The Days When Oswego was a Major Great Lakes Port

By Richard F. Palmer

It is certainly refreshing to look upon the business activity prevailing in our harbor at the present time, after the usual stagnation of the winter months in all northern lake ports. The click of the mallet and caulking-iron resound on every side – the decks of the numerous vessels are manned with busy crews engaged in “fitting out,” and everything presents an aspect of business, and everybody predicts a season of prosperity. May those predictions be verified, and the approaching season redeems the losses of the past. Vessels are arriving and departing daily, and our business men are actively engaged in completing their arrangements for heavy commercial transactions.

— Oswego Commercial Times, April 3, 1860

This paper is intended to give a perspective on the heyday of maritime life at the port of Oswego in the mid 19th century. Between 1850 and 1860, Oswego was one of the most lively and prosperous ports on the Great Lakes.  The port teemed with activity. In that decade, 18 steamboats, 55 schooners, two brigs, four barks and 136 canal boats were turned out at the local boat and shipyards.  It was not unusual to see dozens of ships in the harbor during a typical day during the navigation season, being ushered in and out of the harbor by a dozen steam tugs.

At times the harbor was so busy it is said that a person could cross the Oswego River on the decks of vessels. During the winter of 1859-1860, there were 68 sailing vessels and 80 canal boats moored in the harbor.  During the off season one would be hard pressed to find a room for the night as the local hotels and boarding houses became winter quarters for hundreds of sailors.

The docks, shipyards and satellite businesses employed hundreds of men and boys.  The maritime life of Oswego centered on the First Ward, which covers the waterfront on the west side, and its counterpart, the Second Ward, on the east side.  The 1850s and 1860s were the zenith of prosperity and activity at Oswego harbor.   To this area of the city, there appears to have been a mass influx of Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian emigrants as well as citizens from continental European countries.

The censuses reveal most emigrants came here as family groups, many apparently passing through Canada first.  Although a few would eventually become prominent citizens and businessmen in Oswego, most were common folk who had come here with their families seeking a better life. They brought with them a host of skills and hard-work ethics developed over the centuries. During the period of American expansion, there are indications many of them later moved on.

Oswego had grown rapidly after the completion of the Oswego branch of the Erie Canal in 1828 and the Welland Canal in 1833 which opened commerce to the Midwest.  According to federal and state census tallies, the population of Oswego jumped from 2,117 in 1830 to 4,000 in 1835; to 4,665 in 1840; to 5,837 in 1845 (it became a city in 1848); 12,205 in 1850; 15,816 in 1860; and 19,288 in 1865.  The 19th century pinnacle of population for Oswego was 22,428 in 1875, after which it began a slow decline.  As of the 2000 census, the population of the city of Oswego was 17,351.

Oswego, which is the oldest U.S. port on the Great Lakes, was designated as a port of entry regulated by U.S. Customs by a law passed by Congress on March 2, 1799. The same law also designated Niagara, and Presque Isle on Lake Erie which is now Erie, Pa.  But Oswego had already been an active port for generations, dating back before the French and Indian War to the fur trading days. It also was of military importance during the course of more than two centuries.

Shipbuilding was on a small scale until after completion of the Welland Canal.  But over a period stretching from the 18th century until well after the Civil War, more than 300 vessels of all shapes and sizes were built in Oswego.  Most of the people who built these vessels were foreign born and brought their skills with them. These included ship carpenters, caulkers, ship smiths, and sail makers. By far the largest class of transplants with maritime occupations was in order of occupation, sailors, ship carpenters, caulkers and vessel owners who made new homes for themselves and families in Oswego.  Since Oswego was also a canal town there were also several yards where canal boats were constructed, and many boatmen also lived here.

Dry docks and marine railways were established here starting in the mid 1830s and over the years employed hundreds of craftsmen.  Oswego-built wooden ships endured the test of time – some lasting for decades.  But many an Oswego sailor left home, never to return.

The first major shipyard on the east side of the harbor was established by Andrew Miller, an Irish emigrant, about 1853. In 1856 he constructed a drydock and continued in operation for several years. Later, this became the firm of Miller, Kitts & Moore. Eventually this facility was taken over by the firm of Mitchell & Gallagher which continued until the 1880s.  This was on the site of today’s Oswego Marina.  At the height of its activity, which like other yards included repairs, 100 or more men were employed.

