Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority: An Historical Perspective

The Port of Oswego Authority ( was created by the enactment of a NY State law in 1955.  Historically, Oswego had been an American port for 159 years since 1796.  Before then, this area was an indigenous village, a French missionary and fur-trading outpost, a British fur-trading outpost, and the site of a series of forts and skirmishes, if not battles.

After the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the northern boundaries between Canada and the new United States were set.  Forts in Oswego, as well as several other locations such as Niagara, Detroit, and Mackinac, however, were not relinquished by the British garrisons to the new United States until thirteen years later in 1796.  Before the British left FortOntario in 1796, however, they apparently had prohibited and prevented any trade with citizens of the United States.

In 1796 (George Washington had been president since 1789), Oswego finally became part of the United States, and was now able to commence trading, growth and development.

In 1797, The New York State legislature provided for 100 acres of land on the west side of the river to be laid out in lots for a public square (Franklin Square), and for streets and buildings.  The area  was forever to be called Oswego.  The first family in Oswego ca. 1796 was that of Neil McMullin, a merchant who had moved his family and a prefabricated frame house from Kingston, Canada.

The US Congress declared, in 1799, that Oswego was a port of entry (i.e., a place where foreign goods may be declared at a customhouse, and where an alien may be permitted to enter), making Oswego the oldest US port on the Great Lakes.  John Adams was our second US president.

In 1828, Oswego was incorporated as a village.  The first president of Oswego village was Alvin Bronson, who also had played a major role in getting the OswegoCanal built.  It opened in the same year.

In 1848, Oswego was chartered as a city by NY State.  The first mayor was James Platt whose relative, Zephaniah Platt, founded Plattsburg, NY, in 1785.  In 1848, Alvin Bronson was also the first president of the new Oswego Board of Trade.

One hundred forty-three years after Oswego had been declared a port of entry, John W. O’Connor, Deputy Collector of United States Customs in Oswego, read a paper to the Oswego County Historical Society on Feb. 24, 1942.  It was titled, “A History of the FirstFreshWaterPort in the United States.”  That very informative paper can be found on the new web site of the Oswego City Historian:

O’Connor divided the history of Oswego port activities into four great periods:  The Fur Trading Era (1610-1796); The Salt Era (1796-1873); The Lumber Era (approximately 1840-1928); The Coal Era (undefined start date-1942).

It is interesting to note that diversification of port commerce described by O’Connor started when Oswego became part of the young United States, and grew from a frontier outpost into a growing and thriving community.  Three decades later, Oswego became an incorporated village.  In a couple of more decades, Oswego became a state-chartered city, and was connected to the ever more important NY Canal system.  That is when Oswego became interconnected to world-wide movement of goods by vessels.

O’Connor’s major categorizations, however, failed to suggest many other aspects of commercial port development that occurred during those periods, and one must read his actual paper to understand how dynamic the OswegoHarbor was between 1796 and 1942.

Vessels of commerce changed from predominantly canoes, to pole boats, to small and large sailing ships, many of which were built in Oswego, to propeller-driven vessels and barges.  In addition to salt, lumber and coal, grains became a major commodity in Oswego commerce.

Milling of flour made Oswego one of the most important flour milling centers in the United States, along with Baltimore, Rochester, and St. Louis.  Twenty flour mills once existed here.  The largest flour mill in the country, with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per year, was built in Oswego in 1860.

In the first few years of the 19th Century, over 600,000 bushels of salt were exported from the Oswego harbor.  In 1847, 28 ships were built in Oswego.  When the first WellandCanal, connecting LakesErie and Ontario was opened (ca. 1830), Oswego experienced great commercial expansion over the next several years.  The number of vessels that arrived annually in the Oswego port increased from 546 to 2,004 between 1830 and 1836; the enrolled tonnage of vessels at the port (vessels using Oswego as a home base) increased from 6,910 tons in 1830 to 21,079 tons in 1848; the total value of lake business was $277,000 in 1830, and over $18,000,000 in 1848.

Between 1840 and 1870 in Oswego, the lumber trade increased from over 19.5 million board feet (1840), to over 67.5 million board feet (1850), to over 190.4 million board feet (1860) to over 284.5 million board feet (1870), a total increase of over 1300% in 40 years.

After 1870, however, and for the next 60 years, to about 1930, there was a gradual, persistent decline in Oswego port activities until, as O’Connor described, 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 Lake Ontario.”

After 1930, OswegoPort started to revive again for a variety of reasons that will be featured in the continuation of Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority.

Terrence M. Hammill, Chairman

Board of Directors

Port Of Oswego Authority

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