By Kelly Jordal, Oswego County Public Information Officer
OSWEGO COUNTY – In honor of the annual opening of the New York State Canal System, Oswego County looks back on its own canal history with a bicentennial “History Moment” at its monthly Legislature meeting.
“The development of shipping on Lake Ontario and the connection of our rivers and the Erie Canal made Oswego County an early engine of economic development in the state,” said Oswego County Legislator Shawn Doyle, District 3, chairman of the Oswego County Bicentennial Committee and historian for the town of Richland. “We were part of a major transportation route from the east coast to the Great Lakes which not only fostered westward immigration, but provided easy access to markets for local agriculture and industry, and served as a supply route for national defense.”
Even before the county was formed in 1816, discussions were heating up in Albany about the construction of what would become the Erie Canal.
In 1792, the New York State Legislature incorporated the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and charged it with selecting a route to build locks and a canal through the state.
This company was not a financial success, however, and by an act of the legislature, the state seized its assets and land and began its own plans for the canal.
Initial proposals called for the construction of a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.
Dewitt Clinton (1769-1828), a prominent state leader who served on the Erie Canal Commission and later as New York State Governor, used his position to move these proposals forward as part of a master plan of infrastructure improvements that he believed were necessary to grow the state.
At first, the project was ridiculed in the press and many citizens thought it an impossibility; even President Thomas Jefferson was skeptical and did not offer any federal support.
Then, on July 4, 1817, the ceremonial first shovels were set into the clay at Rome, NY, and the Erie Canal was begun.
Early leaders of Oswego County took a firm position against this Albany to Buffalo route, arguing that the Oswego River was a more natural route and that it would save time and money to connect the Hudson River with Lake Ontario and the west rather than to excavate through the center of the state.
Finally, after many years of intense lobbying, an act was passed in Albany in November 1824 that authorized the construction of a canal between Onondaga Lake at Syracuse and Lake Ontario at Oswego.
Monies were appropriated the following year and, on July 4, 1826, the cornerstone of the Oswego Canal’s first lock was laid.
The 18-lock canal was completed in 1828.
The Erie Canal was enlarged from 1834 to 1862 and later combined with the Oswego Canal into the greater New York Barge Canal System.
A new route was dug to take advantage of Oneida Lake and the Oneida and Seneca rivers, towpaths were abandoned, and electronic machinery replaced hand-operated devices on the locks.
In 1992, the canal system was again re-packaged and placed under the New York State Thruway Authority.
Doyle added, “Today, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor covers 524 miles of navigable water from Lake Champlain to the Capital Region and west to Buffalo, including the Oswego River link to Lake Ontario. The canal system is still a primary commercial operation which is subsidized by New York State Thruway tolls, but has increasingly become a recreational route in recent years as well.”
Another, perhaps lesser known, fact of local canal history is the plan to build a channel at Port Ontario which would follow the Salmon River and allow for the development of shipping closer to the village of Pulaski.
In an age of smaller boats with less draft, Port Ontario was once a prominent port used to ship produce, grains, potash and lumber; comparable even to the port in the city of Oswego.
In 1837, a proposal was laid out for the city of Port Ontario with a full survey illustrating plans for the canal.
Construction began that year with gunpowder blasting of the shale riverbed; however, it soon stopped due to tightened credit following the financial panic that began in May of the same year.
As time went on and lake boats became larger, the ill-fated city of Port Ontario never developed, though remnants of the canal route can still be seen just east of the current bridge.
To learn more about the Oswego Canal, visit http://visitoswegocounty.com/the-great-outdoors/canalling/
For more about the county’s bicentennial, find Oswego County on Facebook or visit http://visitoswegocounty.com/historical-info/bicentennial-of-oswego-county/