The Salt Era (1796 -1873) – Port of Oswego, NY

The exportation of salt in the years that followed the dawn of the new Republic was symbolic of the growth and expansion of a small disintegrated people into a vast cohesive nation. Born out of the necessity of war that effectively shut us off from the European markets, only 600 bushels of salt were produced during its first year, but as the tide of civilization moved westward, as the ever-changing frontiers were pushed back by the swelling throng of immigrants, so also did New York State’s first great industry expand. Every mule pack, every knapsack, every vessel sailing out of Oswego harbor was supplied with salt as a commodity of prime necessity. In the first few years of the 19th Century, over 600,000 bushels were exported from Oswego alone.

Oswego Made Port of Entry in 1799

The first United States Tariff Act was signed by President Washington on July 4, 1789, sixty-five days after he took the oath of office. Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, set up Customs Collection Districts along the Atlantic seaboard, and from that time on, a substantial portion of Government income has been derived from duties on imported materials. The passage of this Act effectively stopped for all time the violent quarrels between the States over tariff boundaries. The individual State laws, which had previously required the payment of duties on merchandise moving from one state to another, were repealed, and the mandated policy of a protective tariff has been administered ever since by the Secretary of the Treasury.

During the years of British occupation, no attempt was made to administer the new tariff act along the northern frontier. But when in 1796 the last British outpost was evacuated from the southern shores of the Great Lakes, legislation was introduced into Congress to revise the original bill. The second Tariff Act was passed in 1799. Under this Act, duty schedules were slightly changed, the boundaries of the United States were outlined, and a new Customs Collection District was established. The honor of being the headquarters port of this district, the first port of entry in the United States west of the Atlantic seaboard, was given to Oswego.

From this time on, lake shipping in and out of Oswego developed steadily. It became recognized as the most important port on the newly opened water route to the West, the route over which thousands of immigrants and emigrants passed. An average of 150 complete trips per year were made between Oswego and Niagara by vessels measuring between 40 and 100 gross tons. The open boats, used exclusively at the turn of the century, were gradually supplanted by larger sailing vessels, as Americans began to realize the important factors of speed, comfort and cost in lake navigation.

Pole Boats Replace Canoes

The mode and speed of transportation had changed very little during the Fur Trade Era. Canoes were ideal in a region of frequent portages, and dangerous rapids, and since the loads were relatively light, the early traders emulated their Indian friends and learned to use the canoe to their best advantage. But as the traffic expanded, the necessity for a safer, less costly means of transportation became evident. Gradually the canoe was replaced on the water route from Albany by the “pole boat”. This was a wooden vessel, usually about thirty feet in length, capable of being propelled in less than a foot of water. This type, in turn, gave way to the “keel boat” which was the direct ancestor of the modern canal boat. Seventy-five feet in length and built of planked pine, it was protected throughout its length by a stout wooden keel, four inches square, which took the shock from any submerged obstruction. This type of vessel was capable of carrying over five tons of cargo.

First Commercial Ship Built

The first commercial sailing vessel built at Oswego was a schooner of 90 tons, named “Fair American.” It was launched in 1804, and was later sold to the United States Government for use in the War of 1812. From 1807 to 1817 there were 23 known sailing vessels built in Oswego harbor. In 1810, out of the 60 sailing vessels then trading on Lake Ontario, 31 of them were registered in Oswego. While it is true that anticipation of war with Great Britain was partly responsible for the impetus in shipbuilding, it is of interest to note that increased lake traffic expansion put these vessels to immediate use, and for many years after the war of 1812, schooners built at Oswego during this period continued to carry the greater share of Lake Ontario commerce.

The first of many governmental set-backs to be experienced in Oswego came with the passage of the Jeffersonian Embargo Act on December 20, 1807. This Act was aimed primarily at British trade, but Oswego, as the shipping center for salt, potash and general merchandise to Canada was so adversely affected that by July 1808, local opposition had reached almost the height of armed insurrection. The Collector of Customs here was forcibly prevented from enforcing Federal Regulations, and was obliged to request Governor Tompkins to order out the militia.