On the west side of the harbor there were several shipyards over the years. These included Sylvester Doolittle, who in 1841 built the first screw propeller steamboat on the Great Lakes called the “Vandalia.”  In 1835 George S. Weeks established a yard and marine railway (for repairing vessels) on the approximate location of the Oswego Maritime Foundation. Subsequent owners of this yard were James A. Baker, and finally George Goble, who was a native of Ireland and came here in 1837. He was the last of a long line of Oswego shipbuilders.

For a brief period, there were also shipyards in the vicinity of the Coast Guard station operated by Thomas Collins and George R. Rogers.  For a brief period in the mid 1850s there was also a shipyard at the west end of Lake Street, now the site of the large fuel oil tanks for the power generation station. This was operated by John E. Lee and Peter Lamoree. For convenience, the canal boat yards were located along the river further to the south, above the lower bridge. One of the better known yards was that of Scott & Nesbitt.

Labor Problems

Building and repair of wooden vessels was hard work which had to be done outdoors for low pay in all kinds of weather.  The first evidence of unrest appeared in August, 1860 when 300 ship carpenters went on strike demanding a raise of 25 cents a day from $1.50 to $1.75. After marching through the streets of Oswego they held a mass meeting at the old City Hall (now the

Market House on Water Street) and organized the Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Union.  Similar organizations were formed in other shipbuilding centers on the Great Lakes as well as on the East Coast.

Unfortunately the records of this organization have not been found and the newspapers did not always follow up on stories regarding strikes and labor unrest.  However,  there is evidence that shows there were marked improvements in working conditions, pay and benefits over the years, including establishment of an eight-hour work day.

The late 1860s brought the workers and boat and ship yard owners to loggerheads. The following article in the Oswego Advertiser & Times for May 30, 1867 is self-explanatory:

To Ship and Boat Owners

A card from the owners and proprietors of ship and boat yards, appearing in the columns of your paper, Mr. Editor, stating that the Ship Carpenters and Caulkers’ Protective Union attempted virtually to coerce men to belong to the union, we beg leave to contradict it as unreasonable and unjust. We simply claim to be united for our mutual protection and the protection of our families, and we submit our case and our cause before an enlightened and discerning public.

We further claim to be a benevolent society visiting the sick and burying the dead. We proposed to the bosses to reduce our wages from three dollars to two dollars and fifty cents, on old and new work, for eight hours as a day’s work, our business being one of the most laborious of any to work at – excessive toil under a burning sun naturally exhausts and weakens – so, on the long hours we were not in a condition to work the last of them, and in a position very often our feet refused to carry us home, discouraged and dispirited, to our families.

We would beg to remind the majority of these men that it is but a few short years since they worked with the toils with us, and were always the first to demand high wages. A little prosperity, we are sorry to say, to some, drives honorable and manly feeling to the winds. We would ask, was it not by our sweat and toil, together with the exorbitant profits on materials that made them rich in so short a time? A certain gentleman, whose name is affixed to their card, promised a public speech, in a public hall in our city, when he was aspiring to political honors, that he honestly considered eight hours for the hard-working man, and he would require no more. “Consistency is a rare jewel.”  They intimated to us they would send more men to strange cities in Canada, and give them three dollars per day for eight hours work, on order to crash and oppress their fellow citizens, confident it would not be out of their pockets, as the owners of vessels and boats were to be charged three dollars and fifty cents.

Our motto is “be just and fear not,” for our dependence is on Him who protects the poor. We give our time, our sweat and our mechanical labor; we claim to be the producers, while they idly stand by, making and compelling the owners to pay fifty cents on each man, with profits untold. With regard to not having Union men, we would wish to remind them of the extent of this

continent, the facilities, its laws, its government, holds out to honest labor and mechanical science, from the building of a frigate to digging in or on the water works. Our wealth is in our mind and muscle, not in the perishable ways of ship or boat docks.

We ask for nothing but what is fair and just, and will remain, as usual, good Union men, now and forever. We would respectfully inform those wanting ships or boats built, spar making or caulking done, that we are prepared to do it in a workmanlike manner, and at the shortest notice.

Signed, Ship Carpenters’ and Caulkers’ Union

The 1866 Oswego City Directory lists Shipbuilders: Chandler, Alvord & Co., Henry S. Chandler and George S. Alvord; and Littlejohn Dane & Co., both foot of East First St. Goble & Macfarlane, George Goble and James Macfarlane; and Lee & Navagh, John E. Lee and James Navagh, foot of West Second St. The only boat builder listed is Charles King (yawls, &c) foot of Front Street.

