The Lumber Era (1840-1928) – Port of Oswego, NY

For many years the commercial face of Oswego had been gradually maturing as lumber began to assume more and more importance in the business index of the port. The lumber trade here was by no means a new one. The tree growth of the section was early noted for its density and variety. In Colonial days, much of the pine had been cut and shipped to England where it had been utilized in the manufacture of masts and spars. Lumber continued to be a thriving local business as late as 1860, but the chief lumber trade at the port throughout its development, was a matter of importation.

Posts, staves and squared timbers were the principal items received, and nearly all the lumber brought into Oswego had been cut and shipped from the vast forests along the northern shores of Lake Ontario. Although modern methods of mechanization have been successfully applied to the lumbering industry, it is curious to note that the actual manner of shipping has not been materially changed since those early days. The vessels in the trade were ordinarily brought to anchor offshore, where the timber and staves had been collected for shipment. The timbers were then floated out to the vessels and the staves brought out in scows. Upon arrival at Oswego, the vessels were unloaded directly into canal boats for further shipment, or deposited at the local lumber mills for further processing.

Freight Rates to West Cheap

Another case that illustrates the importance of lower rates on shipments to the West was evidenced in the local lumber trade in the period prior to the Civil War. Much of the lumber brought into the port was consigned to local sawmills, where it was sawed, grooved, and fitted for laying by machinery. Because of the low western freight rates, it was considered more feasible to reship most of the processed lumber to the western ports. A thousand board feet of lumber could be shipped to Chicago for three dollars, a distance by water of 1100 miles, whereas it would have cost four dollars to send the same quantity to Albany, a carry of only 200 miles by canal boat.

The records show that the lumber trade at Oswego increased tremendously from 1840 to 1870. Some conception of this growth may be gained from the following figures:

  • 1840 – 19,560,997 Board Feet
  • 1850 – 67,586,985 Board Feet
  • 1860 – 190,402,228 Board Feet
  • 1870 – 284,539,533 Board Feet

The best single index to Lake Commerce over a period of years is the figure which represents the tonnage of all vessels entering and clearing in the district. From 952,926 gross tons entered and cleared in 1848, the figure increased to 1,693,486 gross tons in 1870. During the same period the tonnage, of all vessels enrolled in the Oswego District increased from 21,079 gross tons to 100,040 gross tons.

Largest Flour Mill Built Here in 1860

It was during this period, too, that the grain trade was born. With the opening of the prairie lands in the West after 1830, and improvements in water transportation facilities, great quantities of wheat, corn, barley, oats and peas were shipped into Oswego from the areas bordering upon the Great Lakes, and the trade reached its peak in 1856, when 18,646,955 bushels were received. As flour milling expanded, a larger proportion of the wheat was ground, and the balance shipped by way of the canal for eastern domestic markets, and for exportation to Europe. The number of flour mills increased from seven in 1841 to twenty in 1870. In the 1850s Oswego ranked with Baltimore, Rochester and St. Louis as the most important flouring centers of the United States, and for a few years of that decade, it surpassed Rochester “the Flour City” in total production. The largest flour mill in the country was built in Oswego in 1860. It had a capacity of 300,000 barrels a year. The volume of business naturally fluctuated with the size of the wheat crops, and the demands of European markets. During the late 1840’s, unsettled conditions in Europe and the famine in Ireland made such demands upon the local facilities that the mills were kept in operation night and day. On the other hand in 1860, a huge grain crop, and a declining market, caused all the mills and elevators to be filled, and 25 loaded vessels were forced to winter in the harbor.

Reciprocity Early Boosted Canadian Trade

One highly important factor in the tremendous expansion of Lake commerce at Oswego during this period; a factor that has been almost completely forgotten in the intervening years, was the Reciprocity Treaty with Canada in 1855. After the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846, and the general relaxation of European trade barriers which followed, there gradually grew up in the political minds of the United States and Canada, a tendency toward Free Trade.

