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Heritage Foundation Lecture Focuses On Cahill Building, West Side Pier

OSWEGO, NY – Days of future past.

Oswego City Historian Mark Slosek uses a large photo to help illustrate part of his lecture.
Oswego City Historian Mark Slosek uses a large photo to help illustrate part of his lecture.

Historically, Oswego’s waterfront was the city’s most vibrant area. Many residents hope that in the near future, the area can be resurrected to once again be an economic for in the Port City.

On Saturday, Oswego City Historian Mark Slosek presented a program on the history of the Cahill’s Fish Market/Walton & Willett Stone Store and the development of the west side pier with an eye toward economic impact of each.

The Heritage Foundation of Oswego County event was hosted at the J. Richard Pfund Boating Center on Lake Street.

“We are pleased to host this event and support what the Heritage Foundation is doing in our community,” said Mercedes Niess, executive director of the maritime museum.

Austin Wheelock, president of the Heritage Foundation, welcomed the crowd of nearly four dozen area residents.

“Heritage was formed in 1962 as a grassroots reaction to urban renewal in the city of Oswego. There were a lot of buildings on the east side that were being torn down and there was the threat that a lot of buildings on the west side would be torn down as well,” he said.

The group has grown into a county-wide organization that promotes, protects and preserves the historic architectural landmarks in Oswego County.

The Walton Willett Stone Store building was constructed in 1828 and is known throughout the region as the former Cahill’s Fish Market (and for a few years, Coleman’s Restaurant).

It was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as the Walton Willett Stone Store/Cahill’s Fish Market. In 1983 it was added as a historic Oswego landmark by the Heritage Foundation, Wheelock said.

“Even back then, there was interest in preserving the building,” he said. “Hopefully, we can keep this building for decades to come. Today, more than ever, our historic buildings have come under threat from Mother Nature, from budgets … it’s more important than ever to remember why these buildings are important and why we should save them. They are part of our character. They make us who we are today and they’re going to lead us into the future as well.”

“Buildings speak, if one can read their language. They tell us much about a place and its people. This is what makes them significant,” Slosek pointed out.

Using dozens of large historic photos, he traced the history of the Port City from its early days as a fur trading center through its robust era as a commercial shipping community to the present.

“This structure needs to survive. Demolition would be deemed a great loss to the heritage of our community,” he said of the Cahill building.

The building originally built in 1828, located on block 12 of the intersection of West Seneca and Water streets, in the heart of, what was at the time, a booming commercial port on Lake Ontario, he said.

Over the years, it has been home to a multitude of businesses including a ship chandlery, newspaper office, customs office, steamboat ticket office, warehouse, fish market, and tavern restaurant.

The Cahill family purchased the site in 1945. Theirs was the last commercial fishing venture on this side of the lake. The fish market closed when the Cahills retired. In 1999, Peter Coleman renovated the building for the purpose of establishing a restaurant.

The site has sat vacant and idle since Coleman’s “closed abruptly on Feb. 6, 2008,” Slosek said.

Mayor Tom Gillen is hopeful some development will take place at the site. They are seeking a developer who has the best interest of the city at heart, he said.

The mayor admits that it is currently a dangerous building and that it would take a lot of money to restore it.

But, he’d like to see it saved.

There have been a few possible uses mentioned for the building, including another restaurant as well as a marine sanctuary. Nothing, at this point, is official.

“It’s not just the Cahill Building. It’s a whole mentality; it’s how the city functions and operates that is a problem,” Niess said. “Amy Birdsall is the (city’s) first ever planning director. How can you have a vision if you have no planning? These are all issues. But, there are opportunities that are coming to our community. We have to poise ourselves to be ready for them.”

“It’s wonderful to be a community that is sort of like the 1950s. That’s the good part; you can live here and feel safe and all that kind of stuff. But, if you’re running your city as the 1950s, we’re in trouble. Times are different. Times have changed,” Niess added.

Wheelock is employed with Operation Oswego County.

“So, I see this from both sides. I see it from the economic development side and the historical preservation side. I hate to say it, but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

New York State has set aside $1.5 billion that seven regions across upstate New York are going to compete for, he said, adding that three of the regions are going to get $500 million each.

The city of Oswego is considering hiring a consultant to help develop their part of the plan, he said.

“We have the Oswego 20-20 Vision Plan, but it doesn’t necessarily address this,” he explained. “We should be looking at the future. Not if we don’t get it (the money), we just don’t do it. It’s timely in that we’ve identified our waterfront as something we want to invest in. The Oswego waterfront has really been industrial in nature. We’ve kind of, over the years, turned our back on it. We’ve had the backs of our buildings facing it. Really it’s been our past. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be to be our future.”

Oswego needs to embrace its waterfront in the future, he said.

He envisions a revised west side waterfront from Cahill’s all the way up to Breitbeck Park – transformed into one large development, bringing it all into one and coordinating various activities there and really make it a waterfront destination for people.

“The city is looking ahead. They are looking at these programs and saying, ‘maybe there are ways that we can get some funding to be a catalyst for this,'” Wheelock said.

One audience member pointed out that it’s an election year.

“Oswego needs people who have a longer vision than that pothole tomorrow, or spending a nickel here and worrying about where it’s going to come from. We need people with vision that run this city,” she said. “So with the election coming up, talk to the candidates, pay attention to what’s going on and do the best for the community from that point of view. They are the people who are going to lead. Our participation in that venue is what’s really going to make a difference. It’s getting the right people in place to take care of things that we care about in this community.”

The lecture was part of an ongoing series of informational programs on preservation topics.

For more information, call (315) 532-1277 or email Wheelock at [email protected]