Notes from the Port of Oswego. IV. Additional Harbor Management Details

The 1848 Charter of the City of Oswego set general rules of operation and management for the first new city in northern New York.  The subsidiary document, 1848 Ordinances of the City of Oswego, defined management specificity.

Chapter III of the Ordinances was titled, “Of the Harbor.”  In addition to “authorizing and directing” actions of the newly defined Harbor Master (as described in the previous “Notes from the Port”), the Ordinances also elaborated upon much more about Oswego Harbor Management.

With great detail, the 1848 Ordinances prohibited all persons from casting or depositing into the harbor any earth, ashes, or other heavy substances, filth, or floating matter, or any obstructions; the penalty, not more than $25, plus not more than $10 for each day “the same shall be suffered to remain therein.”

All vessels lying in Oswego were required to keep their anchors “in board” and “upon deck,” their “upper yards braced up sharp, and their lower yards cockbilled,” a term describing an angular orientation of cross pieces attached to masts in order to reduce damage from boats rocking side-by-side during storms.  Fines were “$10 for each and every offence,” forfeited for the use of the City of Oswego.

Steam-boat speed also was regulated by the 1848 Ordinances.  They were to move “slowly, so as not to endanger other craft in port.” Penalty for failure to move slowly was $10 for each offence, forfeited to the city.

Wharfage fees (for tying up to a wharf while loading or unloading a vessel) were defined quite  precisely in the 1848 Ordinances, to include “every steam-boat, brig, sloop, float or canal-boat lying at or making fast to any public wharf or landing.”  Steam-boats were to pay $1.50 for eight hours while “wooding,” (gathering firewood)  and $.50 for every subsequent four hours unless detained by stress or weather (as judged by the Harbor Master), in such case, the fee would be $1.00 for every 24 hours.

“A brig, schooner, sloop” (sail-boats all) “or float of 100 tons or upwards” would pay $1 for 24 hours, and $.50 for every subsequent 24 hours.  If such vessels were over 50 tons, but less than 100 tons, the fee was $.75; under 50 tons, $.50; canal-boats, $.50, for 24 hours.  (Note:  Nothing was said about 50-ton vessels only.)  Once unloaded, “every brig, schooner, sloop, float or canal-boat, shall be exempt from the foregoing rates while lying unemployed and light for the first 24 hours, and then for every subsequent 24 hours shall pay one-half of the foregoing rates.”

Not only were boats charged for tying up to public wharves, but also unloaded cargo or cargo waiting to be loaded were subject to fees:  “Merchandise, 2½ cents per cwt” (hundred-weight).  “Flour, per barrel, 5 mills” (½  cent), “and all other articles of produce in the same proportion as to weight or bulk.”  Boards, planks or scantling (small timbers), sawed or hewed timber at the rate of  eight cents per thousand feet, board measure, and shingles, one cent per thousand.  Wood, hoops, and other “cooper stuff,” fence posts, and all articles of a like description, 12½ cents per cord.

“The foregoing rates contemplate the removal of the property within 24 hours after being landed.  For each and every 24 hours thereafter any such property shall remain, one-half the above rates shall be paid in addition.”

While the fee structure was designed to facilitate daily movement of vessels and cargo, an accommodation was made in Section 7 of Chapter III which stated, “No charge shall be made for vessels or property remaining during the Sabbath.”

The Harbor Master was authorized and required to “carry into effect the foregoing ordinances, and to collect and pay over to the City Clerk, once in each month, all moneys so collected.”

The Mayor and the “committee on wharves” were empowered further by the 1848 Ordinances to “commute” (i.e., enter into agreements) with owners or occupants of lots adjoining the ends of streets and other persons or companies for sums they deemed “fair and just,” taking into account the amount of business being done thereon, but free passage to the wharves had to be reserved for vessels and persons, subject to the prescribed fees and rates.

The Harbor Master also had the power to remove all articles from the public wharves and landings that he deemed to have been there for an unreasonable period of time (of which he alone was to be the judge).  He also had the authority to provide safe storage of said articles, and the owners would have been required to pay for the “storage, wharfage and expenses of removal,” before regaining possession of the articles.  The Harbor Master also had the authority to remove vessels from their berths when necessary.  Moreover, the Harbor Master had the power to detain all crafts and articles until charges for wharfage and storage shall have been paid.

The last section of Ordinances Chapter III simply required that all steam-boats shall have a metallic wire screen or gauze attached to chimneys, flues or smoke pipes while entering, leaving or lying in the harbor so as to prevent the escape of sparks into an atmosphere of highly flammable substances.

Oh, yes, the Ordinances (Sect. 6) said, “No person shall publicly bathe in any of the waters of this city, except in the waters of Lake Ontario; but no person shall publicly bathe in said Lake adjacent to said city between the foot of Eighth-street, in the 1st ward, and Ninth-street in the Second ward, between the hours of sunrise and sunset of each day, under the penalty of $2, to be paid for every violation of any provision of this section.”

This is a thumbnail sketch of how our OswegoHarbor was expected to be operated during the middle of the 19th Century.  As we will see, however, inevitable change would be required.


Terrence M. Hammill, Chair

Board of Directors

Port of Oswego Authority



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