Into this controversy, the citizens of Oswego entered with exceptional enthusiasm. Since it was considered essential that the interests of Oswego’s merchants be properly presented to the legislators, and the movement for reciprocity be kept alive, Alvin Bronson was sent to Washington as a lobbyist in December 1852. It was largely through his efforts and the cooperation of Gerrit Smith, then the newly elected Congressman from this district, that the Treaty was passed and signed on June 5, 1854.

The agreement covered all fishing, trading and navigation rights for a period of ten years. Oswego’s interest in the document was based upon the chapter devoted to trading rights. In effect, this chapter proclaimed that the natural products of the two countries should be admitted free of duty into each country respectively. The products covered by this general rule were specifically enumerated, and included extractive raw materials of agriculture, lumbering, mining and fishing.

The immediate impact of the Treaty upon business in Oswego was very favorable. The first full year of operation showed an increase in foreign trade value of over $9,000,000, and during the life of the Treaty, which was repealed in 1866, Oswego experienced peak years in the following classifications:

  1. Greatest tonnage moved on the Oswego Canal
  2. The greatest quantity of salt exported
  3. The greatest quantity of grain received
  4. The greatest quantity of grain moved on the Canal

Government Lost Revenues through Treaty

But the picture disclosed by these figures does not give a detailed outline of the true effects of the Treaty. It is true that more merchandise moved in and out of Oswego harbor during this time than during any other period. It is true that this remarkable increase in business took place during a major depression, followed by Civil War. Nevertheless, the true index of port activity shows that instead of the decrease in business predicted by the exponents of the Treaty, to follow its termination the foreign trade in Oswego continued to grow.

Direct entrances and clearances of vessels in foreign trade maintained a steady increase up until 1873, and the money value of imports also continued to grow. Since most of the articles imported during this time were free of duty, there naturally had been a decline in Customs revenue.

The net revenue recorded at the Custom House for the year 1854 was $160,669. Two years later, after one year of Reciprocity, the revenue had dropped to $4,275. In 1866, after the termination of the treaty, the revenue had increased to $969,365, so that it is estimated that the Federal Government lost approximately $5,000,000 in revenue during the 11 years the Treaty was in effect.

Lake Trade Fell Away After 1870

From this time on, the story is one of discouragement and regret, Oswego had seemingly reached its zenith as a port. For 60 years, beginning in 1870, there was a gradual but nevertheless, persistent decline in port activity. In general, the recession was very marked during the years from 1870 to 1874. Conditions remained quite static from 1875 to 1894, when a further drop began that carried Oswego down from its heights as one of the most important shipping points in the country, to the level it had reached in 1930, an obscure port of entry, hugging the banks of Lake Ontario.

The story of a bridge of ships across the harbor was only a memory. The last bushel of Onondaga salt had passed through the port in 1873. A century of promiscuous cutting had denuded the timberlands in the Lake Ontario watershed, and the last entry of Canadian lumber was made in 1928. The 20 flour mills that dotted the Oswego landscape in 1870 had disappeared. Some had burned, more had been absorbed by the larger corporations that had been attracted to the western milling centers by better transportation facilities and improved methods of manufacture. Only the coal business remained active. By some perversity of fate, it happened that one of the factors that had ruined Oswego as a port, the competition of the railroad, was in a large measure responsible for the continued increase in the exportation of coal.

The causes underlying the decline of port activity could not be due to the business cycle, since the years of prosperity during the period were nearly as many as the years of depression. Instead, Oswego’s position as a port had been undermined by fundamental outside changes. Superficially, it must be noted that the port of Oswego had lost its natural advantages as a gateway to commerce. However the direct and indirect causes should be evaluated more definitely.

Fundamental Changes Affected Port

During the Colonial period, and later, during the salt era, the mouth of the Oswego River had occupied a kind of monopolistic position as a point where transportation routes converged. A large part of all water bourne trade from the eastern seaboard was routed through the portals of Oswego. Its only rival, for many years, was the St. Lawrence route, but as the years passed by, other more advantageous, routes at first threatened, then affected, and finally nearly destroyed the position Oswego had attained.