Shortly after this episode, the government designated Oswego as its official naval base on Lake Ontario, purchased all available and desirable vessels on the lake and moved to Sackett’s Harbor. The fact that naval supplies were stored here, and transferred to ships to be delivered to Sackett’s Harbor, was the principal reason that lead to the British attack on Oswego on May 6, 1814 and the capture of its port.

Oswego Center of Shipbuilding

Economically and commercially, the growth of the United States in the years that followed the War of 1812 was a phenomenon unparalleled in world history. The steamboat was invented, and immediately every harbor in the country became a shipyard. The Erie Canal was opened and immediately every inland city made plans for an all water connection with the Seaboard. The first railroad was built and immediately each crossroad hamlet pooled its meager resources in its dream of becoming a shipping center. And in this dream of greatness, Oswego, too, played its part. Already recognized as a shipbuilding center, the community continued to expand the industry until it reached its peak in 1847, when 26 vessels slid down the weighs here into Lake Ontario to carry Oswego’s message of commercial superiority to the world beyond its shores.

Oswego Canal Opened

The opening of the Erie Canal proved a severe political blow to Oswego’s businessmen, and a legislative victory for the producers of Western New York. Using every legal subterfuge available, these champions of localization had convinced the Governor and the Legislature that the all-water route through Oswego, which had adequately served 200 years of traffic, should be abandoned in favor of a route that would directly connect Buffalo and Rochester with Albany. For only a few years, however, was Oswego in eclipse. Realizing that the completion of the Erie Canal would divert the greater share of commercial traffic from Oswego to Buffalo, several local civic leaders formed the Oswego Canal Corporation for the purpose of improving the waterway from Onondaga Lake to Lake Ontario. Within a few years, the State was persuaded to take over the work begun by this corporation, and on April 28, 1829 the Oswego Canal was completed and formally opened to Connect with the Erie Canal at Three Rivers.

Welland Canal Gives Great Stimulus

The following year, the Welland Canal was completed, and on August 4, 1830, the first vessel cleared from Cleveland to Oswego. This combination of events probably had more to do with the development of port activity here than any other event in its entire history. By opening up a cheaper and more rapid route for carrying passengers and freight from the seaboard to the interior Great Lakes region, this new canal established a larger market for all products. By the consequent lowering of transportation costs, the way was paved for the production of additional commodities whose market had been limited previously.

As evidence of the enormous commercial expansion that the port of Oswego enjoyed during the next several years, the records show that from 1830 to 1836, canal tolls increased from $3,673 to $53,677. The number of vessels annually arriving in port rose from 546 to 2,004 in the same period. The enrolled tonnage at the port increased from 521 tons in 1830 to 21,079 in 1848. The direct entrances and clearances jumped from 6,910 tons in 1830 to 188,919 tons in 1848. The total value of lake business in 1830 was $277,000, but in 1848 it had reached $18,166,907.

Salt Shipments Subsided After 1858

Throughout this period, salt continued to maintain first place as the most important commodity handled, and rose from 300,000 bushels exported in 1830 to over 2,000,000 bushels in 1848. The peculiar position of salt as an item of trade at Oswego deserves brief explanation. Prior to 1860, the more bulky goods handled here were from the West, and consisted principally of grain and lumber, characterized by large bulk and low value. Goods shipped westward were, on the other hand, less bulky and of higher value. Consequently, sailing vessels and later steamers making the western trip often traveled in ballast. So, while the records show that nearly 5,000,000 bushels of salt were shipped in the year 1858, the peak year, it must be remembered that most of it was carried as pure ballast. The actual cost of transporting a barrel of salt from Oswego to Chicago in 1859 was only eight cents. Even seasoned shippers were at a loss to explain the paradox that allowed a pound of Onondaga salt to be sold cheaper in the Chicago market than in Cazenovia, a town only 20 miles from the salt works. However, after 1860, the business slowly declined, and in 1873 ceased altogether. The discovery of new salt deposits in Canada, Michigan and West Virginia, together with changed technique in manufacture finally terminated a business that had for many years been a profitable item of commerce at Oswego.

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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