Notes from the Port of Oswego Authority. VIII. The State Grain Elevator

The H. Lee White Marine Museum sits on the site of the former New York State (NYS) grain elevator on the northern extension of West First Street.  It was, in fact, an integral part of that grain-storage operation.  That pier was the northern terminal of the State-ownedBargeCanal system.  The State constructed the elevator on it during the early 1920s.  Many stories could be written about that project.

To begin this story, a brief, historical setting will be helpful.  Oswego once had a large number of grain elevators and mills (see R. Palmer, Palladium Times, 2-25-12) that functioned mostly during the nineteenth century.  J. Leo Finn reported in “Old Shipping Days in Oswego” (1960) that “after 1892, until the start of the State Elevator, very little grain came into Oswego.  What did come moved through the only remaining elevator, the Northwestern.”  That elevator, however, was destroyed by fire in 1922 (see R. Palmer, Palladium Times, 10-15-11).  The newest upgrade of the WellandCanal between Lake Erie and LakeOntario, scheduled for completion in the mid 1920s, was expected to provide for much larger vessels and massive amounts of grain coming into LakeOntario.

In a story titled, “Barge Canal Future Dependent on Development of Local Port” (Oswego Daily Palladium, February 14, 1923), page 8 was devoted entirely to a large dinner meeting of the Oswego Chamber of Commerce and guests (about 150 in attendance) held the previous evening in the Pontiac Hotel (now Pontiac Terrace Apartments).  Speakers for the evening were Edward S. Walsh, NYS Superintendent of Public Works, and Dwight B. LaDu, State Engineer.

Walsh remarked that Oswego was the key port of the BargeCanal system, was indispensable to the future of the canal and water-borne transportation in NYS, and was of vital importance to the Port of New York.  His speech, however, was much more important than that.  “The occasion was one of the most notable in the history of the Chamber of Commerce.  It marked a definite step in the history of the city,” reported the Oswego Daily Palladium.

During his introduction of Walsh, Chamber President T. H. Bennett reviewed briefly the history of a movement to construct a new grain elevator on the BargeCanal terminal here, and referred to the local initiation of that project during the first administration of Governor Al Smith (1919-1920).  He said that, although Governor Martin Lewis Miller (1921-1922) gave his aid, the so-called “Oswego program” failed to receive any great assistance, and it was left for another administration to carry the work to a successful completion.  He then referred to the second election of Al Smith by an avalanche of votes (Gov. Smith then served 1923-1928).  He further said, “Two members of the official family of Governor Smith are here tonight to tell the Chamber of Commerce of the plans for the terminals, Mr. Walsh and…Mr. LaDu.”

Walsh revealed that NYS was to build in Oswego a 1,000,000 bushel grain elevator, a warehouse, and do other things for improvement of the terminal and harbor conditions.  Then he launched into what was characterized by the newspaper as “A Frank Speech.”  While disavowing any intention of scolding, Walsh said, “My presence here tonight is rather a peculiar twist of fate.  When I turned the first sod for the elevator in December, 1920, I fully expected that within three years I would return here and find the structure completed and in operation, and Oswego again on the map where we had promised to place her.  But here I am back again nearly three years later and find the work has not progressed beyond the foundations.  What is the reason for this?  We made an effort during the first administration of Governor Smith to wake Oswego up.  Yet three years later we find almost nothing has been done.”  He said that the (NYS) Legislature of 1920 did its part, passing an appropriation for the Oswego elevator, and future administrations had a moral obligation to carry the work forward to completion.  Would another city have disregarded such an opportunity, and be satisfied with just a foundation and no superstructure?  “Would any other city have been satisfied to see American grain grown on American soil, brought down to Buffalo in American boats, transshipped by the ‘mosquito fleet’ through Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to Montreal, a foreign port, and shipped from that foreign port?  But the grain-laden fleet passed Oswego by and went down the river to Montreal.  Will Oswego awake to its opportunities?”

Walsh said that Oswego should have been able to handle at least a portion of the 76,000,000 bushels of grain sent from Buffalo to Montreal, and it would have done so if the elevator facilities were available.  He said, “The reason for it all is politics.  But this is a business proposition, a business proposition that concerns the people of the United States generally, but more vitally and particularly the welfare of our own state and your own city.  Politics has no place in business.”

Walsh also said, “Oswego is the nearest port to the seaboard.  It is the natural route from the West to tidewater.”  After many other related remarks, Walsh concluded, “We in New York look on Oswego as part of our salvation commercially.  We must have it (the large grain elevator).  Let Oswego take the place it rightfully belongs in importance as a port.  Come down to Albany and work with us to secure these appropriations.  If you do, I promise you that within the next two years, we will do what we set out to do four years ago.”

As reported by the newspaper, “The diners rose to their feet and cheered enthusiastically as Mr. Walsh concluded.”  Two months later, on April 14, 1923, the OswegoHarbor and Dock Commission was created by the City of Oswego (see “Notes from the POA VI,” Palladium-Times, 1-7-12).

President Frederick B. Shepherd of the new OswegoHarbor and Dock Commission reported (Minutes of 10/ 9/1923) that the Oswego Elevator Contract was signed on September 27, 1923, by Edward S. Walsh, New York State Commissioner of Canals and Waterways.  It also was reported that the NYS Attorney General had telephoned to say that the contract and state bond were approved, and contractors would start operations soon.

After competitive bidding, the contract for construction of the grain elevator superstructure of 1,000,000 bushels capacity was awarded in September, 1923, to James Stewart & Company, of New York City, for $1,119,985. 83 (State Canal Grain Elevators at Brooklyn and Oswego, 1926).  An electrical sub-contract for an amount between  $65,000 and $70,000 was awarded on December 26, 1923, to Oswego’s own Snyder & Mackin, with the complex work expected to take most of the summer of 1924 (Oswego Daily Palladium, 12/26/1923).

The structure was completed and accepted by NYS on July 7, 1925.  The total cost of the project was about $1.953 million (in today’s dollars that would equal about $25 million).

As reported in Harbor and Dock Commission Minutes (11-10-25), the first grain was elevated into the State Elevator on October 10, 1925.  In 1938, the State Elevator handled 27,000,000 bushels of grain diverted to Oswego from Montreal and other Canadian ports (Montreal Gazette, 3-15-1939, p. 11).


Terrence Hammill, Chair, Port of Oswego Authority

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