The point where the Oswego River flows into the open waters of Lake Ontario was visited by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1615 and was well known to early travelers. The English finally got around to establishing a trading post here in 1722 and a crude fort followed five years later. In 1755 a full contingent of 700 men arrived and constructed two fortifications - Fort Ontario on the east bank of the river and Oswego New Fort on the west side. The English would remain in possession of Oswego until late in George Washington’s second term as President when the Jay Treaty went into effect on February 29, 1796.
Building lots and public squares were laid out in 1797 as Oswego became America’s first freshwater port. Freight was transferred between rafts from inland waterways and larger lake schooners. The War of 1812 interrupted Oswego’s march of progress and Fort Ontario was laid waste by the British but Oswego County was established after the war ended in 1816 and the town once again anticipated a bright future as the largest port on the Great Lakes. Those hopes were temporarily dashed by the construction of the Erie Canal that opened the western lands to Lake Erie and not Lake Ontario. New York’s canal-building craze soon linked Oswego with the Erie Canal in 1828 and when Canada opened an easy water route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with its Welland Canal in 1840, Oswego was primed for a boom time.
By 1850, Oswego had become the largest American port for Canadian imports and was collecting more customs receipts than all but three ports in the country. The Oswego River and the adjacent boat basin were crowded with canal boats and lake schooners, flouring mills, shipyards and drydocks. The world’s largest starch family located here and there was a large iron factory churning out steam shovels and dredges and railway carriage works and repair shops and box factories. Vast quantities of grain and timber and coal and salt moved through the port. A business district of three and four-story warehouses and business blocks developed along West First Street and Bridge Street.
The Oswego streetscape has been altered through the years by fire and urban renewal but a significant handful of buildings remaining from the glory days of the mid-1800s. Our walking tour will visit both sides of the Oswego River and we’ll start on a public green that was laid out on the east side in 1797 when the city of Oswego was laid out...
Oswego County Courthouse
25 East Oneida Street at East 2nd Street, west side of Washington Square
Syracuse architect Horatio Nelson White was busy in the mid 19th century designing courthouses around central New York. Flush with receipts from the Oswego Canal, this splendid Renaissance Revival structure was built between 1859 and 1860 for the cost of $29,390. The two story building rises above a cruciform plan and is constructed of load bearing masonry walls faced with smooth ashlar Onondaga limestone. It features a portico surmounted by a domed cupola. Still in use today, the courthouse was altered in 1891 and again in 1962.
EXIT WASHINGTON SQUARE AND THE COURTHOUSE ON 2ND STREET. TURN RIGHT AND WALK TOWARDS LAKE ONTARIO.
Oswego City Library
120 East 2nd Street
Born in Utica in 1797, Gerrit Smith spent his early adult years building the vast estate developed by his father, a long-standing partner of America’s first tycoon, John Jacob Astor. Smith became a national leader in the cause of abolition and women’s suffrage and was an unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States in 1848, 1852 and 1856 for minor parties that he helped fund and create. It is estimated that Smith funded public projects to the tune of millions of dollars and he gave $25,000 for the construction of this library and another $5,000 for books. It was built about 1855 and is a two story stucco-covered brick structure in a distinctive castellated style with exterior battlements, tower, turrets, corbels, and arcaded windows. The Oswego Public Library is the oldest remaining public library building in New York State still being used as a library.
WALK DOWN THE HILL TO BRIDGE STREET.