The last mention of this activity in Oswego is found in a brief news item in the Oswego Morning Herald of May 5, 1879:

Messrs Goble & Macfarlane have acceded to the demands of the ship carpenters as far as old work, that is, repairing is concerned, and pays the men $1.75 per day. They hold to $1.50 per day on the new vessel which they are building.

The rise and decline of the port of Oswego is best told by those who experienced it. Captain John Molther, United States Inspector of Hulls for Lake Ontario, briefly tracked the history of the port when he spoke at a meeting of the Men’s Club at Christ Church Parish House in Oswego on March 25, 1897:

After 1857 vessel building ceased until 1861. In 1862, Goble built the schooner Thomas S. Mott for the gentleman whose name she bore. Mr. Mott paid for building more vessels in Oswego than any other resident of the city. In the sixties the most prominent vessel owners were Thomas S. Mott,

George Finney & Daniel Lyons, Morgan M. Wheeler and Michael J. Cummings. All vessels built for Lake Ontario trade were made to conform to the capacity of the locks in the Welland Canal.

Vessels built previous to 1870, with a carrying capacity, of from thirty-five to forty thousand bushels, were not greater earners, pro rate, than the canal vessels. One reason was that shippers were not rich enough to buy large cargoes when the immense amount of money spent during the Rebellion had been concentrated into a few hands and the channels between

Buffalo and Chicago had been deepened to sixteen feet, while a twelve-foot vessel could get to but one dock in Oswego, the crisis came and with a free Erie Canal, Oswego’s importance as a lake terminal ceased.

In the old days Buffalo and Oswego were rivals for the business of the West. Buffalo won because the United States would not build a canal around Niagara Falls. It was Buffalo, also, that advocated the abolishing of tolls on the state canals. This was a blow to the forwarding and commission business of Oswego, as all grain using the Welland Canal was required to pay a duty of six dollars per thousand bushels. When state canal tolls existed the tolls from Buffalo to Syracuse equaled the tolls through the Canadian canal, and as the Oswego route was the shortest, it was the cheapest and best.

I allude to Oswego’s liberality in bonding $1,100,000 for railroads and says the bonding proved a curse, rather than a blessing. The city has paid more than $2,000,000 in taxes for interest on those bonds. One reason why Oswego has not grown in proportion to other cities may be found in the confidence which holders of real estate forty years ago had in Oswego as the location for a manufacturing and commercial city. Waterpower sites were considered more valuable than gold mines. Flouring mills were the principal manufacturing industries in Oswego.

Big, pretentious buildings that gave employment to but a few. The Kingsfords were the only manufacturers in Oswego that employed men. Thousands turned to the lakes in those days for employment and found it, and the “Shipmasters’ Ball” was one of the features after the close of the season of navigation. There are but few of the descendants of the men who were prominent in business thirty years ago, prominently connected with business today in Oswego. Among the exceptions are Kingsford, Sloan, Mott, Ames and Oliphant.

Returning to the question of shipping, between 1861 and 1874 Goble sometimes had two or three vessels on the stocks at one time. Investments in vessel property brought large and quick returns. One of Mr. Mott’s vessels, launched in August, 1872, cost $25,000. When she was laid up at the end of the season of 1873 she had $17,500 to her credit. The banner year was 1872.

In 1873 there were 684 vessels enrolled in the Oswego Custom House. In 1896 there were twenty-seven. The largest vessel ever built in Oswego was less than 400 tons measurement and would carry about 700 tons. The average trip to Chicago consumed from thirty to thirty-five days. From six to seven round trips were made in a season. Steamers now make sixteen or seventeen round trips in a season.

An oldtimer once remarked, “Commerce was at its peak then and vessels were entering and leaving the harbor in a regular parade of sails.”

The volume of waterborne traffic in Oswego is gleaned from the Oswego Commercial Times of August 27, 1863. On that day there were 28 schooners and four passenger steamers in the harbor.  Lumber, wheat, corn, lath, cedar, barrel heading and flour were the principal imports. That same day, 22 schooners left Oswego with cargos of oakum, pitch, salt, sugar, pig iron, pork, meal, water lime and coal. A sloop was loaded with 24 tons of stone plaster bound for Sandy Creek.  Besides this traffic, 21 canal boats left for Albany, Troy and other points.

The Oswego Palladium of October 30, 1888 published an interesting interview with Clark Cooley, the Canal Collector at the time, who was considered an expert on this topic. He said:

Commencing with the epoch beginning in the year 1835, during which the large hill extending from the foot of Third street to the river on the East, was leveled and occupied by numerous ship yards, he stated that shortly after the establishment of these, between six and seven hundred workmen were employed as ship carpenters, caulkers, joiners, sail makers and ship smiths.

