Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority. VI. The Harbor and Dock Commission

As reported in the Oswego Daily Palladium (ODP, Jan. 22, 1924), “The Oswego Harbor and Dock Commission came into being April 14, 1923, after amendment of the City Charter, through appointment by Mayor M. P. Neal of six commissioners, who, with Commissioner of Works, John T. Collins, made up the Commission for the first year.”  The organizational meeting of the new Commission was held on that same day.  Frederick B. Shepherd was elected President. The remaining members were Thomas H. Bennett, Frank P. Farrell, Thomas F. Hennessey (Oswego mayor 1914-17), James E. Mansfield, MD, and John K. O’Connor.  John M. Gill was appointed Secretary (with a salary of $500 per year).  At the first meeting, the six appointed members chose by lot when their individual terms would expire (yearly from 12-31-1923 through 12-31-1928).

Thomas F. Hennessey’s term was first to expire on 12-31-1923; during the next few months, however, he chose to run again for the office of mayor—against the very person who appointed him to the Commission, first-term mayor, Moses Prouse Neal.  While the campaign was “spirited,” Mayor Neal won re-election to a second term.

During that 32-year period of ten different mayors, from 1923 through 1955, when the Harbor and Dock Commission was supplanted by the Port of Oswego Authority, only twenty-two additional persons served as appointed Commission members.  Among these are some of Oswego’s most recognizable names, including T. J. Burke, John O’Connor Conway, Lawrence W. O’Brien, George H. Campbell, Leonard H. Amdursky, and Frank M. McCormack, DDS.

After 75 years (1848-1923) of harbor management by the City of Oswego according to rules and regulations specified in the various editions of the Oswego City Charter, the Harbor and Dock Commission provided a new operational approach, and required dramatic change in procedure.  The City Charter was amended with a new section, Title XIX—Harbor and Dock Commission, stating that it “shall constitute one of the departments of said city with the powers, duties and obligations prescribed in this title.”

This new “department”, however, was quite different from other city departments.  It consisted of six members appointed by the mayor, plus the superintendent of public works as the seventh member.  This “department” operated quite differently from other city departments, and had considerable operational independence.  The amended City Charter stated that the Commission had “sole charge and control of the harbor of Oswego, its wharves, docks, piers, slips, canals, structures, mechanical devices, and other appurtenances, as they now exist, or as they shall be made, constructed, designated or enlarged.”  Moreover, “sole charge and control” was so-designated for the sole purpose of commerce.

The Commission was authorized to award and enter into contracts in the name of and on behalf of the City of Oswego for construction, maintenance, improvement and enlargement of buildings and other structures necessary to “promote and regulate the commerce of the city of Oswego and its harbor.”

The Commission also had the authority to acquire, by condemnation, additional lands, rights and easements determined to be necessary to carry out the objectives and purposes of Title XIX.  The Commission could also hire such engineers and other employees as needed, and set their compensation.  With approval of the Common Council, the Commission could also designate and define the portion of OswegoRiver, LakeOntario and the lands under their water, and the lands adjacent thereto as the harbor of Oswego.

The Commission also had the power to make such rules and regulations as it deemed proper to regulate the use of the harbor, its appurtenances and facilities.  It also oversaw all construction, repair, alteration, or deconstruction of all wharves, docks or piers, none of which could be done without authorization in writing by the Commission..

The harbor master, appointed by the mayor, and who served during the term of the mayor, was to be under the sole direction of the Commission that also fixed his compensation.  After January 1, 1934, the mayor no longer appointed a harbor master.

The Harbor and Dock Commission had a very busy first year (ODP, 1-22-1924, page 7).  The members met frequently for the next four days after the organizational meeting of 4-14-1923, starting to collect data and securing support for an Oswego River development project.  They prepared a brief and addenda for a hearing to be held in City Hall on 4-19-1923 with Major Paul Reinecke, of the Army Corps of Engineers.  The objective was to discuss “many facts and new matters of importance which emphasized the magnitude of the tentative program of the Commission, and the obstacles which had to be overcome before definite progress could be made in drafting a tangible plan of harbor and port development.”

The Commission “secured accurate determination of the ownership-in law of the lands under water east of Fort Ontario and in front of Government property, planning on decision by engineering authorities that expansion of the harbor limits would be to the Eastward of the present port confines.”  Ownership records of these lands antedated the Revolutionary War, and searches done by the Commission gained much valuable information that was able to guide the Commission in its planning.

Commission representatives were able, during September, to visit the Port of Montreal to study port development and Great Lakes commerce.  Representatives, also during September, met with NY State Superintendent of Public Works, Edward S. Walsh, and signed a contract for the construction of the State Grain Elevator in Oswego, constructed during the following two years.  Discussions also were held with shipping and rail companies about the harbor development plans underway.  A new map of the harbor was made, cost estimates were secured for a study by reputable harbor-planning engineering experts, and a request was made for Oswego residents to vote by a special election in early 1924 for funding of such a project.  The next Notes will continue discussion of the Commission’s work.


Terrence M. Hammill

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