History of Oswego

Oswego was granted a city charter in 1848 but has been an important part of the development of New York State and the United States of America from early colonial times. Its location on Lake Ontario provided one of the few easy to manage natural passages to the heartland of America. British colonials seeking to move into the interior of North America found the Appalachian Mountains to be an imposing obstacle. Overland transportation in those days was difficult, enormously time consuming, and expensive. They soon realized that by using the Hudson, Mohawk, and Oswego Rivers they could gain access to the Great Lakes and penetrate deeply into the heartland of America. Early on this meant opening up a lucrative fur trade on the frontier and fierce competition with the French who had long enjoyed a water route via the St. Lawrence River. Oswego became a pivotal site and the French and British fought over its control until the British finally won out in the French and Indian War. During the American Revolution the lakeside community also proved valuable in helping to thwart British forces moving against the Americans at Saratoga. Having won independence the Americans were free from the restrictive regulations which had hampered westward movement. Oswego’s port gave Americans an opportunity to ship salt from Syracuse to mid-west ports and, in turn, import western grain which was milled in the port city. Oswego became a boom town.

By the mid-nineteenth century Oswego’s population had grown from a single wilderness fort to one of the 100 largest cities in the country. Agriculture, shipbuilding, and commerce were the main movers taking advantage of the waterways which now included the Erie Canal system and various dams which harnessed the water power and made navigation safer. But, the coming of the railroads proved to be a dubious blessing. First helping to grow the local economy, they eventually negated the need for a water passageway west. No longer could one walk across the river by using boats which were moored so closely together. Oswego responded to the loss of commercial traffic by becoming an important industrial community, the home of such manufacturing giants such as Kingsford Starch and the Diamond Match Company. Many immigrants filled the demand for labor in woolen mills, malt companies, and railroad shops. By then, Oswego’s population reflected the American people of the country as a whole: the masses of Europe, first from the North and West, then from the South and East. They brought with them changes in food and challenged numerically the Protestant dominance of the city’s churches. Though many African-Americans have never concentrated themselves in the port city, Oswego offered slaves an opportunity to escape to Canada using its underground railroad. Some of those sites can still be identified. As the twentieth century moved on, manufacturing companies moved out.

Today, Oswego is a center for higher education (the home of SUNY Oswego), nuclear power (three such plants), fishing and boating made possible by its modern marina facilities, and tourism featuring the Marine Museum, the Richardson-Bates House, and Fort Ontario as it was in the Civil War era. Of special interest, there is the role the Fort played in being the only wartime haven for World War II refugees, which can be viewed at the Safe Haven Museum located in Fort Ontario.

The future is yet to be written. One bright sign is the resurgence of shipping activity at the Port of Oswego Authority. Workers are kept busy at the port handling shipments of windmill parts, many varieties of grain, aluminum materials, salt, asphalt, and cement to name the most common products. It is a growing states and international trade that augurs well for Oswego.

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