and Abel Brown, brother and father of Luke Brown, one of the first and most prominent settlers in Parishville; and Jesse Colton Higley, for whom the town was eventually named.  The town of Colton was formally established in 1843; at that time the hamlet of Colton was known as Matildaville.  The basis of the economy was farming, logging, and milling.  In its heyday, later in the century, Colton had one of the largest tanneries in the Adirondacks as well as several mills and small factories on the rapids of the Raquette River.  The river provided a physical link to Potsdam for the woods industries and log drives, and the constant movement of people between Colton and Potsdam provided a social link.  Thus, Colton became one of the foci of attention for the Clarksons in their business and religious endeavors.  The Clarksons were the founders and most prominent family of Potsdam.  Among other things, they operated, for the better part of a century, a major quarry for red Potsdam Sandstone on the banks of the Raquette River, about two miles south of the village of Potsdam and seven miles north of Colton.

In Colton’s early years, the primary religious denominations were the Baptists, the Universalists, and the Methodists.  The Baptists erected a church in 1860 but lost membership in the 1870’s, and eventually the building was torn down.  The Methodist church now stands on that lot.  The Episcopal presence in Colton began as a mission church for Adirondack workers and their families.  The mother church was Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam, and the person responsible for establishing this mission was Elizabeth Clarkson.  Elizabeth was the sister of Augustus L. Clarkson and cousin of John C. Clarkson, the first wardens of Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam.  Elizabeth married her first cousin, Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson, and in 1840 they built a large red Potsdam Sandstone house known as “The Homestead” (destroyed by fire in 1909).   This house stood prominently on the Clarkson estate facing the village and was next door to an earlier sandstone house, called “Woodstock”, where her brother Augustus lived.  Woodstock is currently used as an administration building for Clarkson University.  Elizabeth and Thomas S. Clarkson had six children, all of whom remained in Potsdam and contributed to its enterprises.

The record shows that Elizabeth Clarkson was devoted to one institution besides her family, and that was the Episcopal Church.  She was an active and high profile member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam.  She vigorously supported the Episcopal church by encouraging mission efforts and making substantial financial contributions towards the construction of churches in various small towns near Potsdam, including Lawrenceville and Norwood.   The addition of the 1884 chapel and office to Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam was financed by a bequest from Elizabeth upon her death in 1883 as a memorial to her husband, Thomas S. Clarkson, and her son, Levinus Clarkson.

An Episcopal mission, named St. Mary’s Mission (later to become Zion Episcopal Church), was established in Colton in 1874.  For several years, rector H.R. Howard, from the mother church, Trinity Episcopal in Potsdam, held services for the new mission in the Baptist building.  In 1882, Rev. Kirby, Trinity’s pastor, and Thomas S. Clarkson Jr., Elizabeth’s son, reorganized and re-energized the mission.

On April 29, 1883, Elizabeth Clarkson died and in her will left $10,000 to build a church.  Three of her six children, Thomas, Lavinia, and Elizabeth, carried out her wishes and built the Zion Episcopal Church in Colton as a memorial to her.  The cornerstone for the impressive red Potsdam Sandstone church was laid on July 16, 1883, Elizabeth Clarkson’s birthday, with approximately 1,000 people in attendance.  Construction of the tower caused a local sensation and was documented in photographs.  It rests on a large granite fieldstone, which came from a nearby farm and required five teams of horses and cost $1,000 to transport and install.   Zion Episcopal Church was incorporated in 1884, and Thomas S. Clarkson, Jr. presented the parish with the deed to the .83 acre property on April 25, 1884.

An interesting feature of the Zion Episcopal Church is its close resemblance, in matters large and small, to the work at Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam.  Both churches employed the same architect, James P. Johnson of Ogdensburg, and shared financial support from the Clarkson family, so similarities in style and taste are to be expected.   The churches share a Gothic architectural style, with similar doorways and steps, asymmetrically massed front facades with towers on the left, and rose windows centered in the gable ends.  Interior resemblances include the stained glass depictions of St. John, the Hook and Hastings organs, bronze door hardware, carved wood furnishings, dark Gothic ceilings, and alternating cherry and maple hardwood floor boards.  Resemblances in the stonework include the dark red color and source of stone, the rugged ashlar masonry, the smooth curved door and window frames, and the carved crosses and finials.  Both churches have similar cast iron urns and lamp posts on their front lawns.  While Zion Episcopal Church is a smaller version of Trinity, it lacks nothing in quality of materials and workmanship.  Though not the largest church in Colton, it is by far the most impressive.

Zion Episcopal Church prospered during the late 19th century and well into the 20th.  Stability was provided by Rev. Waterson, who lived on site and served from 1900 until his death in 1933.  After that, the church had a resident priest only intermittently.  In recent decades, the congregation has become smaller and generally has had to share clergy with other parishes, chiefly Trinity of Potsdam or St. Philips of Norwood.  At present, the Zion Episcopal Church is part of a regional ministry of the Diocese of Albany.

The former rectory (now a museum ) is primarily significant for its historic association with the Zion Episcopal Church.   This two-story clapboard house was built in 1900 to replace the original rectory, which had been lost in a fire.  Plain but capacious, it was designed to meet the needs of longtime minister Rev. Waterson and his family.  They lived there from 1900 to 1933.  The house was used as a rectory intermittently after that.  From 1943 to 1950 it served as the elementary school for Colton after the school had burned.  No longer finding the rectory useful, Zion Church sold it on .43 acres to Jackson Newton on July 20, 1982.  The next day, Mr. Newton donated the house to the town of Colton with the request that it display his collection of historical items.  The house has served as town museum since that time.