DETOUR: TO SEE THE ORIGINAL SETTLEMENT ON THE OSWEGO RIVER AT FORT ONTARIO, CONTINUE WALKING ON 2ND STREET TO LAKE ONTARIO, ABOUT THREE BLOCKS. IF YOU CHOOSE NOT TO GO TO FORT ONTARIO, TURN LEFT TO GO TO STOP #3. IF YOU TAKE THE DETOUR, RETURN HERE AND TURN RIGHT AFTERWARDS TO CONTINUE THE TOUR AT STOP #3.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site
1 East 4th Street
A frontier post overlooking Oswego Harbor and Lake Ontario was first fortified by the French in 1755. Tory refugees from the Mohawk Valley fled to Fort Ontario and launched raids back into central New York, including St. Leger’s failed invasion, throughout 1777. The Continental Army torched and partially destroyed a vacant Fort Ontario in 1778. The British returned in 1782 and held the post until the Jay Treaty of 1796 finally forced them to leave. The fort was scuttled by the British in the War of 1812 but rebuilt between 1839 and 1844. Major masonry improvements to the forts outer wall were undertaken, but left incomplete when in 1872, Congress cancelled its funding. By 1901, the old fort was abandoned. An adjacent fort was built by the army in the early 1900s and remained active until after World War II. Today’s rebuilt Fort Ontario is interpreted as the star-shaped fortress appeared in 1868-69.
WALK ACROSS THE BRIDGE STREET BRIDGE. CONTINUE TO WEST 1ST STREET.
northeast corner of West Bridge Street and 1st Street
Abram Buckout, an active abolitionist, owned the west half of this building from 1852 until 1868. It was an active station on the Underground Railroad, the last stop for some before crossing Lake Ontario into Canada. Former slaves Charles Smith and Tudor Grant would eventually set up barbershops in the basement. Spruced up today, the building probably looks better than it did in the 1800s - look for such architectural features as Italianate window hoods, mansard roof and a corner oriel tower.
WALK BACK TOWARDS THE OSWEGO RIVER ON THE NORTH (LAKE ONTARIO) SIDE OF THE BRIDGE. AT THE RIVER WALK TURN LEFT AND WALK TOWARDS LAKE ONTARIO.
Oswego River Walk
131 West Main Street
Oswego River Walk is a multi-functional park that is used by bikers, runners, strollers and fishermen.
Water Street between Marketand West Bridge streets
This massive brick and stone public building was constructed as a market in 1835 on plans drawn by Jacob Bonestreet. A section of the basement is believed to have been used as a jail. In 1864 the city sold it to the Oswego and Syracuse Railroad who gave the four-story structure an Italianate face-lift with a bracketed cornice and elaborate cupola. The railroad used the old Market House until the 1940s.
CONTINUE ON THE RIVER WALK TO SENECA STREET.
Walton and Willett Stone Store/Coleman’s
1 Seneca Street at West 1st Street
This four-story limestone structure with a distinctive stepped gable roof has been a landmark on the banks of the Oswego River for over 180 years. It was built in 1828 and first used as a ship chandlery. In succeeding years it did duty as a newspaper office, customs collector, steamboat ticket and freight office, and warehouse. In 1945, it was purchased for use as a fish market and most recently has been the home to an Irish pub.
TURN LEFT AND WALK A FEW STEPS AWAY FROM THE RIVER UP TO 1ST STREET AND TURN LEFT.
The Palladium Times
140 West 1st Street
The first issue of the Palladium hit the streets in 1819, printing weekly. In 1845 the Commercial Daily Advertiser, later shortened to the more punchy Times, started up as Oswego’s first daily newspaper. The opposing political organs dispensed the news in Oswego from the same block for decades until forming an unlikely union in 1925.
AT BRIDGE STREET, TURN RIGHT.
Gordon’s Dry Goods
southwest corner of West Bridge Street and 1st Street
This corner commercial building with elaborate brickwork above the second floor and along the roof was constructed in 1881 as a branch of Donald Gordon’s Rochester-based dry goods empire. Gordon unexpectedly went bankrupt and the store was gone by 1883 but the building remains over 125 years later.
TURN LEFT ON 2ND STREET.
138 West 2nd Street
Romanian-born architect John Eberson built movie palaces all over the world, famous for their atmospheric decor, usually under a sky blue ceiling. Most of his 500 buildings have been destroyed but the Oswego Theater, one of his last projects, completed in 1941, still stands although the original 1,800 seat theater began to be partitioned in the 1970s. The Art Moderne exterior features bands of yellow, red, and dark red brick that create broad horizontal and perpendicular belts. A pair of cast stone, accordion pleated vertical stripes are included on the facade.
