Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority: 19th Century Decline

On Feb. 24, 1942 (143 years after the US Congress had declared Oswego a Port-of-Entry), John W. O’Connor, Deputy Director of US Customs in Oswego, read to the Oswego County Historical Society a paper titled “A History of the First Fresh Water Port in the United States.”

That very informative paper can be seen on

From 1799 to about 1870, Oswego’s port became very important to shipping, manufacturing and transport (see:  “The Days When Oswego was a MajorGreat LakesPort,” by Richard F. Palmer, at the same Web site).  Products shipped into and out of Oswego included salt, various grains, logs, lumber, coal, and much more.

Manufacturing included the building of various vessels, ranging from barges to canal boats to sailing and steam ships, the milling of grains and lumber, malting, brewing, and more.  Transport included movement of raw materials and products into and out of Oswego and of many people to and from the east coast and western regions of our young country.

As O’Connor described in his 1942 paper, for the 60-year period between about 1870 and 1930, there was a gradual, persistent decline in Oswego port activities until Oswego suffered a shift “from its heights as one of the most important shipping points in the country, to…an obscure port of entry, hugging the banks of LakeOntario.”  Why the decline?

Successful port operations depend upon many factors, mostly based upon physical/operational advantages, location, convenience, efficiency, relevance and cost.

Does a port provide a safe harbor during bad weather?  Is water depth adequate?  Can vessels safely enter and leave the port?  Is the port located proximately to other transportation routes and methods (highway, rail, river, canal, airport)?  Does it have enough and the right kind of temporary storage space?  Can vessels and other modes of transportation interconnect in an efficient manner?  Does it offer advantages that attract business to it rather than to other ports?

Is the on-loading and offloading of vessels done efficiently, without delay and accidents?  Is the work force experienced, effective, and efficient?  Can transport be done economically in comparison with other possible ports?  Is there even any need for the services historically provided by any particular port (e.g., construction and use of large wooden schooners to ship goods)?

One or a combination of these factors could greatly reduce the viability of a port, particularly if that port operates seasonally.

Occasionally, government actions (or inactions) play major roles in the success or failure of ports.  For example, O’Connor described the impact of the Reciprocity Treaty, essentially a “Free Trade” Agreement between the US and Canada (1855).  The 10-year agreement covered fishing, trading and navigation rights.  Oswego’s main interest was trading; the treaty provided for “duty free” trading of natural products between the two parties.  During the first year of the treaty, Oswego saw an increase in foreign trade value of over $9 million.  During the period of the treaty, Oswego had peak years in (1) greatest tonnage moved on the OswegoCanal, (2) greatest quantity of salt exported, and (3) greatest quantity of grain moved on the Canal.

Customs revenue declined, however, from over $160,000 in 1858 to about $4,200 in only two years.  After the treaty was terminated, Customs revenue increased to over $969,000 in 1866.

Decline of Oswego’s port, however, seemed inevitable, as described by O’Connor.  Onondaga salt transport through Oswego halted in 1873.  Lumber transport halted because the source of lumber effectively was exhausted, after a century of “promiscuous cutting” had denuded the timberlands of the LakeOntario watershed.

Perhaps the greatest negative impact in Oswego’s history of a government action was the spectacular demise of the Oswego’s grain trade resulting from the McKinley tariff, a Federal act passed in 1890.  This was clearly detailed by Richard Palmer in a two-part series published in the Palladium-Times (8-14-10 and 8-21-10) and in his book, On the Waterfront. Maritime Life in Oswego and Lake Ontario (2011).  As Palmer described, by 1890, more than three million bushels of barley were imported annually into Oswego from Canada.  That amounted to almost one-third of the total annual amount of barley imported to the entire United States.  That protectionist tariff added 30 cents to the cost of each bushel of barley imported to Oswego, adding about $100,000 in annual tariff costs alone (in 2010 dollars that is equivalent to about $2.4 million!).  Palmer reported that barley importation plunged from more than 3.3 million bushels in 1890 to about 125,000 bushels in 1900 (a 96% decline), and it ceased the following year.  Of course, all of the subsidiary business activities and related employment also were harmed.

There were other fundamental changes that played a role in Oswego’s port decline:

  • The protectionist tariff policy of the US resulted in retaliatory, heavy Canadian taxation of US goods, reducing transport of goods through Oswego.
  • Tolls were removed for transport through the Erie Canal locks.  Prior to that, vessels passing through the OswegoCanal, LakeOntario, and the WellandCanal could get to Lake Erie without paying tolls.  With no tolls, canal shipping shifted to the Erie Canal from the OswegoCanal.
  • Until the fourth (current) version of the Welland Canal (now called the Welland Ship Canal) was completed in 1932, vessels servicing the Upper Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie) had grown too large to traverse into Lake Ontario through the much smaller three versions of the Welland Canal built in 1824, 1854, and 1887, respectively. Oswego was isolated from the Upper Great Lakes commerce.  Fay, Spofford and Thorndike, consulting engineers from Boston prepared for Oswego, in 1925, a report entitled, “Great Lakes Commerce and the Port of Oswego.”  In it they reported that the Canadians spent about $115 million on this new (enlarged) waterway with the expectation that it would effect a reduction of about 2 cents per bushel in the freight rates of east-bound grain shipments toward the St. Lawrence Route. (Compare that number with the 30-cent tariff per bushel imposed by the McKinley Tariff on grain shipped from Canada into Oswego.)
  • Canada built a series of canals along the northern shore of the St. Lawrence that allowed for the diversion of much former commerce from Oswego to Montreal.
  • Railroads began to compete with canal traffic, and steam engines allowed for larger vessels and handling of larger cargoes.


Terrence M. Hammill, Chairman

Board of Directors

Port Of Oswego Authority

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