The Coal Era (ending 1942) – Port of Oswego, NY

Coal Exports Rise Steadily

The exportation of coal remained the one business index of port activity which showed consistent improvement. Certain regions in Pennsylvania enjoyed a complete monopoly of the Anthracite Coal industry, so that the source of supply was singular and not subject to change.

Therefore, although in the course of time other routes were established, Oswego was able to retain its natural advantages. But by becoming a port primarily devoted to exportation, rather than to importation, the balance of trade had been disrupted. In the peak year of 1870, there had been collected in the port of Oswego, a total of $1,112,352 in customs revenue. In the early 1930’s, this figure had dropped amazingly to less than $1,000. The records show that during these same years the exportation of coal had increased from 54,526 tons in 1870 to nearly 1,000,000 in 1941. Since the importance of a port is tabulated by the Federal Government on the basis of its revenue, perhaps it was only natural that when the Reorganization Act was passed in 1913, Oswego was demoted as a distinct Customs District, and attached to the District of Rochester as a port of entry.

Thus, another blow had fallen. After over 100 years of leadership, headquarters during that time to the vast territory of Central New York, maintaining sub-ports at Syracuse and Utica, Oswego too was labeled a sub-port, and its destiny ruled thereafter by its rival in the West.

Port Activity Increasing Since 1931

But the gloomy picture has faded. With the opening of the new Welland Ship Canal in 1931, the period of commercial isolation for Oswego is over. During the last ten years, the largest vessels of the upper Great Lakes have been in and out of Oswego Harbor many times. The grain trade that had been lost to Buffalo has again become an important factor in port activity. Realizing that the opening of the Welland Canal must inevitably bring about a revival in the grain business in Oswego, the State of New York, in 1924, erected a million bushel elevator, designed to accommodate the largest lake vessels afloat, and providing also for transshipment of grain by way of the Oswego Canal.

In anticipation of the expected revival of business, the citizens of Oswego created a Harbor and Dock Commission in 1923, which was authorized to “promote and regulate the commerce of the city of Oswego, and its harbor.” As a result of these changed conditions, and revival of interest, Oswego has again become an important transshipment point for vast quantities of grain. In 1940 several of the largest steamers on the lakes, carrying as much as 400,000 bushels each, were docked and unloaded at the State Elevator. The total quantity received during that one year was over 10,000,000 bushels.

New Type of Shipping Vessel

The exportation of salt, which had for so many years, been the chief article of commerce, has never been revived, but the loss of this in-transit business is no longer a burden. In 1923 a new type of vessel made its ftrst appearance on the canaL. With a gross tonnage of over 1500 tons, the vessels were really power driven barges, capable of navigating the Great Lakes as well as the canal. Since the vessels could be fully loaded at the point of debarkation, and proceed direcdy, without breaking cargo, to the post of destination, it at once became apparent to shippers that the saving in time and transportation costs had opened up an entirely new field in water borne commerce. Consequently, newer and larger units were built, and the great quantities of gasoline, kerosene, raw and refined sugar, molasses, sulphur, chemicals and wood pulp that have passed through the port in recent years have aided materially in establishing a new era of prosperity.


On March 3, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Joel Burt as the ftrst Collector for this District. During, his tenure of office, he occupied quarters in the same building that housed the Post Office at that time, a store operated on West First Street by William Dolloway. Mr. Burt’s successors, and their business addresses follow:

  • Nathan Sage – appointed June 11, 1811 – operated Custom House from his home on West First Street
  • John Grant, Jr. – appointed May 31,1826 – operated office at this home on WestSeneca Street
  • George H. McWhorter – appointed May 1,1834 – opened new Custom House in building at corner of West Seneca and Water Streets
  • Thomas H. Bond – appointed August 2, 1841 – continued to occupy Custom House at corner of West Seneca and Water Streets
  • George H. McWhorter – appointed again on May 23, 1843 upon the death of Mr. Bond
  • Jacob Richardson – appointed June 4, 1849 – moved the office to a new building on Water Street, the Burckle Building where it remained until the new Federal building was erected on the corner of West First and Oneida Streets.
  • Enoch B. Talcott – appointed May 28, 1853 – continued to occupy Custom Office in Water Street building
  • Orville Robinson – appointed March 31, 1858 – Custom House make its final move to present location in the Federal Building on October 5, 1858.
  • John B. Higgins – appointed April 1, 1860
  • Charles A. Perkins – appointed October 1, 1861
  • Andrew VanDyke – appointed September 1, 1864
  • Charles C.P. Clark – appointed April 1, 1869
  • Elias Root – appointed May 1, 1871
  • Daniel G. Fort – appointed July 10, 1877
  • John J. Lamoree – appointed January 14, 1882
  • Issac B. Poucher – appointed July 31, 1885
  • Henry H. Lyman – appointed August 1, 1889
  • W. J. Bulger – appointed December 1, 1893
  • James Cooper – appointed April 1, 1897
  • John S. Parsons – appointed April 2, 1910

Upon the passage of the Reorganization Act of 1913, Oswego lost its status as a Collection District, and the succession of Collectors appointed by the President came to an end. Charles A. Bendey, who had held the Civil Service office of Special Deputy under Mr. Parsons was immediately sworn in as Deputy Collector of Customs in Charge, and held that office until the Civil Service age limit forced him to retire on July 1, 1932. Upon the retirement of Mr. Bendey, Benjamin P. Legg was designated to take his place, and held office until his untimely death on October 15, 1939. After Mr. Legg’s death, the present incumbent, John W. O’Connor, was appointed in his place.

This post is part of an article – A History of the First Fresh Water Port in the United States – that will be posted on 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.
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