AT THE NEXT BLOCK TURN LEFT INTO CIVIC SQUARE.
13 West Oneida Street at West 1st Street
Syracuse architect Horatio White tapped the popular French Second Empire style for the grand home of the Oswego city government in 1870 with a multi-hued slate roof and central clocktower. City officials apparently felt that their nearly $70,000 in construction costs were well spent as City Hall was hailed by the Common Council as “a building of the most substantial character; the materials and workmanship throughout are of the finest quality, and this committee believes that it will endure as an ornament to our city for many years to come, if not for ages.” Indeed, thanks to a multi-million dollar restoration in the 1980s White would still recognize his building were he to be walking with you today.
Conway Municipal Building
20 West Oneida Street at West 1st Street
Oswego came a long way fast after the opening of the Oswego Canal in 1828 and nothing exemplified the newly incorporated city’s importance like this federal building that housed a post office, courthouse and Custom House. It was erected in 1858 at the cost of $120,000. Nathan Sage operated the Custom House for America’s first freshwater port out of his house on West First Street in 1811. Operations moved into a building at West Seneca and Water streets in 1834 and settled in this new Federal Building on October 5, 1858 and stayed until Oswego lost its status as a Collection District in 1913.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST STREET.
Pontiac Terrace Apartments
225 West 1st Street
The illustrious career of George Browne Post was winding down when he came to the shores of Lake Ontario to design the Pontiac Hotel in 1912. On his resume were such important buildings as the New York Cotton Exchange, New York Produce Exchange, New York Stock Exchange and the Wisconsin State Capitol. Trained as an engineer rather than an architect, Post was a driving force in making American buildings ever taller: his eight-story Equitable Life Assurance Society completed in 1870 was the first office building designed to use elevators and for a time in the 1890s his twenty-story New York World building was the tallest in New York City. The client list for his Beaux Arts designs included the Vanderbilt family and Collis P. Huntington of transcontinental railroad fame. For the Pontiac the 75-year old Post created a four-story, U-shaped structure centered around a 40-foot interior rotunda. The hotel was dressed in stucco and given a Spanish Mission style with a red tile roof and classical accoutrements. In 1982 the glamour of a stay at the Pontiac had dissipated and the building was outfitted for use as apartments for the elderly.
265 West First Street
Philadelphia-born architect George Lewis Heins made his mark early in his career with work in New York City on the city’s first subway and the Bronx Zoological Gardens. He was appointed State Architect by Theodore Roosevelt in 1899 and designed all the state buildings erected until his death at the age of 47 in 1907. This castle-like brick armory on a stone base was constructed in 1906. The building is highlighted by a five-story octagonal tower at the northwest corner. In 2004 the old armory was adapted for use by the YMCA.
AT THE END OF THE BLOCK TURN LEFT AND CROSS THE UTICA STREET BRIDGE. AT EAST 3RD STREET TURN LEFT.
135 East Third Street
Max Bennett Richardson inherited the core of this house, constructed in the 1850s, from his father. Richardson was an attorney, real estate broker, and two-term mayor of Oswego who wanted a house to reflect his position in the community and hired renowned Rochester architect Andrew Jackson Warner to design a substantial addition to his existing frame house. Warner delivered a grand vision of a Tuscan villa with a four-story tower. The work was completed in 1871 and the original wooden house was eventually replaced as a brick addition to match Warner’s new work. Richardson died in 1903 and the house survives today as a museum; one of the most intact 19th century house museums in existence. Some 95% of the furnishings are original to the Richardson family.
Congregation Adath Israel
35 East Oneida Street
The first Jewish congregation, totaling ten, organized informally in Oswego in 1828. The first official Jewish Congregation, Berith Sholem, was founded January 6, 1858 with services held in the homes of members. In 1910 Oswego’s Jewish community incorporated the Congregation Adath Israel under the laws of New York State and moved into its current building, constructed by the First Baptist Church, in 1870.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN WASHINGTON SQUARE.