The industry supported between 1,500 and 2,000 persons.  The wages were good and commodities cheap, and a general prosperity was the result, many comfortable fortunes being accumulated. Among the early shipbuilders were G.S. Weeks, who built steamboats, propellers and vessels; Doolittle & Mollison, who leaded the dry dock between Second and Third streets; Thomas Collins, Henry Doville, Peter Lamoree, John Lee and others.

At a later date there followed George Goble, James Navagh, Peter Dufrane, William Wilmott, Brower Morgan, P. Gallagher and Andrew Miller. Owners of vessels and canal boats were Truman Wyman, Fitzhugh & Little John, C.C. Cooper, Bart Lynch, Daniel Lyons, Morgan M. Wheeler, Dunn & Cummings, E. & O. Mitchell, A.G. Cook, Thomas Martin, McCarthy & Marsh, as well as others.  During the winter from 150 to 200 men were employed repairing ships and canal boats, thus forming a separate industry in itself.

The reciprocity enjoyed with Canada formed a great aid and the navigation interest was at its height. I have seen the river so closely packed with vessels that I could cross it by walking from deck to deck and have known steamers to be obliged to run alongside schooners to land their passengers who then reached the shore by the novel mentioned above. Vessels brought immense quantities of grain which was partially used at the mills and shipped inland by canal.  Now, however, the industry of building is practically extinguished and only about 15 to 25 persons find employment at an industry which formerly gave work to hundreds.

The railroads and free canals are in a measure responsible for this decline, but I consider the chief cause to lie in the huge tariff which followed in 1845, the low one under which these industries had flourished. Immediately after that period shipbuilding began to shrink, the expense of constructing being so great that it ceased to be profitable.  Canada not being cursed in this manner soon proved herself more active competitor than we could withstand. Duties placed upon lumber, iron, cords and materials were very high and worked strongly against us.

I remember the case of Captain John Joyce whose vessel was badly damaged in the Welland Canal and it was rebuilt in Canada, but before being allowed to return to the United States was taxed by the Custom House officers a duty of $4,000 in gold, which was then bringing so high a premium that he was forced to pay in the end almost the original value of the ship.

This is one instance showing the disastrous effect, of a high tariff upon vessels built at this port. It is decidedly my opinion that the high tariff has operated detrimentally to Oswego’s interests and without it we should stand upon a much more prosperous financial basis today, particularly as regards to the industry we have discussed.

Spring Fit-Out

The busiest time of year in sailing days for those in maritime-related occupations was late March and early April. It was truly an animated scene. Oswego virtually came alive after winter’s hibernation. Sailors poured out of the hotels and rooming houses and scurried to the waterfront to fit out their vessels that had sat idle for five months. The Oswego Palladium of April 8, 1864 noted:

The work of fitting out vessels preparatory to the opening of spring business has commenced in our harbor, and the sound of the caulking hammer, and the cheery voices of the sailors will be heard again.

For owners time meant money and there was always an organized rush to get these vessels seaworthy.  During the mid 19th century more than 100 ships, primarily cargo-carrying schooners, were owned in Oswego. Fitting out of sail and steam vessels, as well as canal boats and tugs, was a ritual dating back to the dawn of navigation on the Great Lakes. Yet very little has been actually written on the subject. Old newspapers refer to spring fit out in colorful but generalized prose.   Because so many generations have passed, the actual procedure for fitting out a typical Great Lakes schooner at the time Oswego was a major port is all but lost to the mists of time.

The manner in which wooden vessels were built and maintained was closely scrutinized for many years by a private regulatory organization known as the International Board of Lake Underwriters, made up of such member organizations as the Northwestern Insurance Company which was founded in Oswego in 1832. This board pretty much “ruled the roost” as a private regulatory agency. The board on occasion issued what today would be considered state-of-the-art instruction manuals the construction, operation and maintenance of insured vessels. Even though it appears it was a fair and honest organization this board set the standards. Their “rules for construction” could be found in practically every reputable shipyard on the Great Lakes, and were written in technical but simple enough jargon an experienced shipbuilder could understand. One has to remember that generally speaking these were uneducated people who only attended the “school of hard knocks.”