Certain other elements directly affected port activity. One of these was the failure on the part of the federal government to complete the improvements of the Great Lakes. As late as 1935, the United States Army engineers recommended the Oswego route to the seaboard as being more economical, yet years of agitation on the part of local representatives for the building of the often proposed Niagara Ship Canal, which would enable upper lake vessels to trade in Oswego, brought no result. Furthermore, the tariff policy of the United States during this period, with its inherent elements of protection, was clearly a negative factor in Oswego’s trade. Canadian goods were kept out of the United States, and in retaliation, American goods were heavily taxed in Canada.

Perhaps the greatest single, short-term, positive cause of port decline was the successive removal of Erie Canal tolls, which had the natural effect of building up Lake Erie ports at the expense of those on Lake Ontario. Prior to the removal of the tolls, boats passing through the Erie Canal paid low tolls, while those using the Welland Canal from Lake Erie and the waters of Lake Ontario and Oswego escaped these. The Welland Canal had reached its capacity in the 1860’s, and the average size of vessels on the Great Lakes increased more rapidly than locking facilities were improved upon. Canal to Lake Ontario shipping was gradually choked off from the main stream of Great Lakes commerce. During the same period, Canada, realizing the disadvantages accruing from shipping its products “in bond” through the United States to Europe, had improved the St. Lawrence waterway by the construction of six short canals. These improvements gradually diverted much of the western and Canadian traffic from Oswego to Montreal.

Fully as important to the loss of volume tonnage to the Port of Oswego was the perfection of a new technique in transportation to which Oswego had not been able to adapt itself. The continued success of the railroads as freight and passenger carriers finally destroyed the advantages that Oswego had formerly enjoyed as a transshipment point for waterborne traffic. From the earliest days of the railroads, most of the successful companies had built their roads from the Atlantic seaboard to the West, and the principal eastern cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, had financially aided in the construction of railroads that would provide direct connection with the upper Great Lake ports of Chicago, Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo. Although the citizens of Oswego also contributed financially to various projected railroads which would follow a direct route to the coast, none of these projects materialized.

Changes in Transshipment Methods

One final factor contributing towards the decline of the port must be considered. In the years that followed the invention of the steamboat, many changes had been made in the field of transportation. Oswego’s prime had been reached in a period when vessels were small, and cargoes were transferred by manual devices from one kind of carrier to another. It began to decline when transfer utilities were no longer in demand, and when larger vessels, carrying larger cargoes, loaded and unloaded by machinery traveled longer and longer distances without breaking cargo.

Many attempts were made during this time on the part of Oswego’s civic and business leaders to stem the tide of destruction, but each sincere effort was minimized by conditions beyond their control.

Effects of McKinley Tariff

Nearly all the lumber received at Oswego after 1870 came from Canada. In the peak year of 1873 there were 298,681,000 board feet imported. Even though the lumbering areas were moving westward, Oswego, because of its position as the nearest lake port to the seaboard, and because of low transportation costs, continued to retain its place as the foremost lumber distributing center in the United States. This trend continued until the passage of the so-called McKinley Tariff Act in 1890. The tariff policy of the United States had always given a certain measure of protection to American producers and manufacturers against inferior and less costly competitive products of foreign countries. This was the first tariff act designed primarily to protect the American farmers and producers of raw materials, and was strongly favored by the general public.

However, since under the terms of this act the duties on wood and manufactures of wood were increased to 35 per cent ad valorem, there developed a gradual tendency on the part of Canadian producers to fabricate their own lumber products, and export them directly through Montreal, rather than to submit to the prohibitive duties prevailing across the lake.

It was this same act that sealed the doom of Oswego’s thriving grain trade. The total quantity of all grains received in 1870 was 13,389,547 bushels. Many malt houses were established in Oswego during this period using barley imported from Canada in their manufacturing processes. Imposition of the high McKinley tariff rates caused mid-western growers to take up growing barley and the malting business of Oswego was gradually lost to the mid-west. At one time there were 13 malt houses operating in Oswego. By 1900, importation of grains at Oswego had virtually ceased. The mark-up of duties from a uniform ten cents per bushel to an amount as high as forty-five cents a bushel left Oswego’s elevators empty, and dissipated its dream of becoming the leading grain market in the East.

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.
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