Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority. IX. Grain Elevator Politics

From 1914 through 1931, Oswego had 4 mayors: Thomas F. Hennessey (D, 4 yrs), John Fitzgibbons (D, 4 years), Moses Prouse Neal (R, 4 years), and Daniel H. Conway (D, 6 years).  Overlapping that same 18-year period, New YorkState had 5 governors: Martin A. Glynn (D, 2 years), Charles S. Whitman (R, 4 years), Al Smith (D, 2 years), Nathan L. Miller (R, 2 years), Al Smith, again (6 years), and Franklyn D. Roosevelt (D, 4 years).

At that time, both governors and mayors had two-year terms.  Governors were elected during even-numbered years; mayors during odd-numbered years.  Consequently, overlapping terms were to be expected.

Hennessey’s term of office coincided with terms of 2 governors, Fitzgibbons’ coincided with 3 governors, Neal’s with 2, and Conway’s also with 2.

The idea of the Oswego grain elevator surfaced during the first administration of Al Smith (1919-20).  State Superintendent of Public Works Edward S. Walsh wrote a strong and encouraging letter (dated 7-8-1919) to Mayor Fitzgibbons (1918-21), saying he had the “greatest faith in the development of the port of Oswego and the resultant benefits to the entire canal system of the State as well as the port of New York.”  Walsh said the key to success of New York’s canals would be “terminals properly equipped to handle grain commodities.”

During December 1920, Walsh ceremonially “turned sod” on the west terminal site to initiate construction of the new grain elevator that he predicted would be completed by October, 1923 (Oswego Daily Palladium, 1-19-23).  When he addressed the large assemblage of guests at the Oswego Chamber of Commerce on the evening of January 13, 1923, Walsh pointedly chided the City for not doing more to advance progress of construction much beyond the elevator foundation, but laid much of the blame on “politics,” suggesting that the first Smith administration’s work to advance growth in Oswego’s port had not been followed up by his successor (see: Oswego Daily Palladium, 2-14-23, p.8).

During the gubernatorial election campaign between Gov. Nathan L. Miller and former Gov. Al Smith, the proposed Oswego grain elevator was an important local campaign issue.

On the day before the 1922 election, large political ads appeared in the Oswego Daily Palladium (ODP, 11-6-22).  On page 8, a pro-Smith ad read:  “STAND BY OSWEGO, Vote for Alfred E. Smith”; “WHO IS THE FRIEND OF OSWEGO?  SMITH OR MILLER?”  These questions were followed by several paragraphs detailing “ACTIONS VS. PROMISES” made by the former Smith and present Miller administrations.

On page 14 of the same newspaper, another large, bold ad read, “Miller’s Election Means Completion of the Marine Elevator,” followed by “Attempt to Drag City’s Power and Harbor Development into Local Politics Should be Resented,” and “Vote for Miller Tomorrow.”

Smith won the election with a plurality of about 400,000 votes (ODP, 11-8-22).  On February 21, 1923, the ODP (page 4) announced “GOVERNOR TO AID PASSAGE OF OSWEGO ELEVATOR BILL; Measure Now Being Prepared Will Call for an Appropriation of $1,307,000 and Will Be Fathered by Majority Leaders in Both Houses of the Legislature.”

Another story on the same page of the ODP noted that at the request of Gov. Smith, Mayor M. P. Neal would defer asking for state aid to condemn property on the east lake front of the harbor at present so as to not jeopardize the chances of the elevator appropriation measure being passed.  Neal also noted that property matters would be taken up by Oswego’s proposed new seven-member Harbor Commission (currently being reviewed by the NYS Assembly) that would have no more than four members from any one political party.

Mayor Neal (1922-25) appointed former Mayor Hennessey (1914-17) to the new Harbor and Dock Commission in April, 1923.  Later that same year, Hennessey decided to run against Neal who was running for re-election.  That must have been an interesting election!

The political ads in the ODP newspaper (remember, there was no television in 1923) were strongly worded and blunt.  According to a large, pro-Hennessey ad (10-31-23, p.5), “Neal’s Business Administration has Been the Most Wasteful and Unbusinesslike Oswego Has Ever Known!  His Administration Has Been a Succession of Expensive Blunders!”  These comments were followed by, “He Was Long on Promises!  He Was Short on Performance!”  Those comments all were followed by a series of allegations designed to make the reader abhor the Neal candidacy.

Alternatively (and predictably), Mayor Neal’s re-election ads refuted Hennessey’s allegations and recollections.  Mayor Neal pointed out in one ad (ODP, 11-3-23) that before he “took office, robberies and street holdups, particularly of women, reached alarming proportions through the knowledge of local and outside crooks, that Oswego had no adequate police department.”  Neal’s rebuttal ads also compared his promises and performance (10-29-23; 10-30-23).  One specifically highlighted his “activities for the new Port of Oswego” (11-1-23).

Mayor Neal was re-elected that November of 1923, and served two more years.  When Hennessey’s initial appointment to the Harbor and Dock Commission expired the following January, Neal replaced him with T. J. Burke who served until November, 1934.

As reported earlier (Palladium Times, 3-8-12), a contract to construct the grain elevator was awarded in September, 1923, and the project was completed in July, 1925, and the first grain elevated in October, 1925, two months before Mayor Neal completed his second term.

On April 7, 1923, Mayor Neal wrote a moving letter to Gov. Al Smith that read in part, “It is difficult for me to adequately express the feeling of gratitude toward you, which is unanimous in our city.  We fully realize the great obligation we are under for your aid and assistance in helping to again place Oswego on the map as a marine city.  We hope some way in the future to express our appreciation.

“Accept, therefore, my dear governor, my personal thanks and thanks of Oswego, which are hereto so inadequately expressed.  I remain most cordially yours, M. P. Neal, Mayor”

During the following year, 1924, when Al Smith was again running for re-election, the Oswego County Democratic Committee ran a copy of that letter in the OPD (10-31-24, p. 7), advocating that the entire City of Oswego adopt the sentiments expressed by Mayor Neal, and make it unanimous in their vote for Al Smith for governor!  Smith won and was also re-elected again in 1926.  OswegoCounty records, unfortunately, have been lost regarding how Oswego citizens voted in 1923.


Terrence Hammill, Chairman

Port of Oswego Authority

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