OSWEGO – The key to the Port City’s future could very well lie in its past.
A public rally Thursday night to support a process leading to national landmark status for two key Oswego heritage sites drew hundreds to the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center.
Congressman John Katko opened the event, designed to increase community support to have Fort Ontario State Historic Site and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum elevated to National Monument status and into the National Park Service.
“The phrase ‘you are history’ has somewhat of a negative connotation to it,” said Jeff Grimshaw, chairman of the Fort Ontario National Landmark Committee. “However, for us it is a positive. We are history.”
“My God, this is a story that must be told,” Rep. Katko agreed of the fort and Safe Haven. “It’s something that’s such an under-appreciated thing in our county, I think. And, it’s such a big, big part of our history. We got to really do something about it.”
He started looking into the history and “was amazed … it’s a very cool place.”
The fort has been a military post from the French and Indian War through the war in Afghanistan, and was the site of the only Emergency Refugee Shelter in the United States for victims of the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.
“It’s amazing to me that it’s the only fort in United States history that played a part in every war since the French and Indian War,” he said. “That is beyond cool!”
However, when he talked to the National Park Service about Fort Ontario, they were less than thrilled – “Forts are forts,” they said.
He started to explain about Safe Haven, and their interest grew.
“So, for anybody who is working on this project, for Safe Haven or the fort itself, God bless you. You’re preserving a part of our nation’s heritage that needs to be preserved,” he told the large crowd. “That fort is something special.”
“The fort itself is just walls; Safe Haven is just a building. It’s the people who lived in them, the people who fought and died – that’s what Oswego’s all about,” Mayor Tom Gillen said. “That’s why you’re here tonight. You’re here to celebrate the people who made this city what it is today; who made this country what it is today. What we’re trying to do is get the word out that Oswego is not just a hockey town. It’s a town full of real people who care, for centuries; we’ve played a part in the history of this country.”
“We’re going to make this happen,” he added. “It’s too big of a thing not to.”
Assemblyman Will Barclay thanked the mayor for his great work for the city of Oswego and hopes (Gillen) will stay involved.
The fort is a symbol of the history in the area, he said.
“Unfortunately, sometimes the history in Oswego County gets overlooked,” he said. “When you can really see history, I think that makes a big difference.”
As a national park, the fort would greatly increase tourism revenue in the area, he said.
Fort Ontario Historic Site Supervisor Paul Lear agreed.
“I see the fort, historic sites, as businesses, engines of the economy,” he said.
The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation fully supports this effort, according a spokesperson for the agency. It also has the support of Sen. Patty Ritchie and the Governor’s Office.
Kevin Gardner, chair of the Oswego County Legislature, cited Legislator Shane Broadwell for proposing the idea to him and getting the ball rolling.
“It’s a bipartisan effort,” he said.
The fort is so important to the county, that it has it incorporated in the county seal, Gardner added.
“We’re doing it. We are going to keep supporting the fort. I don’t want to change the county seal.”
One word resonated with (Mayor-Elect) Billy Barlow during the recent campaign.
“That word was passion,” he said. “We have people in our community, no matter what type of adversity, we have people like Amy and Paul Lear, Mercedes Niess and all of the dedicated local officials including Mayor Gillen, give yourself a hand; there’s no way this community will fail.”
George DeMass of the Safe Haven board spoke about the site.
“I wish the few remaining refugees were here to see this,” he said.
When he met one, she said, “You live in Oswego? That’s the best place on earth! You accepted us when we had nothing … when we felt like we were nothing,” he recalled.
“Fort Ontario and Safe Haven are gems. Not only locally, not only nationally – but in the world,” he said. “We have some good plans, some exciting plans for Safe Haven. We hope to become an institute.”
Lear told of how many soldiers from Fort Drum have visited Fort Ontario.
“They understand they’re walking in the footsteps of American history where blood was shed for our freedom,” he said. “Oswego has a place in American history far larger than most communities … it’s astounding.”
National park status would likely result in the year-round operation of the fort, he said, adding, “We could realize its full potential.”
Historic sites are like factories, he said. They don’t crank out commodities, “They process visitors who spend money in our hotels, restaurants and shops.”
Two Girl Scouts from Troop 10567 added their sentiments. One pointed out since the fort has played such a large part in American history it was deserving of National Park status. It would be a major tourist attraction, she added.
Her friend agreed. “I think Fort Ontario should be a National Park because it has served so many purposes over the years.”
Both young ladies also stressed the fact that Safe Haven was the only site in the country to offer refugees safety from the Holocaust.
“It’s not all gloom and doom in Oswego County. You’ve got to remember that. FitzPatrick’s not dead yet,” Katko said. “This is our future. We’ve got to really sell it to everybody. But, once they hear about it they will be excited, they will want to see it. I am going to work my butt off to make sure this becomes a reality.”
It will be a long process, but it is attainable if everyone continues to work together, he added.
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