(Author’s note: From that day, so long ago, when the first intrepid, little band of Phoenicians sent the prow of their battered vessel foaming gaily through the Gates of Hercules, and with only the North Star to guide them, brought their small cargo of Oriental spices and Babylonian pottery to a haven beneath the chalk cliffs of Dover, all Culture, all Progress, all Advancement in Civilization has been disseminated throughout the world, on the waterways of the world. And to those brave souls, who in every age, have gone down to the sea in ships, this paper is dedicated, because they, too, have made Oswego.)
Four Great Periods of Port Development
The geographical setting of Oswego has been the most important factor in its development since the earliest days of its history. The first map of North America was published in 1569 and all subsequent maps showed the Oswego River flowing into Lake Ontario, and forming a natural harbor. Even the earliest explorers realized the value of an all water route connecting the French settlements along the St Lawrence with the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York City) at the mouth of the Hudson. The natural canoe route of the Indians had always been along the southern shore of the lake, since the northern shore abounded in shoals, rocks and islands. Consequently, the advantages of Oswego’s location were immediately recognized by the early traders.
Since the time the Iroquois Indians were banished from the vicinity of Montreal by hostile tribes and built a new village at the mouth of the Oswego River, there were four great periods of development of port activity in Oswego.
The Fur Trading Era began when the first Dutch settlers at Fort Orange (Albany) strove unsuccessfully to wrest from the hands of the French Traders the monopoly the latter had established upon the shores of Lake Ontario.
The second great period might be called the Salt Era, which ushered in the gradual development of river and canal traffic throughout the nation, a period of extreme economic changes which brought about the establishment of Oswego as the foremost fresh water port in the country. This was a period of ship-building and commerce, during the latter years of which, great fleets of sailing vessels plied in and out of Oswego harbor, carrying westward in their holds, the salt, sugar and rum, the powder, cloth and manufactured goods needed to feed the growing demands of the settlers of the West.
This period was followed by the Lumber Era which was the most prosperous in Oswego’s history, a period which made a subtle change in Oswego’s commerce. The trek to the West had subsided. The vast spaces and open country had become settled and self-sufficient. The railroads were reaching parts of the continent never before served by waterborne commerce. The ringing of a thousand axes in the dense pine forests along the shores of the Great Lakes were being echoed every day in Oswego harbor, and millions of board feet of lumber were being unloaded from entire fleets of lake vessels; were being planed and processed in Oswego’s mills; and then transshipped by scow and barge to the markets of the East.
The Coal Era saw the bateaux and keel boats replaced by motor ships and tankers, and the port of Oswego once again raised her head above tariff walls and depressions, and regained the important position she once held – “The Gateway to the Atlantic.” During the navigation season of 1941, for example, there were nearly 500 direct entrances and clearances of vessels to foreign ports, and from Oswego nearly 1 ,000,000 tons of coal were exported, a quantity twice as large as had been shipped in any previous season.This post is part of an article – A History of the First Fresh Water Port in the United States – that will be posted on OswegoHistorian.org in sections. Use the link to download the article in its entirety. The article is filed under the Port of Oswego category. Please contact us for more information.