Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority. V. Harbor Management Changes

By the middle of the 19th Century, Oswego’s port was vital to shipping, manufacturing, and transport of materials.  Indeed, Oswego was one of the most important ports in the young United States (Notes from the Port, I and II).

In 1848, the new City of Oswego enacted its first City Charter, with its rules and regulations, including those for management of the very active harbor of those days (Notes from the Port, III and IV).

The original, 1848 Charter of the City of Oswego, however, had several inherent problems.  For example, the responsibilities listed for the Harbor Master would have been overwhelming for only one person.  Keeping track of a large number of vessels plus the disposition of their cargoes, the assessment and collection of wharfage and storage fees, plus the assessment and collection of fines would have been very challenging for any one person.

Monthly transfers of revenue from the Harbor Master to the City Clerk would have been a very poor procedure, making it exceedingly difficult to secure and keep track of revenues, and to “balance the books.”  It also provided very little in the way of fiscal control procedures of the type that are required by law in today’s harbor management procedures.  Moreover, bribery and other abuses would have been a constant threat.

No language was included in that initial City Charter regarding how anyone would be charged and prosecuted for committing any of the defined offences.  Early amendments to the content and language of the 1848 Charter were made in 1849, 1850, 1851 and 1852, with only one (1851) related to the harbor.

Only twelve years after the initial City Charter, a newly revised City Charter was enacted by the Oswego Common Council in 1860.  Another City Charter revision did not appear until 1899.

At 139 pages, the 1860 Charter was 83 pages longer than its predecessor, with an index that had expanded from ten pages to 28.  The Ordinances derived from the Charter expanded from 27 pages to 58, with their indices growing from three pages to ten.  The print size was reduced, and the number of words per page increased, as well, in the new Charter.

Chapter III (Of the Harbor) in the 1860 Charter approximately doubled in size, and the number of Sections increased from 12 to 21, each dealing with specific details.  Sections were more organized and generally more direct and readable.  Several new details went into effect.  For example, some fines were changed from $10 to “not less than $10 nor more than $50” per infraction.  Boats in default of payment of fines could be sold by the Harbormaster at public auction on “three days notice in the official newspaper of the city.”

Newly listed among the items subject to wharfage fees were horses and cattle (ten cents per head), sheep, swine and all other animals (one cent per head), brick (five cents per thousand), stone (twenty cents per cord), lime, plaster, railroad iron (five cents per ton), all other articles manufactured or otherwise, castings, machinery, and all other articles not listed (five cents per ton).  A speed limit was established (four miles per hour) for vessels in the harbor.

The Harbor Master now was required to “collect and pay over to the City Clerk once in each week, all moneys so collected, and shall keep a book in which shall be entered a full account and statement in items of all moneys received by him in his official capacity, and by whom and when paid, and of all sums due from any individual or company.  A violation of any of the provisions of this section shall subject the Harbor Master to a penalty of ten dollars.”

Other new ordinances prohibited tanneries, saw-mills, machine shops or other manufacturing operation in the city from discharging refuse matter of any type into the river.  Vessels were directed not to lie in any way that would obstruct the channel.  Vessels lying in the harbor were now to display a light at night so as to be visible to other boats navigating the harbor.  Steam vessel operators had to extinguish fires in their furnaces when they were within 100 feet of shore.  Tugs and other steam vessels were prohibited from blowing their horns south of Cayuga Street between sunrise and eight o’clock “in the afternoon.”

Persons were strictly prohibited from fastening any boat, vessel, any float of any description, etc. to the bridge across the Oswego River on Bridge Street, or to any part of that structure or any abutment of the same, under the penalty of $50 per offence, half of which shall have been “paid to the person procuring the conviction of the offending party”.

The last Charter revision of the 19th Century was in 1899.  “Of the Harbor” now was Chapter Two of the Ordinances, and many details of the 21 Sections were consolidated into four pages from the previous five-plus pages.  The harbor master (now lower case) was required now to deliver monies to the city chamberlain every two days, and any violations of defined procedures would be considered misdemeanors.  Money derived from harbor sources now would be deposited by the city chamberlain into the highway fund of the city.

It was still illegal for vessels to tie up to any bridge or to any pier or abutment of a bridge across the Oswego River, and the fine was still $50, but no part of that fine was shared with anyone else.  Steam vessels were now only prohibited from blowing horns south of Seneca Street, between sunrise and sunset.  Wharfage rates were listed instead of in paragraph form, making it much easier to consult.  Also, it was made unlawful “to let, loan or rent any boat, raft or vessel to any person who was under the influence of liquor, or who, by reason of having been drinking liquor, may be incompetent to take charge of the management” of such.

Finally and interestingly, the department of works was empowered to rent the several wharves that belonged to the City of Oswego, and to enter into agreements with adjacent businesses to generate revenues that would be collected by the harbor master and credited by the city chamberlain to the city highway fund.  Thus was prepared the City of Oswego to enter the 20th Century.

Future Notes from the Port will feature three major 20th Century events in Oswego:  establishment of the Oswego City Harbor and Dock Commission (1923); construction of the new State Grain Elevator (1925); creation and early development of the Port of Oswego Authority (1955).

The valuable assistance of Emily Bradshaw of the Oswego City Clerk’s Office is acknowledged gratefully for help in the search for early City Charters.


Terrence M. Hammill, Chair

Port Authority of Oswego Board of Directors

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