Oswego had been a major shipbuilding center in the 1850s and 1860s. As the need for larger ships grew over time, the popular ritual of a ship launching, which drew huge crowds of spectators, became a thing of the past. The last sizeable vessel built in Oswego was the three-masted schooner “Leadville,” launched from the Goble shipyard on July 2, 1879. This was a large vessel for its day, 142’6″  long, with a 26’3″ breadth and 12 foot hold, at 343 tons Customs House measurement.

The “Leadville,” named for Leadville, Colorado, was a sight to behold, being a three and after, spreading 9,357 square feet of canvas. Her foremast was 86 feet high; mainmast 88 feet high and mizzen mast 76 feet high. Her fore and mizzen topmast was 60 feet high and the spar had a topmast of 50 feet.  It was short lived, however, and was wrecked on Nov. 13, 1883, east of Long Point, Lake Erie.  There were no casualties.

The local newspapers alluded to the fact that due to the scarcity of ship timber by the early 1870s, Oswego’s master carpenters were being sent to the upper lakes – even as far away as Manitowoc, Wisc. to build ships for local forwarders and other vessel owners.  This was cheaper than having timber shipped to Oswego to build vessels.  The Goble shipyard, which was the last survivor of those days, continued to exist until the mid 1900s on repair work, as it had the only suitable drydock on Lake Ontario to repair Welland Canal–sized vessels.

Although wooden ships built in Oswego were considered among the finest ever constructed on the Great Lakes, the staunchest wooden hulls finally gave into the crashing of freshwater seas against them, especially in heavy weather. The gales of late October and November took a heavy toll of both ships and men.  The loss of human life particularly in the 1850s and 1860s prompted the formation of the Oswego Shipmasters Relief Association. The annual Shipmasters Ball became a popular ritual, the intent of which was to raise funds to assist destitute survivors of shipwreck victims.

Oswego began to fade as a major Great Lakes port in the late 1880s. The bottom fell out after passage of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 which raised the duty on grain imports so high it virtually shut down Oswego’s major barley importing business overnight.  One by one the wooden grain elevators along the waterfront eventually disappeared, either by fire or demolition.

The port of Oswego struggled along, but the “Marine List” which proudly used to post dozens of ships that arrived and departed daily during the navigation season, dwindled to only a shadow of what it once had been. The days of when Oswego harbor was a forest of ship masts were but a memory by the 1930s.  The tonnage passing through Oswego actually rose to record levels during this period according to statistics.  The steel ships were many times the size of the old lake schooners.  Grain ships remained large and the exporting of coal, which developed in the 1870s, continued until 1961. At one time there were coal trestles on both sides of the river. Until the early 1960s the ship “Fontana” transported coal from Sodus Point to the Niagara Mohawk power generation plant in Oswego.

The good old days of Oswego harbor were fondly recalled by oldtimers.  Jay Knox, columnist for the Palladium Times in the 1930s and 1940s, once wrote:

Do you remember when Oswego harbor contained a fleet of tug boats and every one of them was kept busy during the season of navigation?  An old time mariner, who evidently knew this harbor, was in a rather reminiscent mood the other afternoon as he entertained a group of listeners about the river doings of other days.

He could tell the name of any schooner that ever sailed into the port of Oswego, knew the captain and where it hailed from and what its capacity was. And duffing this conversation he dwelt upon the tugs that owed them in and out.  He told of the powers of the Charlie Ferris, M.J. Cummings,  C.P. Morey, Eliza J.  Redford, Major Dana, Fred D. Wheeler, Alanson Sumner, M. and J. Connell, John Navagh, E.E. Frost, William Avery and the May Queen.

They were all plying the waters of the Oswego River before the passage of the McKinley bill, which killed the Canadian lumber and barley trade. They all had their share of the business and often times the tugs would race out in the lake for their tow. Today, however, there is not a locally owned tug in the harbor.

Other Sources

  • Oswego Palladium, July 3, 1879, Dec. 15, 1900, March 26, 1897, May 24, 1913, April 26, 1916. Nov. 18, 1932, Sep. 21, 1933,
  • Oswego City Directories, 1850-1860, at Oswego Public Library
  • Zercher, Frederick K. “The Economic Development of the Port of Oswego” Ph.D. thesis, Syracuse University, 1935
  • U.S. Census for the year 1860, City of Oswego
  • Act passed by U.S. Congress to regulate the collection of duty on imports and tonnage, passed March 2, 1799
  • United States Commerce and Navigation Reports, 1799-1892
  • “A Glance At The Past – What the Census Reports Show For Oswego” – Oswego Palladium, Dec. 15, 1900.
  • Gazetteer of the State of New York,  J.H. French, 1860.
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